Bush Seeks $770 Million More in World Food Aid

President Bush called on Congress Thursday to approve $770 million to help alleviate food shortages and dramatically escalating prices that threaten to cause widespread hunger and social unrest around the world. Video by AP
[The Bush administration is requesting an additional $770 million in emergency food aid for fiscal 2009.]
U.S. Overseas Food Aid
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

President Bush asked Congress yesterday to approve $770 million in new global food aid for the coming fiscal year, the centerpiece of an evolving administration response to a crisis that has sparked increased violence and hunger around the world.

Overall, he said, the United States is on track to spend nearly $5 billion on foreign food assistance in 2008 and 2009. "With the new international funding I'm announcing today, we're sending a clear message to the world that America will lead the fight against hunger for years to come," Bush said at the White House.

The president said he is asking Congress to include the money in a broader Iraq war funding bill for fiscal 2009 that the administration sent to Capitol Hill yesterday.

The proposal came under immediate criticism from some congressional Democrats and outside experts, who said additional money would do little to alleviate the current crisis if it is not available until the 2009 budget year, which starts in October. Bush has also requested $350 million in additional food aid as part of the 2008 supplemental Iraq war budget, an amount that top Democrats say is too little.

"That is far too late for the urgency of this problem," said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), who along with Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) has asked Bush for at least $550 million in emergency food aid now. "If you're hungry and your government is collapsing, waiting until December 2008 or January 2009 for food to hit the ground is just too late."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement that lawmakers "will respond rapidly to the growing urgent need for international food assistance," but she did not opine on Bush's latest request. Pelosi also urged the president to support new spending for food stamps and other domestic aid contained in a proposed farm bill, which he has called "bloated."

Bush's announcement comes as U.S. policymakers scramble to respond to an unexpectedly dramatic worldwide food panic spurred by skyrocketing prices for corn, rice, wheat and other staples of diets in the developing world. In some of the poorest countries in Africa and Asia, where food costs can consume three-quarters of incomes, prices have more than doubled in six months. Droughts, increasing energy costs and growing food demand in poor nations have contributed to higher prices in recent months.

The rising costs have prompted violent protests in more than a dozen countries and warnings from the United Nations and the World Bank that up to 100 million people could be plunged into poverty. The U.N. World Food Program has issued an urgent plea for money to keep up with the crisis.

"We thank the President of the United States for his urgent call to action to combat the advance of hunger among the world's most vulnerable," Josette Sheeran, executive director of the program, said in a statement after Bush's announcement.

White House officials said that the $770 million would include about $395 million for direct food assistance; $150 million for agricultural development; and $225 million for local crop purchases, vouchers and other special programs. The money is separate from the $350 million in emergency food aid that the administration has proposed for the current budget year, officials said. The administration also released $200 million worth of emergency wheat reserves from a special humanitarian trust two weeks ago.

If all of Bush's emergency requests are approved, officials said, the current year's budget for overseas food aid would grow 18 percent, to $2.3 billion, and next year's would jump about 40 percent, to nearly $2.7 billion. Historically, the United States has provided about half of all global food assistance.

Stephen McMillin, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters yesterday that in addition to achieving humanitarian goals, the funding "contributes to stabilizing unstable regimes in the developing world."

Bush also urged nations to remove emergency trade barriers that have been erected in recent weeks to protect domestic food stores, arguing that they only increase pressure on commodity prices. Lael Brainard, a Clinton administration economic adviser who is now with the Brookings Institution, applauded the proposal. "We should use this moment to improve not just the quantity but the quality of our foreign aid by making the reforms that are long overdue," she said.

One factor in the crisis is the growing demand for corn used to make ethanol. Joseph Glauber, the Agriculture Department's chief economist, told Congress yesterday that prices for corn and other food commodities will remain at "historically high levels" in coming years as the U.S. ethanol industry expands, the Associated Press reported.

While nearly all experts agree that increased biofuel production has contributed to escalating food prices, there is little consensus on the scope. Edward Lazear, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, argued yesterday that the impact of ethanol on prices was minimal, because corn is a small portion of global food consumption .

© 2008 The Washington Post Company