There is no nobler cause than feeding hungry people in poor countries and helping them develop their own farms so they can produce more of their own food.
And no one involved in American agriculture has had a more genteel image than the groups that worry about world hunger, distribute the food, and try to aid agricultural development in the Third World. But a rumor that the Obama administration is proposing changes to food aid has gotten them involved in a bitter, nasty, public brawl that makes the battles between northern and southern farmers over farm policy seem like a playground scuffle.
The scuttlebutt is that the administration’s draft budget for fiscal 2014 would eliminate funding for Food for Peace and other programs that provide U.S. commodities in low-income countries and replace them with a smaller program to buy commodities on the international markets, preferably within the needy countries or near them. Under current law, the approximately $1.5 billion budget for food aid can only be spent to buy U.S.-produced commodities and ship them overseas.
Conflict over food aid is long-standing. Since the inception of Food for Peace in 1954, people across the globe have seen bags of commodities bearing the U.S. flag and wording that the food is a gift from the American people. But the program’s goals always included getting rid of U.S. surplus food while seeking to develop foreigners’ taste for American foods, both of which would lead to commercial sales as the countries got richer. For decades, development purists have complained that the U.S. food aid programs were focused more on providing benefits to U.S. farmers, food processors, and shippers than on helping the recipient countries. These purists said the programs should be changed to allow purchases overseas so that money would not have to be wasted shipping food half way around the world.
The Obama administration has been inclined toward change and has already run some “local and regional purchase” pilot projects that buy commodities for food aid in countries near where it is needed.
The farm bill passed by the Senate last year called for some changes, particularly restrictions on monetization—the sale of food aid and the use of the proceeds for development projects—that the Government Accountability Office has criticized as inefficient. But buying all food aid on the international markets would be a dramatic departure from current policy.
On Feb. 20, 21 senators—led by Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and ranking member Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Agriculture ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss.—urged President Obama to maintain funding for Food for Peace because “it is important to American farmers, shippers, and developing nations around the world.” Last Thursday, 70 farm, humanitarian, shipping, and labor groups ranging from the American Soybean Association to the Sailors Union of the Pacific wrote Obama to defend the current program. “Growing, manufacturing, bagging, shipping, and transporting nutritious U.S. food creates jobs and economic activity here at home, provides support for our U.S. Merchant Marine, essential to our national defense sealift capability, and sustains a robust domestic constituency for these programs not easily replicated in alternative foreign aid programs,” the groups said.
The Alliance for Global Food Security represents nongovernmental groups such as World Vision and cooperatives that distribute food aid and engage in development projects using money from food aid, and it pointed out to Office of Management and Budget acting Director Jeffrey Zients in a letter that Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that one of the problems with foreign aid is that people do not realize it creates American jobs.
Oxfam, Bread for the World, the Modernizing Foreign Aid Network, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and other groups that favor change issued a joint statement this week that the administration should not abandon the proposal.
“No one is endorsing the administration proposal sight unseen, but I am one who welcomes a 21st-century proposal that is more responsive to the needs of the hungry and a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars,” said an e-mail written by Catherine Bertini, a former executive director of the World Food Program who co-led two Chicago Council bipartisan task forces that have called for changes to food aid. “It is regrettable that some want to close down that debate even before there is a real proposal on the table.”
But former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who led one of the task forces with Bertini, said he favors the Chicago Council recommendation that the U.S. government should have the flexibility to buy commodities in other countries. “Given the great humanitarian challenges and human suffering, we have to be alert to ensure that adequate funds are in place to deal with the challenges, and this not be a budgetary-based decision to merely lower spending levels, as that would be a big problem.”
The administration may still include the proposal in its budget, but it’s unlikely that Congress will go along with the idea. But with opposition in the Senate already organized and the Republican-controlled House even less likely to allow U.S. taxpayer money to be used to purchase food aid overseas, the proposal would appear dead on arrival on Capitol Hill.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.
This article appears in the Feb. 28, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Food Fight.