Food Crisis

Friday, March 14, 2008

THE SKYROCKETING commodity prices that have made the Farm Belt one of the most prosperous regions of the United States have had a rather different impact on large areas of the developing world. Foodstuffs have gone up 41 percent in price since October 2007, pushing many people over the line from poverty into privation or even hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organization, a branch of the United Nations, has identified 36 "crisis" countries, 21 of which are in Africa. The World Food Program, another U.N. agency, estimates that it will need $500 million on top of what donor nations have already pledged to fill what the WFP calls a global "food gap."

The United States must do its part. Even before the spike in commodity prices, the fiscal 2008 food aid budget of $1.2 billion was proving inadequate. President Bush asked for a $350 million supplemental appropriation in October, to cover help for Darfur and other critically needy areas. But Congress has not yet approved that request. Meanwhile, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which administers U.S. food aid, has accumulated a $120 million food budget deficit, which could grow to $200 million by the end of the fiscal year. Congress should swiftly approve the president's supplemental request, adding as much money as possible to offset recent price increases -- as Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.) and six other Democratic senators, including Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), have proposed. The alternative is selective cutbacks in aid to hungry regions, a kind of nutritional triage unworthy of the richest agricultural nation in human history.

But increasing current spending is only a short-term solution. Higher food prices appear to be here to stay, and U.S. policy must adjust accordingly. Congress must dramatically improve the efficiency of existing programs. An April 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office showed that transportation and other overhead costs now consume 65 percent of U.S. food aid dollars. This is partly attributable to higher fuel prices and U.S. laws requiring that most grain shipments go out on relatively expensive U.S.-flagged cargo vessels. And why does so much food have to travel the high seas in the first place? Because U.S. law requires that the government buy all food donations from U.S. producers.

One cost-cutting measure, supported by many economists and by relief organizations such as CARE, would be to permit the U.S. government to buy at least some of the grain it donates from farmers nearer to famine zones -- to buy, say, South African or Ethiopian wheat and ship it to the hungry elsewhere in Africa. Both the European Union and Canada have recently authorized such "local and regional purchases," with broadly successful results. President Bush has called for allowing as much as 25 percent of the U.S. food aid budget to be used this way.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate rejected his proposal, refusing to include it in their respective versions of the farm bill, which are pending before a House-Senate conference committee. The Senate Agriculture Committee did substitute a $25 million pilot program; even that tepid measure didn't make it into the final Senate bill. With food prices and food needs on the rise, Congress cannot afford business as usual. House and Senate conferees should adopt the president's proposal in the farm bill.

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