Monday, December 10, 2012

The End of Groundhog Day? Reforming American Food Aid

Washington DC, Th  Dec 5th, 2012  
At a conference organized by Farm Journal last Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that rural districts are losing their ability to exhort political pressure on their elected officials to maintain farm bill programs. This, and the fiscal cliff debate, is drastically changing the political climate of farm bill negotiations. After decades of fruitless criticism to the way the U.S. government distributes food aid globally, international development experts are finally seeing a real opportunity to incorporate long overdue changes to American food aid programs.

The United States remains one of the few countries that continue to ship food aid across the Atlantic instead of providing cash to purchase it close to where the food is needed, a practice common in Japan, the European Union and others donors. American food aid is expensive and ineffective. The Government Accountability Office estimates that approximately 60% of the program’s funds go to shipping. In addition, it can take up to six month for the food to reach its destination –too long to adequately address emergencies. 

Following the example of other countries, the Senate version of the farm bill introduced about $200 million to ‘local and regional food procurement’ or LRP. Instead of sending containers of corn and soybeans, LRP programs provide cash to the World Food Program and NGOs to purchase the food aid close to where is needed. Compare to our current program, LRP will save over 50% in shipping, and strengthen local farmers in the developing world by increasing the demand for their crops. 

The Senate’s effort, however, is currently threatened by a House version of the farm bill that rejects the LRP program. Understanding the reluctance of the House to embrace LRP to save money and make food aid more effective requires following the money and analyzing population trends. 

The farm bill covers a wide range of issues supported by countless lobbying groups. While liberals tend to favor food stamp and conservation programs, conservative groups exhort robust political pressure for farm subsidies and crop insurance programs.  Last year alone, ‘crop production and basic processing industry’ contributed to the House agricultural committee over $2.9 million, with 70% funneled to Republican congressmen. These contributions come from larger farmers and corporations that see no benefit in purchasing grains abroad. 

Opposition to the LRP also comes from rural Congressional districts where farming is still vital to their local economies. In contrast to the Senate, many House policymakers represent these constituencies which demand strong protection against climate variability and subsidized price support for their commodities. For the most part, these districts see little logic in using taxpayer monies to buy corn not in the Mid-West but somewhere in Kenya. 

Why is it that we don't have a farm bill?” Vilsack said. "It isn't just the differences of policy. It's the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country.” According to the Department of Agriculture, over half of rural counties are seeing negative population growth in the past five years. As young people move to cities, farmers’ priorities are becoming less significant to policymakers.

While the issue of reforming the food aid has become a “Groundhog Day” among development circles, it seems that the fundamental changes in the political environment may allow the LRP to become law once for all. With the growing fiscal pressures the momentum is on the side of those opposing farm subsidies and supporting more efficient approaches to food aid.