WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., late last week launched a campaign to make changes to U.S. food aid programs in the next farm bill, but wheat groups defended the current system of sending American commodities to needy countries.
Corker's ability to influence food aid is limited, however, because most food aid is under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture committees.
At a session at the American Enterprise Institute and a hearing Thursday, Corker called for a shift from mostly sending U.S. commodities abroad to a system of cash transfers so that food can be purchased near the areas where it is needed.
He also called for an end to the cargo preference law that requires 50% of U.S. food aid be shipped on American vessels with American merchant mariners, and of monetization programs under which humanitarian groups sell some food products in the recipient countries to raise funds for operations.
Getting rid of "these utterly ridiculous requirements" would free up more than $300 million in U.S. tax money that could feed 9.5 million more people each year, Corker said at the hearing.
Asked at the AEI event about a Trump White House proposal to increase the percentage of food aid shipped in American ships, Corker said he had convinced the president to stop what his aides wanted.
"I made a phone call to the president directly. Don't get me wrong. This is not over," Corker said.
A panel of authors of an AEI paper presented the detailed reasoning of changes that Corker supports at the AEI event.
The points in the paper largely repeat arguments from previous years that have led to small changes in food aid regulations, the passage of the Global Food Security Act, and the use of the USAID International Disaster Assistance account to purchase food near the troubled areas.
At the hearing, Matthew Nims, the acting director of Food for Peace at the U.S. Agency for International Development, testified that the food aid programs would be more efficient if Congress gave USAID more flexibility in managing them.
Nims said USAID could benefit from flexibility because, "Never before has Food for Peace faced a greater challenge in our efforts to reach so many people facing crisis in so many countries."
"The four conflict-zones of South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen alone account for more than 20 million people at risk of severe hunger or starvation and all face a credible threat of famine," Nims noted.
"Yet these four countries represent only a small part of global food insecurity today. According to the latest U.N. data, global hunger increased in 2017 for the first time in more than a decade, and food insecurity now affects 11% of the world's population.
"That's 815 million people going to bed hungry each night, or well over twice the population of the entire United States," Nims said. "Food for Peace provided lifesaving food assistance in about 50 countries in 2017."
Bill O'Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, testified that the U.S. flag carriers charged 31% more than foreign flag carriers to ship food over a three-year period.
The maritime industry has said that these higher prices are necessary because U.S. flag carriers have higher expenses. But O'Keefe said, "If U.S. carriers had matched the average foreign flag rates in each of these years, Catholic Relief Services would have spent $23.8 million less on ocean freight shipping in this three-year period. If this money were spent on emergency food aid, it could have used to serve over 500,000 more beneficiaries."
Corker said he had told the Tennessee Farm Bureau that congressional aides use the good name of farmers to maintain the current system, and that the farmers were "stunned" to learn that food aid only amounts to one-tenth of 1% of agricultural production.
But later the same day, the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates, which promote the sale of U.S. wheat, defended the programs.
Referring to Corker's statement that farmers "do not care" about U.S. in-kind food aid, Ron Suppes, a Dighton, Kansas, wheat farmer said, "I don't know what farmers Sen. Corker is talking to, because I can assure you wheat farmers care a lot about in-kind food aid."
"In 2016, U.S. government donations of milling wheat that helped feed food insecure populations or were monetized by NGOs to fund local food security projects reached a level that would be equal to a top-10 export market," he said.
Suppes noted that, at a June House Agriculture Committee hearing, he had testified that on a trip to Tanzania, "I saw firsthand how food aid can also generate goodwill with other countries. By encouraging agricultural development in countries like Tanzania, we're ultimately spurring economic growth, which means Tanzania is more likely to be a stronger trading partner in the future. And the tangible presence of U.S. wheat in that equation is a symbol that cash can't match."
Suppes noted that the Philippines and Taiwan had once received in-kind food aid, but are now major importers of U.S. wheat and other foods.
"Sen. Corker's call to eliminate in-kind food aid donations in favor of all-cash gifts is an extreme position, shared by AEI, a group that regularly attacks farm programs and farmers," added Gordon Stoner, a wheat farmer from Outlook, Montana.
"In-kind food aid and monetization are still important tools for delivering greater food availability and easing local market price volatility."
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at email@example.com
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