Sunday, April 22, 2007

Bush admin starts new approach for food aid


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 American-grown food that had to be shipped across oceans.

And Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns spoke at the conference on 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.

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 liberal Democrats like Representatives Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon — generally not a subset of lawmakers found in the president’s corner.

But there are signs that the frozen politics of the issue are beginning to thaw, especially as evidence of flaws in the current aid system mounts.

A Government Accountability Office report released on the eve of this conference described in stark detail a system rife with inefficiencies: the amount of food shipped over 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.

And 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 for the first time considering backing a pilot program to test buying food overseas....

Some researchers and advocates say it is time to rethink the American 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 B. 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 America and mostly shipped on American-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. They also warn that cash sent to poor countries can be misused or stolen, and that a mismanaged program to buy food in poor countries could drive up food prices...

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