U.S. Scrambles to Address International Food Crisis
Saturday, April 26, 2008
The Bush administration and Congress have been caught flat-footed by rapidly escalating global food prices and are scrambling to respond to a crisis that they increasingly view as a threat to U.S. national security, according to government officials, congressional staffers and human rights experts.
The White House released $200 million in emergency wheat stores for developing countries last week, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the administration is planning "further steps to help ease the burden of rising food prices on the world's neediest people." Options include building more overseas storage facilities and roads to reduce food spoiling, and making the food crisis a top priority for the G-8 summit of industrialized nations in July, administration officials said.
Top Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are pressing the White House to devote more money to emergency food aid -- up from $350 million to $550 million -- as part of a supplemental Iraq war budget package.
But administration officials and legislative aides acknowledge that they have only recently begun to focus on the severity of the problem, and humanitarian groups fear that assistance from the United States, which already supplies about half of the world's total food aid, may come too late to provide much benefit in the near term.
The mounting crisis, which has unseated Haitian Prime Minister Jacques Édouard Alexis and prompted riots throughout the developing world, provides a particular challenge for President Bush during his final months in office. Although Bush has received many positive reviews for his initiatives to combat HIV-AIDS and malaria, he is hobbled by dismal approval ratings and bitter relations with a Democratic Congress during a presidential election year.
One senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because internal discussions were underway, said the crisis "is getting a lot of attention, not just at the White House but throughout the administration."
"When you've got instability or rioting in the streets in Egypt and Haiti and Indonesia, that will garner significant attention," the official said. "What we're looking at is a combination of both short- and medium-to-long-term policy issues to address this."
Prices for rice, corn, wheat and other food staples have skyrocketed in recent months, driven by record oil costs, severe droughts, the diversion of corn for ethanol use and rapidly growing demand in China and India, according to U.N. officials and other experts. In some of the poorest countries of Africa and Asia, where food costs can consume three-quarters of household income, prices have more than doubled in six months.
The escalating prices have sparked riots in more than a dozen nations, from Cameroon to Bangladesh to the Philippines. World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick warns that more than 30 nations are at risk of social unrest from the crisis and that at least 100 million additional people could be pushed into poverty in coming months.
The crisis has even spilled over into the United States, where Costco and other retailers have implemented limits on rice purchases. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has scheduled a hearing on the impact of rising food prices on U.S. families.
Some rice-growing countries such as Vietnam and India have blocked exports of the grain in an attempt to stabilize their domestic markets, further increasing pressure on global prices. Pakistan's food minister Thursday raised the prospect of similar steps in Islamabad.
Administration officials say they are particularly concerned about the possible security ramifications of the food crisis, and the topic is receiving increased attention from the National Security Council and its staff. Many of the affected countries -- including Egypt, Indonesia and two of the world's nuclear powers, India and Pakistan -- are of strategic interest to Washington.