In the run-up to the Great Budget Sequester of 2013, a deeply indebted America once again learned what every American knows from birth: your government program got us into this mess, not mine.
As evidence, look at the red-hot reaction by ag forces to the rumor – not fact, but rumor – that the White House may propose changes to the 60-year-old Food for Peace program run by the USDA and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
According to published reports, Food for Peace, the old P.L. 480 program, might be changed to give needy nations fewer American commodities and more American dollars so local food could be bought on a timelier basis to meet local needs.
This could lead to stronger economies and better democracies, two key goals of the 1954 program.
Nearly every look into the program’s overall efficiency and effectiveness has made this recommendation – send more cash and fewer commodities – for years.
For example, a September 2009 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’ non-partisan watchdog, reported that “despite growing demand for food aid, rising business and transportation costs contributed to a 52 percent decline in average tonnage delivered from 2001 to 2006.”
So what did we do to fix that widening gap?
We did what we usually do; we threw more money – borrowed money – at it.
It didn’t work. In fact, “From 2006 to 2008,” reported the GAO, “U.S. food aid funding increased by nearly 53 percent, while tonnage delivered fell by 5 percent over that time period.”
Most of that increasing inefficiency was tied to the requirement that the aid had to be “U.S.-grown agricultural commodities” and that at least 75 percent of the “transport (of) those commodities (must be) on U.S.-flag vessels …”
Those requirements, the GAO added in classic understatement, “… may constrain U.S. agencies’ use of local and regional procurement.”
In 2012, three Cornell University researchers noted that local and regional food aid procurement through “cash or vouchers,” if permitted, would save 14 weeks in delivery time, or “a 62 percent gain in timeliness,” and “over 50 percent, on average” on food cost.
The trio also noted that “local procurement” of all food aid “may not be cost-effective” and that U.S. commodities would still be required.
Given that background, what would you do to make the aging Food the Peace Program more timely, efficient and effective?
Would you maintain it as though it still is 1954 when American farmers were drowning in price-flattening government stocks, the nation’s merchant fleet was vast and competitively priced, and (essentially) free food was the one game-changing weapon the U.S. had over the U.S.S.R. in the escalating Cold War?
Or would you now, in 2013, remodel the program because there is not one spoonful of anything in the government pantry, commodity prices are near record highs, the U.S. merchant fleet is very small and very expensive, and the Cold War has been over for a generation? You, me and almost everyone would modernize it because it’s the smart thing to do. A more cash-centered program buys two-times as much food, builds better local markets, better local economies and better allies.
We’d also do it because it is the humanitarian thing to do; it would serve more hungry people better.
And we’d do it because we’re Americans; we do the right thing, even if it costs money we don’t have.
But I’d bet you $2 billion, America’s foreign food aid budget this year, that none of these wise, smart things will happen because farm groups already are protesting any rumored rule changes – not cutbacks, mind you; rumored changes – to Food for Peace.
Their argument to keep Food for Peace less efficient, less effective and far less helpful goes something like this: Hey, my 60-year-old government program is fine; yours, however, made the mess we’re in.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments for Alan Guebert may write to him in care of this publication.