Saturday, May 3, 2008
The US Food Aid and the Farm Lobby
The US Congress is expected to approve an additional $770m in international food aid to alleviate the food crisis arising out of an unprecedented inflation in world food prices. With the prices of various food staples for the poor doubling and tripling in about a year, it is not clear if this increased amount would help avert widespread hunger feared in parts of Africa and Asia.
In addition to the actual amount of US aid, the other key aspect is how this aid is delivered. If the aid is intended to be tied to purchases from US farmers to provide short-term relief to the poor, it will do nothing to solve the long-term issue of the poor nations' ability to feed themselves by increasing their domestic food production.
With food prices soaring, U.S. farmers are enjoying robust demand, and have less need for the government to buy some of their crop for use in overseas aid. And the U.S. increasingly has come under pressure from other developed countries to change the design of its food aid. Canada recently announced it would move toward more untied aid, and European countries made the switch in the 1990s, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal goes on, "Attempts to shift a percentage to cash have met with aggressive opposition from the U.S. agriculture industry". The farm lobby in the US continues to flex its muscle and enrich itself, without regard for the severity of the hunger crisis in the poor nations. Three years ago, farmers and their allies in Congress effectively destroyed an effort by the Bush administration to begin this switch to untied food aid.
European governments switched to giving all-cash donations in the mid-1990s, arguing that cash allows more flexibility in responding to crises and that the U.S. uses its food aid as a form of farm subsidy. The Europeans understand that these subsidies run counter to the spirit of free trade and globalization being championed by the developed world as a way to open the emerging markets for their multi-nationals. The backlash from the hungry against global markets will be a commercial setback as well as a security issue for the entire world.
The outdated Public Law 480, signed in the 1950s by President Eisenhower, governing US food aid motivated by domestic politics and objectives has continued to live in various garbs. It has distorted the whole idea of helping end hunger and primarily served the interests of the farm lobby and re-election of the congressmen from farm states. It has also not helped in promoting better nutrition, health and fitness of the American people by subsidizing unhealthy dairy, meats and cereals while penalizing healthy options such as growing fruits and vegetables. It is one of the worst examples of the "special-interests" politics that dominates the American democracy.
As long as the US farmers and politicians continue to play selfish games with US aid to the poor, all of the US efforts will amount to nothing more than a superficial PR campaign disguised as generosity toward the poor. A little more sincerity may actually help feed the poor for more than just brief periods of acute crises and simultaneously address the fundamental issues of self-sufficiency. Unless there is fundamental change in the attitudes of the Midwest legislators, this will be another missed opportunity to help improve the battered US image abroad and contribute to stability and security of the US and the world.