Shipping issues unresolved in food-aid debate

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 2014 -- The shipping industry is losing a bid to increase the amount of U.S. food aid that must be transported by American carriers, a move that would likely boost the cost of moving the commodities.

A Coast Guard authorization bill that passed the House this spring would have required 75 percent of the aid to be carried on U.S.-flagged ships, up from the 50-percent requirement in current law, but a compromise measure that passed the House 413-3 this week retains the 50-percent “cargo preference” requirement.

The Senate is expected to approve the bill, although concerns have been raised by the Obama administration and in Congress about another provision in the measure that some lawmakers fear could be used as a way to exceed the 50-percent requirement.

The 75-percent mandate that was dropped from the legislation would have “dramatically increased the cost of shipping food aid by $75 million dollars a year and prevented life-saving aid from reaching approximately 4 million people every year,” said Eric Munoz, a policy adviser for Oxfam America, an aid and advocacy group.

Lets Talk Food

Meanwhile, another key issue surrounding the U.S. Food for Peace program remains unsettled as lawmakers wind down their lame duck session - whether the Obama administration will be allowed to use some food aid dollars to buy commodities overseas rather than purchasing it all from American sources.

The 2014 Farm Bill authorized spending up to $80 million a year to buy food aid in countries closer to where it is to be distributed, rather than in the United States, but there is strong resistance among congressional appropriators to overseas purchases. Shippers, farm groups and some aid organizations argue that shifting some food aid purchases overseas would rob Food for Peace of critical political support and hurt the shipping industry.

The Senate Appropriations Committee in May narrowly voted to provide $35 million for overseas purchases, known as “local and regional procurement,” in the fiscal 2015 spending bill that funds the Department of Agriculture. In June the full House voted 223-198 to put $10 million for local and regional procurement in its version of the legislation.

Sen. Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican who supports some overseas purchasing, said Thursday that he doubted that there would be any money for such buys in the final government-wide, omnibus spending bill that appropriators are negotiating.

“Shippers don't like it, producers don't like it, the ag groups don't' like it, so there's a lot of resistance,” said Johanns, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

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World Food Program USA, a Washington-based group that advocates for funding the United Nations World Food Program, is pushing appropriators to include $10 million in the omnibus bill for local and regional procurement.

While it may prevail this year, the shipping industry expects to face annual fights over the issue, said James Caponiti, president of the American Maritime Congress. Food for Peace is critical to his shrinking industry, he said. “We need every bit of support we can get from the federal infrastructure.”

A final Senate vote on the Coast Guard bill could be held up because of concerns that the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., have about a section of the bill seen as limiting the U.S. Agency for International Development's input with the Transportation Department in carrying out the 50-percent U.S. shipping requirement..

Coons said the provision could upset a “longstanding balance where USAID and others involved in food relief had a consultative role with DOT” in implementing the 50-percent requirement. In an April letter to Congress, the administration said the provision “needlessly risks programmatic inefficiencies and on-the-ground operational problems.”

It doesn't appear that Congress is going to pass other legislation that is intended to provide better assurance of future funding for the Obama administration's Feed the Future initiative. Bills were introduced in both the House and Senate this fall to provide congressional authorization for the program.

The administration has been spending more than $1 billion a year on targeted agricultural development and anti-hunger programs in 19 countries. The White House never sought congressional authority for the initiative, raising concerns that it could be slashed or eliminated under a future administration or Congress.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee last month approved a bill that would authorize Feed the Future for 2015, but that may be as far as the legislation gets.

Johanns, who is a cosponsor of the Senate bill, said he didn't think the bills would move in the lame duck. Johanns, who is retiring from Congress, said he was optimistic that there was sufficient support among Republicans to maintain funding for Feed the Future even if it is never written into law.

“You've got people on our side and Democrats who are willing to work together to get this done and keep the funding there,” Johanns said.

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