The Obama administration wants to reform its food-aid program so more can be bought closer to where impoverished people need it.
The American Farm Bureau has persuaded Republicans in the House of Representatives that the U.S. should continue to ship food from the United States.
The result is yet another fight over the Farm Bill that has yet to pass in Washington more than a year after the previous five-year Farm Bill expired.
That old bill has been extended for a year, delaying a long list of reforms.
If and when the World Trade Organization is able to enforce voluntary guidelines on food aid, the U.S. would be forced to implement the change Obama is proposing.
However, for now he’s reduced to arguing the logic of donating cash instead of U.S. food. Canada has been donating cash for years.
Obama says giving cash would get food to needy people a lot faster and would save 25 to 50 per cent – enough to feed an additional 800,000 people.
The Republicans managed to narrowly reject the proposal that would account for 45 per cent of the $1.4 billion a year the U.S. donates to food aid.
The Senate, which has a majority of Democratic party members, approved a scaled-down version that would allow the federal government to spend up to 20 per cent of the $1.4 billion buying food close to where it’s needed.
The House and Senate are due to meet to try to develop a compromise Farm Bill that will move to a vote they hope cn be counted in late January.
Chandler Goule, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union, supported a shift to more cash-based foreign aid in the Farm Journal debate. He said that local cash purchases help support farm economies in developing countries, which is key to addressing world hunger.
"You can’t make one program to fit every situation," he said, noting that it’s often more appropriate to ship food from the United States, especially when it’s not available locally. But large U.S. shipments can also set back foreign farm economies.
Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said her organization "feels really strongly about continuing to ship the products from here. If the assistance is from the [U.S.], it ought to say that. We are not for moving toward a cash system."
Goule said he was given assurances by USAID officials that even if purchases were made in a foreign country, they would still be delivered in a bag with a USA logo. "We would still get the message out there that we are helping these countries," he said.
Tjada D’Oyen McKennna, deputy coordinator for development for the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initative, strongly supported the measure in her address at the conference.
"We believe that this complements a lot of what we do at Feed the Future to build local and regional markets," she said. Having the flexibility to make cash purchases would help the agency establish local sales and delivery infrastructure. The cash purchases could also be used as leverage to ensure that local farmers meet quality and production standards. "We are very eager to see this go forward," she said.
Some days I despair of Republicans ever gaining some degree of wisdom.