The House and Senate are in the process of debating multiple versions of the farm bill, which may affect the way food aid is delivered. The Obama administration has suggested an overhaul to allow food aid to be bought and distributed locally, rather than grown in American and shipped abroad. Both the House and the Senate have essentially rejected this principle, with the Senate approving a significantly scaled-back version of the suggested plan.
The Obama administration’s suggested overhaul would change the main US food aid program, called “Food for Peace”. The changes suggested using 45 percent of “Food for Peace” funding to buy food locally. However, both the House and the Senate have rejected this idea. The House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture has approved a version of the farm bill for debate on the House floor that advises a 20 percent cut to the “Food for Peace” program. This has been described as an effort to control the federal deficit. Meanwhile, the Senate has passed a bill that would increase annual funding for the purchase of local products by 50 percent, to $60 million. This still represents a minute portion of the 1.8 billion dollars spent on food aid each year. While the changes suggested by the Senate are commendable, they should be seen only as a small step in the right direction and not a complete solution.
Local and regional procurement (LRP) of food in the area that it is needed has many advantages. LRP cuts delivery time by an average of 13.8 weeks, according to an extensive study completed by Cornell University. This figure varies significantly by country, and is generally greater in landlocked countries. LRP can also decrease the cost of food aid, especially with transportation costs. For example, local grain purchases are extremely effective at cost reduction, with an average savings of 53%. In addition, locally procured food may be safer and of higher quality. The previously mentioned study found that LRP recipients were universally more satisfied than recipients of foods shipped from overseas.
The purchase of local foods also supports local farmers in developing economies, and has been found to have generally negligible effects on local market price levels and their volatility. Additionally, local companies may have a better understanding of the recipient communities and markets than US companies do. Distributing locally produced foods can also be safer. According to Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development, shipping large amounts of food aid into some war-torn areas is an extremely dangerous and prolonged process.
Despite all the benefits of LRP, there are a few concerns that should be raised. Local markets may not be able to support rapidly increased demand, and this may result in increased prices that put non-recipients at a disadvantage. In addition, food safety and quality are extremely varied and difficult to monitor overseas. Local vendors may also not be consistent when attempting to get food to people who are starving. While buying local is generally considered to be the better approach, this should by no means be considered a blanket statement. Decisions such as this should be made on a case-by-case basis.
– Katie Fullerton
Sources: Reuters, Cornell University, The Columbus Dispatch