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Published April 15, 2013, 10:09 AM

New food aid system proposed

In a move that could complicate enactment of a new farm bill, President Barack Obama on April 10 proposed eliminating funding for the PL 480 Title II Food for Peace international food aid program and replacing it with a new system of using cash to buy American and foreign commodities.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — In a move that could complicate enactment of a new farm bill, President Barack Obama on April 10 proposed eliminating funding for the PL 480 Title II Food for Peace international food aid program and replacing it with a new system of using cash to buy American and foreign commodities.

The proposal, involving a reduction in food aid spending from $1.7 billion to $1.5 billion and moving the $1.5 billion among accounts, is “a significant shift and improvement” that represents “a continuation of deep commitment to advance global food security globally and to reaching people in the gravest need,” an administration official said April 8 in a briefing for the North American Agricultural Journalists.

Eliminating monetization would allow U.S. development food aid to reach an estimated 800,000 more undernourished women, men and children per year and all together the changes would allow “life-saving assistance” to reach an additional 2 million to 4 million people per year, the administration official said.

But the proposal would also reduce purchases of American-raised commodities, and even before it was announced, the proposal garnered opposition on Capitol Hill and from American farm, humanitarian and shipping interests.

The food aid proposal does not affect Food for Progress or the McGovern-Dole international school feeding programs, which are managed by the Agriculture Department.

To put the Obama administration’s proposal into effect, Congress would have to change the law. Farm bills contain a food aid provision, and the farm bill under development on Capitol Hill would be the most logical legislative vehicle for change.

Dramatic changes

The farm bills passed by the Senate and by the House Agriculture Committee in 2012 contained some changes, but none as dramatic as what the administration has proposed.

A key factor for congressional consideration is that the change from commodity to cash assistance would also result in the jurisdiction shifting from the House and Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittees to the subcommittees on foreign operations. Defenders of the current programs say that the foreign operations subcommittees might shift the money to other uses.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has generally left the development of the farm bill to lawmakers. On April 8, Vilsack told ag journalists that the current system is a good one, but that the proposed changes reflect the budgetary need to provide food aid more efficiently.

It is unclear how strongly the administration views the food aid proposal, since it originated at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Under current law, in place since 1954, the U.S. government buys American commodities and ships them overseas in U.S. ships to address emergency food needs, and also for use by U.S. nongovernmental organizations to help advance agriculture in developing countries.

Critics say that the current system, particularly the use of U.S. ships and the monetization or sale of some of the food for development purposes, is inefficient and that purchases under the new proposal would encourage the development of agriculture in poor countries.

But U.S. farm, humanitarian and shipping interests say the current system has a political constituency that guarantees a supply of safe food aid.

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