Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Politics of Food

A half million hungry people are at risk of starvation in Zambia due to a severe drought and the ravages of AIDS. Yet the grain elevators in Zambia are full of corn that could alleviate the crisis. What's the holdup? American agribusiness and shipping interests. They are opposed to using US aid money to buy the Zambian corn because it threatens the usual aid pipeline of buying American corn and shipping it on American vessels. To its credit the Bush Administration is trying to get the law changed to allow a portion of the US money to be used to buy food outside the US. From the New York Times:

For a third year, the Bush administration, which has pushed to make foreign aid more efficient, is trying to change the law to allow the United States to use up to a quarter of the budget of its main food aid program to buy food in developing countries during emergencies. The proposal has run into stiff opposition from a potent alliance of agribusiness, shipping and charitable groups with deep financial stakes in the current food aid system.

Oxfam, the international aid group, and other proponents of the Bush proposal say it would enable the United States to feed more people more quickly, while helping to fight poverty by buying the crops of peasants in poor countries.

The United States Agency for International Development estimated that if Congress adopted the Bush proposal, the United States could annually feed at least a million more people for six months and save 50,000 more lives.

But Congress quickly killed the plan in each of the past two years, cautioning that untying food aid from domestic interest groups would weaken the commitment that has made the United States by far the largest food aid donor in a world where 850 million go hungry.

Why doesn't Zambia just release the corn to alleviate the crisis. Because the stored corn represents the financial hopes of small farms and cooperatives around the country whose livelihood depends on selling the corn. Giving it away would only compound the crisis:

But during bumper harvests, the World Food Program has become a major buyer of Zambian-grown corn. One of its biggest suppliers is Zambia’s Food Reserve Agency, which buys from farmers’ cooperatives and unions as a way of helping small-scale farmers gain access to markets. Since 2001, it has bought more than $1 billion worth of food in some of the poorest countries on earth.

For farmers like Catherine Hangama, 36, that money makes all the difference. She works a small plot with her husband in the village of Nakandyoli in the Mumbwa district. For the first time last year, they sold a small surplus of corn — six 50-kilogram bags — for $53 to the Zambian government’s Food Reserve Agency, one of the World Food Program’s biggest suppliers here.

That money bought soap and paid for uniforms and fees to send three children to school. This year, she and her husband have planted more and hope to sell 15 bags after this year’s harvest.

It is certainly good policy and good politics to be supporting American farmers and shippers when we are feeding the world's hungry. I see nothing wrong with that. But there is a larger good here. The policy needs to be flexible.

Aside: I can't remember the last time I saw the word "pauper" used to describe poor or destitute people, but there is was at the beginning of the article: "Within weeks, those rations, provided by the United Nations World Food Program, are at risk of running out for them and 500,000 other paupers, including thousands of people wasted by AIDS who are being treated with American-financed drugs that make them hungrier as they grow healthy." I wonder if the writer is British.

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