May 9, 2013

Commentary - Failing to Address the Complexity of US International Food Aid Policy May Result in Perpetuating the Problem of World Hunger

By Hannah Laufer-Rottman

Hannah Laufer-Rottman is Executive Director of Palms for Life Fund, a not for profit that promotes a global alliance to end poverty and hunger. 

An encouraging new development from the Obama Administration intends to change the way the US distributes its international food aid. But will it succeed? While the goal of reducing hunger in the world continues to be a key strategic goal of this country, the effectiveness of the policy will hinge on the application of a global, regional and country-by-country understanding of how complexities can work for or against the issue.

The key elements of the policy will have to address these complexities: 1.) the hijacking of the right to food for all under an elaborate system of charity, 2.) the “weapon” element of food between nations, 3.) the necessity to distinguish between emergency and non-emergency food aid, 4.) the need to have a global, regional, and country-by-country comprehensive approach for determining  how to allocate US-grown food, local food or some combination of the two, 5.) the role of land investment in Africa as an impediment to local farming solutions, and 6.) the need to address the environmental and sustainable elements of food production.

Let’s take a look at the larger picture first and then go into more detail on the practical applications of food aid.

Several questions arise when we look at the underlying context of the discussion on international food aid such as: What is the role of the US as a key player in the issue of world hunger? For example, elements of the current understanding of food aid as a charity postpone ad vitam eternam the collective responsibility to address the root causes of hunger. These elements include the failure of US policy to engage governments in responsible behaviors toward their citizens about food security, the failure to modify US internal food policies in line with prices in international markets, the overall short term perspective about the issue of food security and the lack of aggressive and massive investment in agricultural development worldwide.  

Second, the policy needs to address the elimination of the “weapon” element of food between nations, knowing that food – and water – are the most precious and scarce resources on earth. All of us have witnessed the terrible wars, sufferings and insecurities that arise from the lack of these essential life resources and from the threat of losing access to them. The policy can be a powerful tool for rewarding good behavior by nations and governments that protect their own citizens from hunger; but we cannot ignore the necessity for the US itself to eliminate its own destructive policies of pitting the interests of US-based large agricultural concerns against the needs of food insecure nations and the recipients of food aid. This includes the failure to address the effect of food aid on the price of locally grown agricultural products.

As we move down to the more practical elements of the discussion, we need to introduce the distinction between emergency versus non-emergency food aid. What is the most efficient way to prevent people from starving at a given moment?

US international food policy has shown throughout the years its ability to respond effectively to world humanitarian crises. As we know, this approach needs to be not just “cost-efficient” but simply “efficient” in the saving of lives.  In the developing world, and in countries that are by default already food insecure and rely on food imports to feed their people in case of emergency, there is no local food stock that can save those lives. In these cases, international food aid is the only answer.

In a situation where there is food in a country neighboring the one where an emergency occurs, food aid policy is most efficient when it provides cash--foreign emergency cash aid. This allows food to be bought and shipped more efficiently, i.e. faster and also has the benefit of probably being cheaper. But it is also very possible that neighboring countries are equally poor and food insecure. In such a case, who else but rich nations, with established sophisticated infrastructure for food reserves, can step in and provide this aid? The truth is, there are no more than a dozen such rich nations with food reserves in the world.

Now let’s take a look at the idea of buying crops from farmers in poor countries instead of shipping food from the US. What about the situation where a developing country today produces enough staple foods that can be used to feed their own poor, but doesn’t take responsibility for distributing the food from a surplus area to a food insecure area? In one country, the US should not buy food from within the country and distribute it to the poor, because the US policy should require the country itself to redistribute the food. In another country, the lack of local infrastructure—markets, warehouses, and especially roads for trucking—could indicate that the US should play a role in the shipping and distribution of food. These examples show how the complexity of situations on the ground should determine US food aid policy in the most effective way.

Furthermore, many developing countries do not have an agricultural policy in place that guarantees farmers stable markets and prices, thereby discouraging them to invest in food production. If the US is going to help poor countries by buying food from local farmers, US policy must insure stable and continuing US funding. When US funding fluctuates, local farmers do not trust that there will be a secure and stable market for their products, making it impossible for them to make decisions about how to invest and operate. 

There is another important element to consider in the discussion of local agriculture, which is land investment in Africa. As a matter of fact many governments enter into deals with foreign and domestic agribusinesses to produce export crops that satisfy the needs of richer countries and large multinationals. These deals operate on farmland often occupied by small farmers engaged in subsistence agriculture who have no legal property rights over their land. These deals often uproot the farmers who have worked that land for generations, and produce a diaspora of small farmers who have lost their livelihoods and have had to relocate to other less productive lands. And, there is no evidence that the proceeds from these deals are re-invested in building local food security for the poor. This is the case in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Mozambique, just to name a few. US food aid policy should actively discourage this practice on both ethical and practical grounds. If the US doesn’t immediately address this issue, American food policy will soon be seen by the people of poor countries as working against them.

These few elements should help us understand the scope and complexities involved with the idea of buying crops from local farmers. US policy cannot operate in the absence of a comprehensive agricultural development policy and program at global, regional and national levels.

But that isn’t the end of the story. There are other overarching issues such as: What is the global cost of food production from a collective responsibility point of view based on the global resources of water and land, environmental sustainability and cost efficiency? Is it a good idea to actively encourage developing countries to engage in local production of, let us say, wheat [1] versus importing that commodity from a country where land and water abound, and where efficient agriculture allows for low-cost and sustainable production? What about the thorny issue of agricultural subsidies that disturb equitable pricing in the global marketplace? What is each country’s best interest in terms of agricultural investment and how is such investment responsibly related to the issue of hunger? Perhaps some countries are better off importing/receiving wheat from the US – or other wheat producing countries – in exchange for investing locally in high value commercial crops in a more sustainable way. Such crops would promote the local economy, create jobs, and improve livelihoods and income of farmers and workers so that people can ultimately consume all the food they need without having to rely on food aid.

All the above opens another level of discussion that policy makers and the Obama Administration cannot ignore if we intend to further the debate into a workable proposal. Such discussion takes into account the realities of international trade, fair trade among nations, and regulation of global food markets and food prices. This complex discussion must take place by all nations in the key forums of the World Trade Organization, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the US Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (which advises President Obama), and others. This discussion will have to address the crucial question of whether the US is ready to partner with developing countries on equal trading terms, with the goal of working toward peace, food security and basic human rights.



[1] The world diet is changing: more and more people prefer to eat bread over other traditional foods that have become more expensive and less attractive –for instance the case of quinoa, in itself a whole discussion; also wheat is a key ingredient in numerous industrial foods.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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