What the farm bill means for US food aid

A wheat field. The U.S. farm bill will expire at the end of the fiscal year. Photo by: Lauren Tucker / CC BY-ND

The U.S. farm bill expires at the end of the fiscal year, and with it, a notable chunk of global food aid. With domestic policy issues screaming for attention in a politically charged year, development organizations are struggling to make the case for food aid on the Hill. But disagreements on the best way to help both beneficiaries and American taxpayers create a disjointed lobby, and a lack of political will to appease it.

The farm bill provides for the U.S. Agency for International Development-administered Food for Peace program, which received around $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2012, as well as the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, funded at around $200 million.

At 0.5 percent or 0.6 percent of the nearly trillion-dollar farm bill, global food aid is “barely a rounding error,” said Lucas Koach, policy adviser at Food for the Hungry.

That makes it hard to focus legislators’ attention on it. Lawmakers may agree that international development is important, but they are more willing to expend precious political capital on areas that carry greater weight with constituents.

That’s especially true when the lobby for international food relief is itself split over several key issues. Chief among them is the question of monetization, the practice of funding development programs by selling U.S. commodities as food aid.

“Does it cost a lot to ship all these commodities across the oceans? Of course. But this is one tool out of many in the development toolbox and there remains a proper and helpful place for US food aid,” Koach said.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report last year showing inefficiencies in the monetization process reduced funding that would have been available for development work by $219 million over a three-year period.

GAO critiqued monetization chiefly around this issue of cost recovery, but the original intent of the practice is funding sustainable development programs, according to Koach. The Senate’s version of the new farm bill says the United States would need to recover 70 percent of the cost to justify selling commodities on the local market.

“We think that the prospect of losing cents on every dollar in the process of selling a commodity in the development market is really a scandal at a time when we’re fighting for every development dollar and dollar for humanitarian assistance that we can,” said Eric Munoz, policy advisor for Oxfam America.

Local and regional food procurement is a much better approach, according to the results of a pilot program provided for in the last farm bill, said Munoz. The program saved money, cut down the time it took for food to reach the hungry, did not cause price inflation or harm the local economy, and resulted in culturally preferred foodstuff.

“These are hugely important findings that should have informed the committee negotiations in a much more meaningful way than they did,” said Munoz. “The Senate did choose to reauthorize local and regional procurement at $40 million annually, however that provision was left out of the House committee bill, and I think that’s a really disappointing outcome from the House deliberations.”

Though the bill passed in the Senate and had bipartisan support in the House Agriculture Committee, it was not brought up for a vote. It is the first time the House has declined to bring its own committee’s bill to the floor, according to The New York Times.

Fundamental disagreements among lawmakers seem focused on the topic of food stamps. But another rift about the types of international programs U.S. food aid should be funding adds to the list of reasons House members have found to avoid the topic altogether.

When Food for Peace legislation was crafted, it directed three-quarters of its commodities be used for nonemergency programs. These were supposed to last from three to five years and increase yields, conduct reforestation, restore water tables, and even work on maternal and child health, not just hand out sacks of grain in an emergency.

But over time, waivers have been issued that allow for a greater percentage of food to go toward emergency relief, and less toward sustainable development.

Congress added a “development safebox” in the 2008 farm bill to ensure a minimum amount of money went toward nonemergency multiyear programs. That amount was $350 million in 2008 and increased incrementally to $450 million in 2012.

But the bill passed by the Senate takes away the hard dollar amount and would instead allocate 20 percent of the Food for Peace budget for nonemergency food aid. Using a fluctuating annual percentage could complicate planning for multiyear programs, Koach said.

Lawmakers see “a bit of schism within the NGO community around food aid and non-emergency food aid programming,” and use it as justification to back away from the development safety box debate entirely, Koach argued.

If a new five-year farm bill is not passed, shorter interim bills could succeed, or there could be a continuing resolution to renew funding at 2008 levels. If none of those options is in place by the last day of September, the farm bill reverts to statutory language from the 1940s.

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About the author

  • Jennnews21

    Jennifer Brookland

    Jennifer Brookland is a Devex global development reporter based in Washington, DC. She has worked as a humanitarian reporter for the United Nations and as an investigative journalist for News21. Jennifer holds a bachelor's in foreign service from Georgetown University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University and in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School. She also served for four years as an Air Force officer.