Hiedi talks about Food Security

I am pleased to have secured my first Adjournment debate and to be speaking about food security in Africa. I declare an interest: in September, I was lucky to be part of a parliamentary delegation to Kenya that was organised and paid for by the all-party group for agriculture and food for development. I am pleased to say that one of my fellow travellers, Craig Whittaker, is in the Chamber. I plan to limit my remarks to 10 minutes in the hope that he and other hon. Members will be able to speak before the Minister responds.

My week in Kenya is undoubtedly one reason why I applied for the debate. I am not an expert on food security or on Africa, but I am, I admit, a child of the ’80s. The television images I saw as a 10-year-old of starving children in Ethiopia made a deep and lasting impression. I have called the debate because I never want to see those images again, because emergency food relief has to be the last resort, and because I believe that Africa has the ability to feed itself and that we in the UK should be doing more to help African agriculture to realise its potential.

I also passionately believe that at a time when much of our political discussion is focused quite understandably on the state of our domestic economy, it is important that we all remember that there are 265 million people suffering from chronic hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. That is the UK’s population four times over, and a third of the region’s total population. Sadly, that number is set to grow by 2020, when it is estimated that, if current trends continue, half Africa’s population will be affected. We must not let that happen.

I have come here today to ask the Minister to put tackling hunger and malnutrition for millions of Africans at the heart of his Government’s fight against global poverty. I also come to remind him-although I hope that I do not need to-that the primary aim of our overseas development assistance must be to tackle the basic needs of the poorest people in the poorest countries, and to help them help themselves. I also come to say that while maternal health, access to family planning and the fight against disease are all vital, so too is investing in smallholder farmers, most of whom are women. Ironically, it is those smallholder farmers who are most likely to face severe hunger and malnutrition.

I also wish to ask the Minister to increase the UK aid that we spend on helping African farmers so that they can improve their harvests and the productivity of their livestock, to increase the amount of agricultural expertise provided by his Department within African countries, and to use our influence within the international community to ensure that African Governments honour the commitments that they made at Maputo in 2003.

I know that I have set out a long wish list, so let me tell hon. Members why I am convinced that refocusing UK and international efforts in this area could make a significant difference. The availability of adequate food of the right nutritional quality is fundamental to people everywhere. Undernourished mothers give birth to underweight babies. Children who are malnourished in the first two years of life are at a much greater risk of ill health when they are older. How will a child learn if he or she is starving? How will the child’s mother fight off malaria if she does not have a decent diet? How will women be empowered if they cannot feed themselves?

When I was preparing this speech over the weekend, I came across reports of fishermen in Malawi using malaria nets to secure their catches in Lake Victoria. If ever there were an example of the way in which food security underpins so many other development goals, surely that is it. If there were a ready supply of food in Malawi, I would suggest there would have been much more chance of the nets being used for their intended purpose.

When the all-party group visited Kenya in September, we met family after family who told us that while their livelihood was their land, that land often did not produce enough for them to live on. They are not even subsistence farmers; they are sub-subsistence farmers, and there are millions of them in Africa. Given the effects of climate change and more irregular rainfall patterns, there are likely to be many more in years to come.

The sad thing is that it does not have to be that way. The use of better seeds, appropriate fertilisers and access to basic knowledge about planting and irrigation can have a dramatic impact on yields. The current agricultural output in Africa, measured in tonnes per hectare, is less than the UK’s wheat output in 1680. Better storage, cross-breeding of livestock and access to micro-finance can mean the difference between feeding one’s children or not, and the difference between having a small surplus to sell at market or not. None of that is rocket science, yet there is a huge challenge in getting the basics right, and getting the best seeds and right sort of agricultural knowledge to the farmers who need them.

There are fantastic projects, however, that have the potential to be scaled up in a way that could offer real results. Take FIPS in Kenya-Farm Inputs Promotions Africa-a Department for International Development-funded, not-for-profit company, which, through a network of village-based, agricultural advisers, works with the private sector to get new seeds and fertilisers out to the farmers who need them. Take Farm Africa’s dairy goat project in the semi-arid area of Kenya around Mwingi, which trains local people in the cross-breeding of goats to increase milk yields and resistance to drought. Better yields can not only feed the family but generate small amounts of additional household income, which creates a virtuous circle of economic activity.

As the recently published Montpellier panel report says, however, there is a “potentially dangerous gap” between a rich patchwork of on-the-ground activities, such as those I have just mentioned, and a “top-down global response” to addressing food security, which is characterised by much-lauded international conferences and big set-piece policy statements. Do not get me wrong: the pledges of large-scale funding at L’Aquila last year are welcome, but they must translate into real improvements in the lives of the poorest in Africa.

I hope that I have been able to explain why I feel that a focus on food security and agriculture in Africa is so important. I ask the Minister, in the light of what I have said, to consider increasing the proportion of bilateral aid spent on agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa to 10% of total DFID money spent there. According to a recent reply to a parliamentary question, the sum for agriculture in that area amounted to £51 million in 2008-09. I calculate that that is just 3% of UK bilateral aid for the region in that year.

Does the Minister agree with World Bank estimates that suggest that a 1% increase in agricultural GDP in Africa reduces poverty by three to four times as much as a 1% increase in non-agricultural GDP? Does he agree that agriculture would, therefore, fit neatly with his Government’s desire to get as much bang for their buck as possible from their overseas development assistance? Will he tell me the position that the UK will be adopting on food security at the G20 summit in the next few days? Will he tell me how much of the £1.1 billion commitment made by the UK at L’Aquila last year has been disbursed in sub-Saharan Africa? Does he know how many of the staff his Department has working in Africa have agricultural training or experience? I understand that there is only one DFID employee with such a background in Africa, who is based in Uganda. I ask him to consider how that might impact on the delivery of the £1.1 billion of commitments. Has he thought about how such a lack of in-country expertise might have affected the offer that each of DFID’s in-country teams have been asked to prepare as part of the bilateral aid reviews? If I were the Minister, I would not be too surprised if those returns were characterised by scant reference to agriculture as a route out of poverty, although perhaps he could reassure us. I appreciate that some of my questions are detailed and that the Minister might not be able to reply to all of them today, but these points are critical if we are to make 2010 the year in which we set the agenda for dealing with the fight against hunger in the decades to come.

If I may, I will leave the Minister with this thought. Investment in small-scale farming will help not only the rural poor. On the first day of our all-party group visit in September, we met a man called David, who lives with his three children in the Nairobi slum of Korogocho. His home is a two-metre by three-metre hut, edged by dirt tracks and foul-smelling gullies. David left the countryside because of family breakdown and because he was unable to feed his children. When he got to Nairobi, however, his life was no better. His saviour was, in fact, a cash-transfer project being run by Concern Worldwide and Oxfam. David’s dream is now to own a piece of land to provide for his family. I could not help but think that if the right type of support had been provided to him and his rural community when it was needed, perhaps he and his family would not be trapped in the Nairobi slum in which they are today.

For millions of Africans, food security is not a fancy concept-it is a matter of life and death. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to address the challenge facing Africa and to use the UK’s position as a world leader in overseas development assistance to ensure that this decade is the one when we really make a difference.

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About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
This entry was posted in Heidi Alexander, Lewisham's Politicians. Bookmark the permalink.

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