U.S. senators set new bid to overhaul food aid sourcing rules

Washington | Reuters — Two U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation on Tuesday to end U.S. restrictions on international food aid programs, which they said would free up hundreds of millions of dollars per year and get aid to some nine million more hungry people around the world.

U.S. Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware, chairman of the Africa subcommittee, introduced the Food for Peace Reform Act of 2014.

President Barack Obama’s administration has been pushing to overhaul the $1.4 billion U.S. food aid program for years (all figures US$). But his efforts have faced stiff resistance, especially from U.S. shipping companies that say they would cost jobs.

The program is restricted by laws requiring that most food be produced in the U.S. rather than purchased locally, which means it can cost more and take months to reach needy people, often arriving too late to be of much help in case of famine or disaster.

Half must also be transported on U.S. vessels, which can take months and double the cost. That restriction was loosened two years ago. Before 2012, three-quarters of all food aid had to be sent on U.S. ships.

“At a time when our budget is strained and U.S. resources are limited, Congress needs to find ways to be more efficient and effective with every dollar,” Corker said in a statement.

Coons said the reforms in the legislation had strong bipartisan support. They are generally favoured by international aid organizations.

The bill would allow both U.S. and locally or regionally procured commodities, vouchers or cash transfers to be used for aid, depending on which is the most cost-effective option.

Backers of the measure said the effect on U.S. agriculture would be small, noting that U.S. food aid contributed only 0.86 per cent of total U.S. agricultural exports from 2002 to 2011 and just 1.41 per cent of net farm income.

Higher rates

The bill also would allow the U.S. Agency for International Development to ship food on whatever vessels were readily available. Studies have shown that the U.S. cargo preference requirement resulted in aid shipping at rates 46 per cent higher than competitive market rates.

The bill also would end “monetization,” a requirement that 15 per cent of all U.S.-donated food be sold first by aid organizations, producing cash that would fund development projects.

Sponsors of the legislation said eliminating monetization would save 25 cents out of every taxpayer dollar spent, and could feed 800,000 more people and free some $30 million per year.

The measure would also transfer current food aid authorities from the farm bill — a giant package governing U.S. agriculture — to the Foreign Assistance Act.

Such a policy shift from the U.S. Congress would follow a similar move by Canada, which announced in 2008 it would allow up to 100 per cent of its food aid to be procured internationally, where previously 50 per cent had to be sourced domestically. [Related story]

Canada at the time declared its food aid purchases from developed countries would be limited to countries with similar policies on untying food aid.

— Patricia Zengerle is a U.S. congressional correspondent for Reuters covering foreign policy issues from Washington, D.C. Includes files from AGCanada.com Network staff.

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