Last Tuesday, my Cornell colleague, coauthor, and former advisor Chris Barrett was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart discussing food aid. The video segment in which he appeared managed to make a very serious point — the effectiveness of the Food for Peace program is greatly undermined by the shipping lobby — while remaining highly satirical, and you can watch it here:
According to an interview Chris gave to the Cornell Daily Sun, the taping of his part of the segment took about four hours.
For those of you who are not familiar with his work, Chris has worked on just about every aspect of food security, and I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint what he is most famous for. The above video, however, is about his work on food aid, the culmination of which has been his 2005 book with Dan Maxwell, Food Aid After Fifty Years.
How many of us read a story of disaster striking people half a world away and respond by getting out our checkbooks? Tens of millions of us in any given year, and Americans are especially generous. Relief agencies received more than $1.2 billion in the wake of the disastrous 2010 earthquake in Haiti and $3.9 billion following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But is anyone foolish enough to go to the local grocery store, buy food and ship it to communities devastated by disaster? Of course not. That would cost much more, take too long to reach people in need, risk spoilage in transit, and likely not provide what is most needed.
Yet with only minor oversimplification, this is precisely what our government’s food aid programs have done since 1954. Our main international food aid programs are authorized through the Farm Bill and must purchase food in, and ship it from, the United States. This system was originally designed to dispose of surpluses the government acquired under farm price support programs that ended decades ago. These antiquated rules continue today thanks to political inertia in Washington.
As a result, only 40 cents of each taxpayer dollar spent on international food aid actually buys the commodities hungry people eat; the rest goes to shipping and administrative costs. And the median time to deliver emergency food aid is nearly five months. We can do better.
A few weeks ago in my food policy seminar, we discussed food aid. Paarlberg (2011), whose discussion of food aid informs much of the first half of this post, defines food aid as the international shipment of food through noncommercial channels as a gift.
Though almost 60 percent of food aid is delivered by the United Nations’ World Food Programme, the US remains a major provider of food aid. The delivery of food aid by the US is not without its fair share of problems. Among the most decried features of the US food aid program are that
US food aid has to be purchased in the United States, and
US food aid has to be shipped on US-flagged vessels.
As a consequence of those two rules, 65% of US spending on food aid is spent on administrative and transportation costs. Continue reading →