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Shriveling US Crops Could Shrink Food Aid

Drought in the United States may make delivering food aid more expensive, according to experts and aid groups, and it could mean less will be given at a time when more people might need it.

Nearly two-thirds of the United States is in a state of drought. As crops wither under the most serious drought in more than a half-century, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on Wednesday that USDA has cut this year's harvest estimates for corn and soybeans.

"This will result in significant increases in prices," Vilsack said. "For corn, we've seen a 38 percent increase since June 1 in the price of a bushel of corn. A bushel of beans has risen 24 percent."

"Workhorse" of food aid

While shortages are not expected, and food aid makes up a miniscule sliver of the U.S. harvest, corn and soybeans are "two key ingredients for the corn-soy blend that is the workhorse for...enriched rations used to address severe acute malnutrition," says Cornell University economist and food aid expert Chris Barrett.

"The impact on corn and soy prices will disproportionately impact purchases of the products on which relief agencies rely most heavily to meet the...needs of those suffering most acutely from food emergencies," Barrett says.

The United States is the world's largest donor of food aid. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 33 million people worldwide received U.S. food aid at a cost of $1.5 billion.

But price increases likely will strain that budget and could force the U.S to buy less, according to Paul Green at the North American Millers Association, the trade group for companies that produce food aid.

"Less tonnage means, of course, fewer people responded to in need, while simultaneously an increase in world prices probably means having more people in need," Green says.

Missing targets

Many of the aid groups serving those people in need agree.

Bruce White with Catholic Relief Services says the U.S. government sets targets for how much it will buy each year for groups like his to deliver. But spikes in food prices can derail those plans. He says that when prices spiked in 2008, "all of a sudden, we started seeing that it was more and more difficult for the U.S. government to reach those targets."

White says his group and others had to scramble to fill the gaps. Their donors and private companies stepped in to help. But White says he is concerned that there will be gaps again this year.

Ultimately, Congress decides how much the United States will spend on food aid. The Department of Agriculture says it will work with Congress to ensure its programs remain effective.
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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.