U.S. senator takes aim at food aid rules

by Matt Noltemeyer
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Wheat groups clash with Senator Bob Corker over in-kind vs. monetary assistance as U.S. looks to feed starving millions across the globe.
WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — U.S. Senator Bob Corker’s mission to eliminate two requirements he sees as detrimental to U.S. efforts to feed the world’s hungry has drawn the ire of wheat grower associations.

Corker, senator from Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, aims to reform regulations that stipulate use of U.S. commodities and U.S.-flagged vessels for delivery of food aid to countries in need. His remarks were made Oct. 19 at the American Enterprise Institute and later that morning during a hearing on the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Food for Peace program.

The aid program’s effect on the agriculture community is miniscule, “but the interests on the Hill force us to use U.S. commodities,” Corker said, and that rule is ultimately a setback to the goal of feeding the world’s hungry.

“We need to use some (U.S. commodities), and there are cases where it becomes very beneficial, but the question becomes how do you get U.S. ag commodities to a place like Syria, for instance?” Corker asked.

In 2016, 815 million people, or 11% of the global population, were chronically undernourished. That’s up from 777 million in 2015, but still down from about 900 million in 2000, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Our nation, with the same amount of dollars, could serve so many more people,” Corker said. “It’s just common sense.”

The senator’s push for reform was seen by some wheat producers as urging total exclusion of U.S. commodities.

“Senator Corker’s call to eliminate in-kind food aid donations in favor of all cash gifts is an extreme position,” said Gordon Stoner, a wheat farmer from Outlook, Montana, U.S. “In-kind food aid and monetization are still important tools for delivering greater food availability and easing local market price volatility.”

Cargo preference is the other component inhibiting the food aid program from maximizing food that reaches starving populations, Corker said. The rule requires food aid and other U.S. commodities to be delivered via U.S.-flagged vessels crewed by U.S. merchant mariners. The argument for the requirement is to ensure the U.S. merchant marine has the ships and manpower required to deliver military equipment if needed.

The shipping industry has said 40 ships and 2,000 mariners needed for military sealift are at stake in the food aid debate. Corker said those numbers are exaggerated.

“A simple review of USAID data shows that, in 2016, only five U.S.-flagged ships — out of a fleet of 175 — arguably rely on food aid shipments to stay afloat,” Corker said. “The vast majority of food aid is moved on ships incapable of moving military cargoes, and the ones that can already receive a $5 million a year subsidy.”

 Corker, who isn’t seeking re-election in 2018, acknowledged the needs of national security trumps humanitarian efforts, but said it’s not applicable in this case.

“According to Navy officials briefing our committee earlier this year, we maintain a Strategic Sealift Officer Reserve program that can meet virtually all our mariner sealift mobilization requirements,” Corker said.

Of particular offense to some wheat producers was Corker’s anecdotal evidence, based on a dialogue with the Tennessee Farm Bureau, that American farmers weren’t concerned about sourcing of food aid.

“(Farmers) were aghast at the fact that Congress had these ridiculous requirements in place and that people are starving because of these ridiculous requirements when their goal is to feed America and to feed the world,” Corker said during the hearing.

Dighton, Kansas, U.S., farmer Ron Suppes, a longtime Kansas Wheat Commissioner who serves on the U.S. Wheat Associates board of directors, balked at that characterization.

“I don’t know what farmers Senator Corker is talking to, because I can assure you, wheat farmers care a lot about in-kind food aid,” Suppes said. “In 2016, U.S. government donations of milling wheat, which helped feed food-insecure populations or were monetized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to fund local food security projects, reached a level that would be equal to a top ten export market.”

In monetization, NGOs are given U.S. commodities, which they then ship and sell in a country of interest, and use the proceeds to support longer-term development programs in those countries. Some monetization practices as currently implemented have been criticized during an era in which USAID has a renewed focus on helping countries become self-sufficient in the longer term.

Corker advocated for flexibility in limited cases where monetization is practical, but said many times the United States undermines the efforts of foreign farmers attempting to learn new methods to help feed their own population.

“We’re trying to develop these countries’ ability to serve their own citizens,” Corker said. “To provide over the longer term, teach them, helping them learn to do ag in a better way. And then we ship in our own commodities, and undermine their prices. And we do that because of an ag title to protect U.S. farmers where they don’t want to be protected.”

A key goal of U.S. food aid programs has been stabilization of nations to eradicate food insecurity, which can lead to mass migration, instability, unrest and extremism.

To the wheat producers, the in-kind donations are key to stabilization.

“U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers believe time-honored U.S. food aid programs have been engines of peace, food security and local capacity building in countless countries around the world,” Stoner said. “In-kind food donation and monetization should remain a vital part of America’s tradition of global generosity.”

That generosity is constrained by U.S. debt, Corker said.  

“We are obviously the largest provider of aid in the world,” Corker said. “We are a very generous nation. Unless we generate the disciplines within our own country that we need … our inability to control our finances, to deal with fiscal issues in an appropriate way, it will be our downfall. It will cause us to be less generous around the world, because we won’t have the resources to do so.” 
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