Global Policy Forum

US Rethinks Foreign Food Aid


By Celia W. Dugger

International Herald Tribune
April 22, 2007

Waiters in white aprons maneuvered through a noisy cocktail party in Kansas City, Missouri, offering heaping platters of jumbo shrimp, lamb chops and crab-stuffed mushrooms to a crowd of people in town for an annual food-aid conference dedicated to ending world hunger. As shipping and agribusiness executives, charity workers, lobbyists and federal employees mingled, Charles Worledge, who works for Sealift, a major shipper of U.S. food to the hungry, offered an insight essential to understanding the politics of food aid.

"I thought this was a charity," he explained during the party, for which another shipping company played host. "It's not. It's a business." It was here in Kansas City, at the 2005 food-aid conference, that the Bush administration pushed for a fundamental change in food aid that would have diminished profits to domestic agribusiness and shipping companies. It proposed allowing a quarter of the Food for Peace budget to be used to buy food in poor countries near hunger crises, rather than buying only U.S.-grown food that had to be shipped across oceans.

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns spoke at the conference Wednesday to again make the administration's case for the same idea, contending that such a policy would speed delivery, improve efficiency and save many lives. The U.S. Congress in each of the past two years killed the proposal, which was opposed by agribusiness and shipping interests who stood to lose business, even as it won support from some liberal Democrat representatives. But there are signs that the frozen politics of the issue are beginning to thaw, especially as evidence grows of flaws in the current aid system. A Government Accountability Office report released on the eve of this conference describes in stark detail a system rife with inefficiencies: The amount of food shipped during the past five years has fallen by half as shipping and other logistical costs have soared.

Only a little more than a third of federal food-aid spending actually buys food. The United States feeds about 70 million people a year now instead of the more than 100 million it fed five years ago. Experts worry that the food-aid budget will feed even fewer of the world's 850 million hungry people as soaring demand for corn to make ethanol drives up the cost of that staple, a mainstay of food-aid programs. This year, some farm state lawmakers are considering backing a pilot program to test buying food overseas.

While an alliance of 15 nonprofit groups involved in food aid has endorsed only a pilot program for local purchase, Catholic Relief Services, which has a million donors and links with 13,000 parishes, has embraced the Bush administration's proposal. At perhaps no time since the U.S. food-aid program was created during the Eisenhower administration more than 50 years ago has there been more ferment about its future among scholars, politicians and advocates for the poor.

The curious mix of altruistic and self-interested motivations that animate U.S. food aid spring from its origins. Public Law 480 and the Food for Peace program, adopted in 1954, provided a way to dispose of surplus grain, which was costly to store, and at the same time feed the world's hungry people. The law mandated that food for the program be grown domestically. In recent years, the United States has bought more than half the food for its aid programs from just four agribusinesses and their subsidiaries: Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Bunge and Cal Western Packaging, the Agriculture Department said. Some researchers and advocates said that it was time to rethink the U.S. approach to fighting world hunger.

"Are we committed to eradicating hunger because it's feasible, not terribly expensive and our moral obligation as the richest society in human history?" asked Christopher Barrett, a Cornell University economist and the co-author of "Food Aid After Fifty Years." "Or are we just trying to placate a few agribusiness, shipping and NGO constituencies with a handout?" referring to nongovernmental organizations.

But some in Congress, as well as lobbyists for interest groups that benefit from food aid, warn that untying aid from requirements that the food be grown in the United States and mostly shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels would shatter the political coalition that has sustained the program for decades and made the United States the world's largest food-aid donor. Still, even at the food-aid conference organized by the Department of Agriculture and the Agency for International Development, some participants were talking about approaches that would sound heretical to old-line champions of food aid. Marv Baldwin, president of the Foods Resource Bank, a Christian nonprofit group dedicated to fighting hunger, described how more than a thousand farmers have turned U.S.-style food aid on its head.

They are raising farm animals and growing crops on about 7,000 acres, or 2,800 hectares, across the United States. They donate their land and labor and the use of their equipment, while church groups help raise cash for fuel and fertilizer. But instead of shipping the crops and animals to poor lands to feed the hungry, the farmers sell them in the United States. The Foods Resource Bank then spends the money from those sales in developing countries to buy seeds and other goods that poor farmers need to grow food for their families.

More Information on Social and Economic Policy
More Information on the Lack of Hunger Relief and Other Food Aid Challenges
More Information on World Hunger


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