Disentangling U.S. Agriculture and Food Aid: The Failure of Myopic Policy Thinking

The United States’ food aid policies need to be rethought.

By Ashley McEvoy
March 18, 2013

Agribusiness has influenced U.S. foreign assistance policy dating back to President Kennedy’s Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. This powerful farm lobby, coupled with antiquated U.S. foreign assistance policies, particularly those regarding food aid, has resulted in inefficient food delivery and wasteful spending. The shortsighted and outdated nature of food aid policies creates dependence on American agricultural commodities abroad while intensifying economic problems at home.

U.S. foreign assistance policies are harming American political, economic, and security interests. Agribusiness lobbyists have successfully integrated their special interests into legislation, substantially impacting U.S. foreign assistance policy. For example, Food for Peace, an office within the United States Agency for International Development, is the largest provider of food aid worldwide. The associated Food for Peace Act mandates that agricultural commodities for food aid be purchased in the United States. Similarly, the Cargo Preference Act, an addendum to the Food Security Act, requires 75 percent of U.S. food aid to be delivered via American ships.

Exporting U.S. agricultural goods as aid is exceptionally bad policy. The economic and environmental costs associated with shipping food long distances are detrimental in terms of the U.S. budget deficit and the country’s finite natural resources. Moreover, it undermines the purpose of providing aid to other countries. Food aid does have legitimate purposes, such as helping populations recover from natural disaster, famine, drought, and post-conflict situations. However, shipped-in food aid can do more harm than good for provider and recipient. By creating dependence on imported agricultural commodities, food aid can undercut a country’s ability to provide for itself and invest in agriculture.

Food aid essentially acts as a band-aid, ignoring the larger issue of creating sustainable food security. From the provider standpoint, policies that require food to be purchased domestically require more capital than if the United States were to purchase and ship food aid on a regional level. Buying food regionally would save money due to the cheaper cost of acquiring and transmitting food; the Cargo Preference Act alone costs taxpayers $200 million dollars a year, while subsidies to large agribusinesses cost close to $5 billion per year. This is particularly detrimental during a time when the United States should be seeking budget savings. It is time to make foreign assistance more efficient and to stop rewarding special interests.

Additionally, U.S. foreign assistance policies are out of date. With each new administration comes more addendums to the Foreign Assistance Act that duplicate existing policies while failing to dispose of obsolete ones. The bureaucratic nature of U.S. government agencies cripples the United States’ ability to efficiently supply foreign aid.

Food aid to meet short-term demand will always play a role in U.S. foreign assistance. At the same time, the United States’ foreign assistance policies should focus on creating resilience, not reliance. Buying food aid regionally will create positive public opinion of the United States, thereby enhancing national security. There is a paradox between foreign aid and security; they have different objectives, yet they are not mutually exclusive. Along those lines, as a tool of foreign policy, American foreign assistance does not require altruistic motives, although the implications for the United States in building support abroad should not be overlooked. Along with defense and diplomacy, foreign aid is another tool to garner support for the United States and improve security.

The goal of foreign assistance is linked to achieving political, economic, and security interests. The United States should only provide food aid in instances where there are humanitarian disasters, understanding that it must be limited to a short-term solution. Ending cargo preference for U.S. food aid and cutting agricultural subsidies would not only save money domestically, but would improve livelihoods and public opinion abroad. More support should be given to initiatives like President Obama’s Feed the Future and Oxfam’s Grow Campaign, which understand that country ownership and local capacity development are necessary underpinnings to creating sustainable food security.

Myopic thinking ultimately erodes the purpose of aid, which is to help people improve their lives through sustainable initiatives while building resilience. Aid does not create development; people create development.

Ashley McEvoy is a first-year graduate student in the International Development Studies Program at the Elliott School. With a focus on Natural Resources and the Environment, Ashley is interested in environmental policy and advocacy for environmental injustice issues globally. Ashley is also Event Chair of the Organization for International Development.

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Very well researched. You should look into getting your piece in front of the people on the Hill that make the decisions on this issue - that is, Foreign Affairs and Agriculture committees.

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