Wednesday, August 15, 2007

those amber waves of grain

The U.S.'s obstinate efforts to maintain its image as a breadbasket
(endless fields of glimmering corn in the soft glow of summer twilight)

The agony and suffering of African famine victims
(starving child, flies in eyes, ribs poking through stretched, dry skin)

The combination of these two competing issues has become a charged topic in the media lately, as the 2007 Farm Bill is up for its five-year renewal in Congress this summer. The resulting changes could have major impacts in the developing world, as the Bush Administration is looking for a shift in policy, “calling for an approach to U.S. food aid that doesn’t undermine regional food systems in the global South.”

They actually want to buy food in local markets.

The concept of U.S. food aid came about in the early 1950s, when the government was buying excess products from U.S. farmers and sitting on surpluses of commodity foods. In 1954, Eisenhower signed the Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act (Public Law 480), also known as Food for Peace. Title II allows for the donation of U.S. agricultural products to meet Humanitarian Food Needs around the world. A simple solution to avoid the costly storing of surplus food and at the same time feed the world’s hungry.

The downfall – Public Law 480 mandates the food aid be grown by U.S. farmers. As time passed, the purchase of food aid settled out to lucrative arrangements with large agribusinesses – not U.S. farmers suffering from falling commodity prices. In short, circumstances changed and the policy stayed the same.

In April, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report revealing the current system to be rife with inefficiencies: rising logistical costs, dropping shipment levels – only a third of today’s food aid money is actually buying food. There are still over 850 million hungry people in the world, and U.S. food aid is feeding less and less of that population.

One proposed solution is a pilot program to purchase food aid in local markets. Benefits of local purchase are two-fold: it simultaneously eliminates the high costs of shipping food from the U.S. and provides a stimulus for local agricultural markets. As a result, more money will be available to ensure that food aid gets to those who need it most.

In Gulu, the UN World Food Program has a facility just on the outskirts of town – an enormous campus that seems to mock the thousands of individuals living in squalor at IDP camps just a few miles away. As northern Uganda approaches peace, IDPs are resettling to their farmland and villages; returning to an agricultural lifestyle. It’s disturbing to see malnourished children living in camps surrounded by what could be fertile agricultural land. One can’t help but wonder how local purchase could have helped in this situation. As the region stabilizes, purchase from local farmers could have provided a stronger economic base to which IDPs can return, easing the drastic shift from living on WFP handouts to subsistence farming. At the very least, it could have strengthened the surrounding region’s economy while it fed the hungry in the north.

U.S. agribusiness and shipping interests are lobbying hard in Washington to keep the status quo. A NYTimes interview with an Ohio farmer summarized the issue well – an observation that could be usefully applied across other forms of humanitarian and development assistance:
"Vernon Sloan, 81, used to donate and ship corn he grew on his 200- acre farm in Ohio to Haiti, Liberia and Angola to feed the hungry. But after years of working with the Foods Resource Bank, he said in an interview, he concluded that it was more practical to sell the crops here, avoid the huge shipping expense and use the proceeds to help farmers in Africa support themselves.

'It's what's needed there," he said, "rather than what we think they need.'"


Greg said...

Food subsidies and agriculture are way outside the scope of anything I know about, but I think this is very interesting.

The first question that comes to mind, though, is whether local African markets can sustain the level of aid needed. Isn't there a general problem with the climate + land nutrients that makes growing a lot of crops for a long period of time problematic? And if famine strikes (say, through a particularly bad growing season) doesn't that mean that food aid will be difficult or impossible to come by?

The second question that comes to mind is what effect this might have on fertilizer use and so forth. I imagine most African countries don't have strong legal protections against toxic chemicals and that many American companies still have patents on farming chemicals they can no longer use in the US.

hmb said...

Crop rotation techniques could avoid the general problems with land nutrients...while this is the case in many tropical climates, the area in question is historically a breadbasket - the soil in northern Uganda is quite fertile for food crops. Southern Sudan is certainly tapping into it.

The policy is proposing local purchase as a supplement to existing aid. One way to alleviate food security issues might be to consider buying food from neighboring countries as local purchase as well. This would help build the regional economy. The bottom line is to put all that money that's going to a few companies in the U.S. into developing a sustainable agricultural system (as well as reliable transport infrastructure) where it's needed most.