Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:18 pm on 15th May 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 6:18 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, I am aware that these debates are often used by Members of this House to get some deadly serious issues off their chests, and I am no exception. However, I am also aware that an endless string of deadly serious chest-clearing issues is pretty deadly.

In my intervention, which is addressed to our Department for International Development, I would like to start with a poem—in fact the first and last verses of a poem. It is called “The Seed Shop”, by Muriel Stuart:

“Here in a quiet and dusty room they lie,Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand, Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry— Meadows and gardens running through my hand …Here in their safe and simple house of death, Sealed in their shells a million roses leap; Here I can blow a garden with my breath, And in my hand a forest lies asleep”.

I hope noble Lords captured some of the poet’s wonder from that short snippet; I believe that no farmer is immune to it.

I have another quote, this time from Dr Joe DeVries of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. He wrote:

“I can still recall vividly the days of war in Mozambique when we were distributing ‘emergency seed’ to farmers affected by the fighting there. The farmers would line up for hours, often in the rains of the new planting season, some of them clothed in tatters … But the gleam in their eyes when they walked away with the seed packs we were distributing always betrayed them ... For the moment, there was hope. They had seed. They would plant. New hope for better life would sprout along with the green shoots”.

Today things are better, but, to paraphrase Dr DeVries, he still sees that sparkle in the eyes of African farmers when they buy the dramatically improved and high-yielding seed that genuinely can now change lives. Modern biotechnology has enabled the development of crop varieties that can withstand attacks of pests, viruses and even weeds, as well as being nutritionally enhanced with nutrients vital for women and for the proper development of their children.

We in the UK have helped to develop these seeds. The reputation of our research establishments such as Rothamsted, John Innes and James Hutton are second to none. Furthermore, the partnerships of many of our institutions with similar bodies in China, Brazil and throughout Africa are worth millions, not only in contracts gained and public/private partnerships, but also in aid and influence, and the UK being a recognisable part of the gleam, just mentioned, in the eyes of smallholder farmers.

I know that the Government are working hard at this agenda and I hope that their soon to be published agritech strategy will help to raise our game even higher in the eyes of the international community, not to mention of the African farmer. However, we must not stop there. The end game of DfID must be to help developing countries become self-sufficient and eventually not need our aid. To quote Justine Greening, we must help,

“create economies that stand on their own two feet”.

Taking that goal to its logical conclusion in Africa, this economic transformation has to start with agriculture. It accounts for 32% of Africa’s GDP and nearly 65% of its employment, and few people now believe that it will be possible to promote prosperity there without a significant focus on agricultural transformation.

This agricultural transformation is not only an economic agenda of huge importance but an agenda of women’s rights. More than two-thirds of all women in Africa are employed in agriculture and they produce nearly 90% of the food. To empower agriculture is to empower women and, with the right training, it enables them to provide for the nutritional needs of their families and earn money to provide education for their children. It is truly a transformational agenda.

However, it would seem that as yet the UK does not get it. President Obama gets it; his Feed the Future programme and last year’s USA-led New Alliance show that. Ireland seems to get it; I was in Dublin last month and heard more than one Cabinet Minister speak up for the transformational ability of agriculture. From my conversations in Brussels with Commissioner Piebalgs, I would say that he, too, seems to get it. However, when did we last hear a DfID Minister or senior official talk about the transformational importance of agriculture? The ONE organisation claims that DfID’s agricultural spend is only 2.18% of its overall ODA. At one point it was as high as 18%. Even if the figure is wrong—I admit that it is hard to trace what is agricultural and what is not—it is certainly one of the lowest percentages of all donor countries.

All that is going to change, is it not? I am an eternal optimist. With the Prime Minister welcoming the IF campaign, which launches on 8 Junes this year, with the Government’s focus on nutrition at this year’s G8—it would be a travesty if we were not to talk about locally grown nutrition—and with the African Union calling for 2014 to be the year of agriculture, this is surely an ideal moment for the UK to commit itself to greatly increased funding to help CAADP and even individual countries to develop and deliver their national agriculture investment plans.

To return to my starting point, this is not only a seed agenda. I wish it were that simple, but there is no such silver bullet. It is, as I said, about women’s rights, including their ability to own land and borrow money. It is about roads, crop storage and markets and market chains. Above all it is about knowledge: knowledge not only about how to plant, fertilise and protect modern seeds and how to enrich and improve the soil, but about the benefits of co-operation and how to buy, sell and promote entrepreneurial flair throughout the food chain. An agricultural reformation is not only about growing food; it runs from plough to plate and includes investment in inputs, machinery, storage, processing, transport and retailing, to name but a few. This is an exciting agenda, but above all it is a transformational agenda, and I would hate the UK to get left behind.