The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 2, 2013

Time for a change?

By Alan Guebert, Farm and Food File
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — 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 the White House may propose changes to the 60-year-old Food for Peace program run by U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

According to published reports, Food for Peace might be changed to give needy nations fewer American commodities and more American dollars so local food could be bought on timely basis to meet local needs. This could lead to stronger economies and better democracies, two goals of the 1954 program.

Nearly every look into the program’s overall efficiency and effectiveness has made this recommendation 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…”

In 2012, three Cornell University researchers noted 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.

They noted “local procurement” of all food aid “may not be cost-effective” and U.S. commodities still would be needed.

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 small and expensive, and the Cold War has been over for years?

You, me and almost everyone would modernize it because it’s the smart thing to do. We’d also do it because it is the humanitarian thing to do. And we’d do it because we’re Americans; we do the right thing.

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 less helpful is this: Hey, my 60-year-old government program is fine; yours, however, made the mess we’re in.