Southern Africa Food Crisis

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:43 pm on 6th February 2003.

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Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury 2:43 pm, 6th February 2003

We are all glad that the Government have called this debate on a real, massive and terrible crisis that is being overshadowed by two other humanitarian crises nearer home—in Palestine and, of course, in Iraq.

In southern Africa today, 14.4 million people are at risk from starvation. They face a food deficit of 1 million tonnes until March 2003. There is indeed a crisis and, as the Minister said, it has been taken to a new level by the impact of HIV/AIDS. One in three adults in southern Africa is infected. The crisis needs immediate and long-term commitments. We recognise the achievements of the Secretary of State, her Minister and her Department, but many challenges are still not met and many questions remain unanswered.

As the Minister suggested, the grim spectre of AIDS is ever present and intertwined with so many of southern Africa's problems. Sustainable food production requires strong and healthy people to till the soil and to nurture the next generation. However, 60 per cent. of the population in the region are aged under 18. Those countries have the highest HIV infection rates in the world—it is over 40 per cent. according to Save the Children. The infection rate of young women from the age of 15 is usually four to five times higher than that of young men of the same age, which highlights gender and economic inequalities. More children become heads of households, but they lose family rights to property and land, they have less access to social services and they become more marginalised. If they migrate to find food or work, they are more open to health hazards and they have less education, which reduces the human capital producing food. It is our duty and it is in our interest to help these countries break their downward spiral.

When talking water, we British must snap out of our obsession with having too much of it. We are so lucky. Somewhere, a child dies every 15 seconds from waterborne diseases. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF say that worldwide 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion people are lacking basic sanitation facilities. That means that in Africa one third of the population lack water or sanitation facilities. Dirty water and poor sanitation compound the effects of the lack of food and of AIDS. Weakened HIV/AIDS victims are more likely to die from infections, such as cholera or malaria. In southern Africa, the short-term health of 14.4 million people depends not only on food, but on the supply of clean water and the provision of sanitation; currently, they have neither.

In March 2000, the Secretary of State announced that the Department for International Development's financial assistance for water and sanitation would be doubled. That undertaking has barely been met. The current expenditure plan suggests that water and sanitation budgets, particularly in Africa, will continue to fall from their peak in 1999–2000. In this, the international year of fresh water, DFID's water expenditure is significantly less than that of some other donors, such as Germany and Japan and there are, according to the National Audit Office report published last Friday, few substantive country water programmes. That NAO report highlighted the need for DFID to focus the investment of official development assistance on sustainable solutions. WaterAid argues that if investments in water and sanitation are to have a lasting and sustainable impact on the lives of poor people, a significant share of DFID funding should be spent on training local people to administer, deliver and maintain water and drainage systems and on training the trainers. The lack of human capital in such countries is one of their greatest handicaps. Does the Minister agree with WaterAid's analysis?

We cannot avoid coherent discussions on genetically modified food aid, nationally and internationally, nor should we wish to. The United States of America supplies more than 50 per cent. of all food aid and DFID, in its memorandum to the Select Committee of 7 October 2002, said that that US food aid contains genetically modified material, and with drought predicted in America that major source of supply may literally dry up and other sources will have to be found. Non-governmental organisations, such as Christian Aid, suggest that the US should replace its food aid with cash, which they could use to try to buy GM-free food.

We respect the fact that the decision whether to accept GM food lies with individual Governments, but we must have a clear and informed debate. In terms of feeding people in a crisis such as the one that we face in southern Africa and being challenged by long-term population growth, GM technology provides a wealth of opportunities. Dr. Ray Mathias, at a Scientific Alliance conference last month, said that GM crops could be resistant to pests, disease and environmental stress, including drought, and that they produce higher yields more safely without the need for agrochemicals; he added that they could also lead to novel, easy-to-administer medicines, such as vaccines. For example, 80 hectares of greenhouse could provide enough hepatitis B vaccine for the whole of south-east Asia every year.

For those who will not accept GM, there are problems. Over the years, GM food aid has not just been eaten; it has also been planted. It is now estimated that a significant proportion of food sourced in Africa contains GM—as much as 80 per cent. in South Africa, according to the World Food Programme. Where do we get enough GM-free food from? If countries refuse GM food, do they surrender the "right to food"? When they refuse GM food, what provisions are in place to ensure its swift re-allocation? In Zambia, World Food Programme food aid was shipped in but the Government refused it and would not let it out again without export licences, which took a long time to get.

Genetic modification affects everyone in the food pipeline. It is not the only answer to the problem of feeding the world, but it is a very important one. No nation should reject GM food solely on the grounds of ignorance or prejudice; no nation can afford to do that. If we could focus our energies on determining our vision for the environment, agriculture and food supply across the world, we could get both sides of the GM debate together and find a viable solution. I hope that the Minister and the British Government share my view on that.