Royce/Engel Food Aid Reform Amendment to Farm Bill: The Perfect Combo, Saving More Lives with Fewer Dollars

This week Republican Ed Royce and Democrat Elliott Engel are offering an amendment to the farm bill that will be a positive step in U.S. foreign agricultural aid.

The U.S. food aid program, founded in the 1950s, combined the best of American productivity and values—using surplus agriculture produce to save millions from hunger and starvation.  The history of food aid has made us proud and earned us gratitude around the world.  The problem today is the dynamics have changed—the U.S. no longer has surplus commodities, thanks in large part to the explosion of global markets for U.S. agricultural products; the diminishing value of U.S. food aid resources due to rising prices for commodities and shipping; and that the introduction of food commodities sometimes deprive local farmers of their market.

The synthesis from a decade of reports and studies, from the Government Accountability Office, think tanks and former policy officials, is that the current system for providing food aid is hamstrung by inefficiencies and is in great need of more flexibility.  Sometimes the appropriate means of relieving a food crisis situation is to ship U.S. agriculture commodities, and that option needs to always be available.  But other times shipping U.S. commodities causes delays and raises costs, meaning the assistance is costly and not timely, thereby reducing the number of hungry people fed.  In certain circumstances (for example Syria today), it is actually impossible to deliver U.S. commodities and the only option is to purchase on local or regional markets.  Sometimes it is effective to give NGOs U.S. commodities to monetize (sell locally and use the cash to run development projects), but more often it is a costly, time-consuming way to support programs that would be more efficiently run by simply providing the cash that was used to purchase the commodities, then shipped long distances, and then sold on local markets.  And, to boot, 75 percent of the food commodities must, by law, be shipped on U.S. flag vessels, a requirement that benefits a few U.S. flag vessels at above market prices.

So, if we were starting with a fresh slate, the rational design of a food aid program that would reach the most number of people at the least cost would include the flexibility to purchase agricultural commodities in either U.S. or local markets, the flexibility to provide NGOs with commodities or cash, and the flexibility to contract for the least expensive means of transporting the commodities.

The amendment to be offered this week to the farm bill by Republican Ed Royce and Democrat Elliott Engel, reflecting reforms first offered by the Bush administration and now by the Obama administration, is a constructive step in the right direction.  It would permit partial flexibility.  A minimum level of monetization would no longer be mandatory, but the option would remain.  The required minimum level of U.S. purchased and shipped commodities would fall to 55 percent of the food program.  Not full flexibility, but it is estimated that even this modest change would extend the value of food aid to an additional 4 million people.

This amendment would essentially extend the successful pilot program of purchasing on local and regional markets carried out under the Bush administration.  Hopefully it will provide further evidence and a better comfort level with using flexibility and appropriate market mechanisms to meet emergency food needs.

This is not a partisan issue. It has now been proposed by both a Republican and Democratic administration, advocated for in a recent column by former Bush and Clinton White House chiefs of staff, and promoted this week by a bipartisan amendment to the farm bill. 

How can Democrats and Republicans not be united on a proposal that saves lives and at the same time saves dollars?