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Lawmakers Question US Food Aid Proposal

The Obama administration plans to ship fewer U.S. food commodities to countries in need and instead buy more from developing world farmers closer to the area. The proposal marks a major shift in the 60-year program known as Food for Peace.

From floods and earthquakes to wars and chronic food shortages, the United States is the world’s largest donor of food aid. But budgets are extremely tight in Washington these days. So U.S. Agency for International Development chief Rajiv Shah says he is proposing reform.

“This reform is designed to reach 4 million additional children with basic core nutrition during times of extreme need without asking for additional funds,” Shah said.

Shah said buying food in the affected region, or providing cash or vouchers to people in need, is up to 50 percent cheaper than buying and shipping food from the U.S. Plus, it gets to where it’s needed up to 14 weeks sooner.

The amount of food bought and shipped from the U.S. would decrease from about 85 percent today to 55 percent under the administration’s proposal.

But Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder said any decrease in food coming from the U.S. would cost American jobs. He said that would be hard for farm communities to accept.

“Certainly that would need to be explained to constituents why that choice was made to pay farmers in other countries as opposed to pay farmers here,” Yoder said.

And Yoder questioned whether buying locally is always cheaper.

“At least some information shows that local and regional purchase, cash transfer programs are not necessarily less expensive than U.S. food aid,” Yoder said.

Shah said that study after study has found sourcing locally is more efficient.

“And this is why, I believe, every past director of the World Food Program and the current one, almost all the major NGOs, most experts that have looked at this, all of my predecessors and major CEOs in the agricultural space all believe this is the right thing to do,” Shah said.

And Shah added that while food aid may have been a bigger market for farmers in the past…

“Today, Food for Peace in its entirety is about a half of one percentage point of total value of agricultural exports. And going from 85 percent to 55 percent is probably something less than that,” Shah said.

The proposal also faces opposition from U.S. shippers, who say delivering food aid helps keep a shrinking U.S. merchant marine fleet afloat.

This hearing and another in the Senate Wednesday were the first since the president’s budget was released earlier this month.

Analysts say it faces an uphill battle on Capitol Hill.

Related video report by Steve Baragona
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.