Modernizing U.S. Food Aid: Reaching More for Less

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

U.S. food aid has been the backbone of our global emergency response system for more than 60 years. When natural, economic, or political disaster strikes another part of the world and people are left without food, the U.S. has delivered.

Fighting hunger has always a bipartisan effort involving Congress and the President. The Food for Peace Program, first known as “Public Law (PL) 480,” was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. President John F. Kennedy renamed the program “Food for Peace” and placed it in the newly created U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Food for Peace resources improve child nutrition, promote development and build resilience to prevent costlier future humanitarian interventions. Just last year, in the Sahel, famine was averted due to the early, robust and comprehensive humanitarian food assistance led by the U.S. government.

That being said, there is a growing consensus that our food aid system would benefit from greater flexibility in order to respond more effectively to crises in a way that brings assistance to more people more quickly utilizing the same level of resources.

On June 12, in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I explained why making prudent and sensible reforms to U.S. food aid would better serve people in need, and U.S. farmers and ranchers.

Humanitarian needs are increasing

Despite the great progress being made across U.S. international food security programs, humanitarian needs continue to grow as the number of people affected by natural disasters and conflict increases. Floods, droughts and other natural disasters have increased by 400 percent over the past two decades and the number of people affected and displaced by conflict has risen from 17.4 million in 1997 to 27.5 million today. In 2013, the UN World Food Programme estimates that more than 80 million people will require food assistance globally, with significant increases in need in the Middle East, due to doubling needs in Syria and Yemen.

The commitment to food aid is bipartisan

International food aid programs have received support from Administrations in both parties. In 2008, the Bush Administration even initiated a food aid reform effort, proposing a legislative authorization in the Farm Bill to use up to 25% of Food for Peace funds available annually to procure food from selected developing countries near the site of a crisis. This year, the Obama Administration has proposed a set of reforms to further increase the flexibility and efficiency of U.S. food aid reforms and potentially enable the U.S. to reach 2-4 million more people globally.

In Congress, there is a similar story of deep commitment to international food aid programs. There are numerous examples of Congressional support for feeding hungry people, from the collaboration between Senators McGovern and Dole that eventually led to the creation of our McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition programs to the bipartisan leadership of Senators Stabenow and Roberts last year in developing food aid provisions in the Senate Farm Bill. In the House, Chairman Royce’s recent introduction of the Food Aid Reform Act (H.R. 1983), is another important instance of Republicans and Democrats coming together to make improvements to our international food aid system.

A growing consensus is developing on principles of reforming food aid programs

While there has been substantial discussion and debate on the tactics and mechanics of food aid reform, this is widespread agreement on the overarching strategic goals.

Greater flexibility in our food aid system would allow the U.S. to employ the right tool at the right time when responding to crises. This means buying food locally and regionally when markets are functioning, utilizing specialized nutrition products when circumstances require them and allowing for the use of cash transfers and food vouchers in complex environments where U.S. commodities may be hard to deliver. Studies show that with favorable market conditions, local and regional procurement of food and other cash-based programs can get food to people in critical need 11 to 14 weeks faster and at a cost savings of 25 – 50 percent.

Greater efficiency in our food aid system would enable the U.S. to reach more people in a time of fiscal constraints. In a 2011 report, the GAO estimated that $219 million was lost over a three- year period as a result of monetization – about 25 cents on every dollar. In eliminating the need to monetize food by using cash rather than U.S. commodities to fund development programs, we reduce waste and have more resources available for food assistance programs.

The future of U.S. agriculture depends on thriving global economies

In 2012, agriculture was one of four categories with a U.S. trade surplus. Changes in U.S. agricultural policy and rising consumer demand outside of our country – where 95% of the world’s consumers live – ensure that commodities not needed for American consumption now flow quickly into thriving global markets.

This means that food aid procurements have become an increasingly smaller proportion of overall U.S. commercial agriculture sales. From 2002-2011, the Food for Peace program procured less than 1% of total food that was exported from the U.S. Further, the volume of food assistance provided by the U.S. has been steadily declining over time due to higher food prices and lower overall appropriations for the program. From 2002 to 2011, the purchases of U.S. food aid by the U.S. government declined from 5 million to 1.8 million metric tons.

Given these changes, the future interests of U.S. agriculture are less in the provision of U.S. food aid and more in the development of stable, thriving economies that can create new markets for American businesses and new consumers for American products.

American farmers can and should support food aid reform

It is firmly in the interest of American farmers to support greater efficiencies and flexibility within our food aid system so that we can provide more food to more people and support the local and regional agricultural development systems of future trading partners. This type of change in U.S. food aid policy would promote the well-being and health of populations and potential future consumers; open up new trade and investment opportunities for US agribusinesses; and ensure that our humanitarian commitments are met. Both the National Farmers Union and Cargill recently expressed support for food aid reform efforts.

We now have broad agreement on what needs to be done to improve our food aid programs and we must seize the opportunity. Food aid can help nations become economically stronger and effective partners and allies of the United States. This is an important investment for America and a terrific foreign policy tool for our government.

Dan Glickman is a Co-Chair of AGree. He formerly served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001 and as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 18 years.