HL Deb 05 May 1993 vol 545 cc699-702

2.46 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with their policies for taking 2 million acres of farm land out of food production when some 1,250 million people in the world are starving and the United Kingdom has an imbalance of £3,000 million in trade in temperate foods.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, set-aside is intended to help reduce Community grain production. Exporting surplus grain with the help of substantial subsidies is not the right way to tackle the problems of world hunger or the United Kingdom's current trade gap in temperate foods.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that over the past 20 years poverty and starvation in the world have risen 40 per cent. and that the aid bodies now estimate that in the next six to seven years some 1,500 million people will be in that position? When I speak to the aid people they say that there is no concentration on the problem by the various countries which promised a few years ago to give a certain amount of their GNP in aid. Are the Government taking this dreadful situation seriously?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government take emergency situations very seriously. We provide substantial amounts of aid, both in terms of food and cash, to areas in need. However, most of the food in surplus in the Community is unsuitable for use as food aid. The quality and type of food do not always match what recipients need. Also, it may not offer the best value for money. It is surely better to provide the food which people are used to. The Government's aim is to help people, not to off-load Community surpluses.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the set-aside programme is part of the common agriculture policy? Is he able to tell the House whether the matters which the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has just mentioned were in the minds of agriculture Ministers of the Community when that policy was formulated?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the UK has for many years pressed the Commission to reduce the cost of EC agricultural support in the arable sector and to reduce the current surpluses. As my noble friend will recall, last year we had a CAP agreement which should achieve those objectives. We accept that the new set-aside arrangements have a role to play in achieving those objectives and we now have to see that set-aside land is used to the greatest benefit.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, can the Minister explain the logic of his Answer to the first Question that taking food to people who are dying of starvation is not the best way of dealing with starvation? What is the best way of dealing with starvation other than providing food to eat?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I do not believe that the noble Lord heard my first Answer correctly. I said that we were already providing very large amounts of food to areas around the world that were in need. However, I also said that the type of food which we have in surplus in the Community is not necessarily the type of food which hungry people would welcome.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, is it not correct that the people in those parts of the world who are starving want rice or mealies, whereas the EC surpluses consist mainly of wheat and flour?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend because what he says is absolutely correct.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that, instead of taking 2 million acres of good arable land out of food production, the land should be used for organic farming? That would solve the problem of over-production. It would solve in large measure the imbalance of payments which exists at present.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I appreciate my noble friend's interest in organic farming. It is an interest which the Government share. Set-aside can in itself help farmers to convert to organic farming. However, organic farming is not for every farmer. It requires specialist skills. It is unrealistic to expect all EC farmers to adopt organic production methods.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his right honourable friend Mr. John Gummer has been uncharacteristically coy in revealing the exact effects of the proposed GATT settlement on the current CAP reforms? Much analysis suggests that, if the GATT deal were implemented, the area required to be set aside in Europe would be about 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. of arable land and not the 15 per cent. which is currently in force. Does the Minister agree that to ask farmers to grow nothing on 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. of some of the best arable land in the world while one and a quarter billion people in the world starve would be the crowning absurdity of a ludicrous agricultural policy?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I repeat that there is no shortage of food in the world to feed the starving. The EC Commission is satisfied that the new arable regime is consistent with the GATT agreement reached at Blair House. The Commission's projections of future production assume set-aside continuing at 15 per cent.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, while the Minister may be right in stating that food aid should be limited to emergency food aid, what are the Government doing about the essential matter of training people to grow their own food? Is it not a fact that our overseas aid has dropped in the term of this Government?

Earl Howe

My Lords, no. Our overseas aid is still at very substantial figures. We lay great stress on the provision of training to those who need it.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, the Minister has indicated that there is plenty of food in the world. Does he realise that 1,500 million people is six times the population of the USA? Does he suggest that there is that amount of surplus food in the world? I do not believe that for one moment.

The Minister stated that the people of famine areas would not eat the food that we produce in this country. I have a photograph of a woman watching her six or eight children die. If we sent some bread, butter, cheese, milk substitutes and so on, does the Minister suggest that those people would not eat them? I have never heard such nonsense in all my life.

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I have said on earlier occasions, the problem is to get the food to the famine areas in the face of often inadequate infrastructures, poor transport, lack of local resources and difficulties in distribution. There is no shortage of suitable food. For us to pour subsidised EC surpluses on poor countries of the world would merely reduce their incentive to develop their own agricultural industry. That is a view that is shared by all the main aid organisations.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, does my noble friend agree—I assume from his last supplementary answer that he does—that families who are used to eating sorghum and millet would not eat wheat or other products produced in the temperate regions?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. While the digestive system of anyone can doubtless adapt to any new type of food, there is often little opportunity for those who are starving to make that kind of change in a hurry.

2.55 p.m.