NORMAN — America sends about $1.4 billion a year in emergency food aid to needy people around the world through the Food for Peace Program. By law, practically all that aid is produced in the U.S. and shipped by U.S. companies to far-flung places. Some food donations get sold once they’re delivered overseas, to fund development projects.
That’s a terribly expensive and inefficient system. The high costs of growing and shipping food here mean fewer people get fed. Delivering huge amounts of U.S. grain and other farm products distorts the local markets where it is delivered. It forces prices down, discouraging local farmers from raising staple crops where the need for food is greatest. Selling U.S. commodities abroad also is an inefficient way to raise money for development projects. Getting the food across the ocean boosts its cost by one-third.
The food program is an agricultural subsidy in disguise. Requiring the purchase of U.S. goods, transported only on U.S. ships, creates profits for American farmers and the agribusiness giants that control shipping. But American taxpayers don’t get their money’s worth.
Food aid is supposed to help relieve suffering. This program desperately needs to change, but the farm lobby works furiously to protect its vested interests. Hunger is big business, and Food for Peace has been a profit center.
We’re pleased to see the Obama administration make a run at changing that. Congress is under pressure to pass a Farm Bill, the five-year legislation reauthorizing farm subsidy programs. The administration has proposed a modest reform that can save money and feed more people.
Under the plan, about 45 percent of the food aid in 2014 would be used to buy food produced in the countries where it’s consumed. The food could be bought locally in bulk, or individual recipients could receive vouchers or debit cards to purchase what they need. Food bought locally is typically cheaper to produce and it requires no transoceanic shipping. By this simple step, 2 million to 4 million people could be fed each year. The aid could be delivered as much as 14 weeks faster than it is now.
Most other wealthy nations already provide food aid in grant form and decouple it from commercial transactions. In-kind food aid is limited to acute local shortages, or situations where local food markets aren’t functioning.
In the Obama proposal, more than half of U.S. food aid still would be earmarked for the purchase and transport of U.S. commodities, and shippers would receive a government subsidy.
— Chicago Tribune