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US Farm Bill Ignites Controversy

The United States Congress is considering a farm bill that is creating debate in the U.S. and around the world. Billions of dollars in agricultural subsides for American farmers are expected to continue, a program that critics say hurts developing countries. Another proposal involving food aid for poor nations is also raising controversy. As Jessi Lang reports, the plan could have major consequences for African farmers and some of the people they would like to help feed.

It is a small proposal but it could make a big difference to some of the hungriest people in the world. One version of the farm bill currently making its way through the U.S. Congress would allow the United States government to buy some food aid overseas for poor countries, such as those in Africa, rather than shipping it all from America.

Hunger advocates, like Bread for the World's Erin Tunney, say this plan makes good use of available resources. "It does not make sense to the average American, to the average African -- probably to the average anyone -- that the best way to get food to someone who is hungry a continent away is to buy it in the U.S., process it in the U.S., ship it on a U.S. ship and hopefully a couple months later, it would actually arrive to where it's needed."

The plan would set aside $25 million for a pilot program to test buying food in poor countries for both emergency and long-term aid. Supporters say this will put money in the pockets of African farmers and food in the mouths of people who need it right away.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Michael Johanns says the Bush administration has supported a program to buy food locally in case of a crisis for years. "There are certain instances where people are desperate and dying of hunger where it's truly a crisis situation. If we had the ability to use a portion of our food aid dollars to go out and make the purchase in closer proximity and help those people, we would save lives. I don't think there is any doubt about it."

Many American farmers oppose the program. They say U.S. tax money should be spent on American farm products.

The $25 million pilot program is part of the U.S. Senate's version of the farm bill, but it is not in the version passed last month by the U.S. House of Representatives. Before the farm bill becomes law, the two chambers must reconcile their differences. So while the proposal has critical support, it faces huge hurdles before it can actually become law.