Bountiful harvests in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have, in a cruel twist, reduced the amound of food aid the United States is alloting to other countries where the hard gnaw of hunger remains real.
Countries such as Morocco, Honduras, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia together now have access to 300,000 fewer tons of food under the U.S. Food for Peace sales program, official say, because of the stunning harvests on the Indian subcontinent.
Administration officials and some congressional sources attribute this seeming paradox to a law passed in December, 1975, that was intended to assure that the neediest countries of the world get priority claim to U.S. food aid.
But others concerned with world hunger say the administration has not tried hard enough to solve the problem and is letting a minor technically stand in the way of sending more food to more countries.
Either way, the currently reduced food aid allotments aggravate farming interests, which, faced with heavy surpluses of food grains, want to dispose of them overseas.
"It's a unique dilemma," says Dan Shaughnessy, the deputy coordinator of Food for Peace in the Agency for International Development.
That dilemma is only the latest to confront Food for Peace, the foreign aid plan that provides low-interest, long-term loans to other countries so they may buy surplus U.S. food commodities. In the past, the program has been accused of supplying food to poor countries but not necessarily to the poor people in them, of helping to keep certain governments in power, of glutting food markets to the detriment of native farmers and of making countries dependent on the United States for food while failing to develop their own crops.
The 1975 measure and a similar one in 1974 that it replaced were designed to eliminate alleged political abuses in the distribution of food aid in the Nixon years. The law says that 75 per cent of the Food for Peace sales must go to countries with annual per capita income of less than $300, based on gross national product, and 25 per cent to countries above $300.
Thus, the more is distributed in the 75 per cent category, the more can be distributed to the other countries.
The Agriculture Department originally predicted that the countries below the $300 cutoff would require 3,262,000 tons this budget year, and the countries above $300 would get 1,084,000 tons. Now, because of reduced needs in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh - all in the below $300 range - those projections stand at 2.6 million tons for the poorest countries - thus causing a reduction of roughly 300,000 tons in the allotments for 15 food-importing nations above $300 per capita income, which, in some cases, are countries only slightly above $300.
One result, for example, is that Morocco, which one official said could put 100,000 tons of food "to good use in a hurry," will get half that. Jordan, with a refugee problem, now is expected to get only 50,000 tons of wheat but could use up to another 100,000 tons.
"There is a definite limit on what we can send countries above the $300 limit," says Kathleen Bidderman, coordinator of Food for Peace in the Agency for International Development. "We have our problems."
"There are 31 countries below $300 and only 13 are now receiving food aid," Larry Minear, a hunger consultant to two church relief organizations, told the Senate Agriculture Committee Friday. "Using some imagination" to get food to the other 18 could account for another 1 million tons, he said, thus increasing the amount of food available to countries above the $300 benchmark.
Both Minear and Lewis Gulick, a staff consultant to the House International Relations Committee, say that the administration can alter the 75/25 allocation simply by citing "significantly changed circumstances" that make the original allocation formula unrealistic.
"It's pretty early in the year to do that," says Bidderman, referring to the seven months left in this budget year, in which anything can happen. "It's a matter of pure hard judgment when you go up to the Congress with that kind of finding," the circumstances have changed.
On delaying any decision and what that means for the hungry in other nations, Bidderman said Food for Peace "is always incremental to a country's total consumption . . . so that the waiting might not affect them."
There is also some question in the minds of Agriculture Department officials whether good harvests add up to "substantially changed conditions." They have asked departmental lawyers for legal advice, which is being formulated.
Whatever is done this year, some officials think a longer-range solution is required. Bidderman of AID said she would like to see a higher cutoff point than $300 and one that allows for inflation. Sen. Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has proposed legislation authorizing the President to waive the 75/25 formula.
Minear, for one, would like to see the formula kept as a buffer against future times when supplies may drop and the need for food rises - and the pressure to allocate food along political alignments thus increase.
But one Senate staff member said that what is needed is not requirements built into permanent legislation but "good sense in the administration of a program."
Or as Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) put it at Friday's hearing: "If we didn't trust the last Secretary [of Agriculture], maybe we can trust this one."