The number of people facing starvation is on the rise around the world because of the global COVID-19 crisis, and humanitarian organizations and farm groups are pushing for the Trump administration to boost donations of rice, wheat and other commodities.

The United Nations' World Food Programme is predicting that the COVID-19 pandemic will push 130 million people “to the brink of starvation,” in the words of WFP Executive Director David Beasley in a speech last week before the United Nations Security Council.

That would nearly double the 135 million people already suffering from extreme hunger.

“It is critical we come together as one united global community to defeat the disease and protect the most vulnerable nations and communities from its potentially devastating effects,” Beasley said.

The U.S. is already a major donor of international humanitarian aid, providing more than $2 billion worth of food, both in the form of cash or local food purchases and actual U.S.-grown commodities. The U.S. will supply $1.7 billion through the USDA/USAID Food for Peace program in fiscal 2020.

Tuesday was the final day for bids to provide transportation for 40,000 metric tons of U.S. soft white winter wheat to war-torn Yemen, which the U.S. is donating under Food for Peace. It will be just one of many donations of food assistance this year, but shipments like that were calculated before COVID-19, and farm groups including the USA Rice Federation say more will be needed.

“The world was in a tough spot before … and now we have a natural cause that’s exacerbating the situation in a way that’s so fast,” says Rebecca Bratter, a food security consultant for USA Rice. “We can’t ignore that. We’re all connected here. What happens in the far corners of the world affects every single one of us. The rice industry will always be ready to step up and provide food for food aid.”

Congress last month approved a $2 trillion stimulus package to counteract the pandemic, but none of that money is going to boost overseas donations. The bill included $23.5 billion for the U.S. ag sector. USDA is using a portion of that to provide direct assistance to farmers and ranchers as well as buy up $3 billion worth of much-needed commodities for food banks and other feeding programs. An additional $14 billion that the bill authorized for USDA will become available for the department to spend in July. 

Officials at USDA and the U.S. Agency for International Development stood ready to accelerate overseas donations when Congress approved the funds, but domestic needs took precedent, according to government officials. Food banks and grocery stores are struggling to keep shelves stocked while farmers are plowing under vegetable fields because the food service industry remains shuttered.

“We are supporting every effort we can to help feed a troubled and hungry world, whether that’s on the domestic front, where we know we have a lot of our fellow citizens who are in need of food assistance, as well as being mindful of the U.S. and its continued role in feeding those in need around the world,” American Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President Dale Moore told Agri-Pulse.

Dale Moore

Dale Moore, AFBF

Congress is expected to approve more funding, and there is a growing call that at least some of those funds go toward addressing the international crisis. The Senate will be back in session next week, but the House canceled plans to come back at the same time because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in Washington, D.C. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said "we hope to come back very soon" to consider coronavirus aid legislation. 

There is no timetable yet for the next pandemic relief bill. But four senators, two Republicans and two Democrats, are calling attention to the need for U.S. food assistance. 

“We can help protect against this, in part, by providing high-quality, U.S. grown commodities like wheat, sorghum, soybeans, corn or rice to people suffering from hunger and living in places where markets aren’t properly functioning or able to meet demand,” the senators said in a recent letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. “With depressed U.S. commodity prices, these humanitarian exports help American farmers, while also feeding a hungry world.”

The senators — Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Robert Casey, D-Pa., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and John Boozman, R-Ark. — did not go so far as to demand more funds for USDA and USAID programs, but stressed the agencies “should be taking every possible step to ensure they are able to perform this and other tasks expeditiously and with sufficient resources.”

But those who focus on the neediest of people around the world are also hoping the U.S. will speed up existing international aid and boost spending.

“WFP could absolutely put that food to good use,” WFP spokesman Steve Taravella told Agri-Pulse. “WFP welcomes additional donations of food from the US government as we always have — rice, wheat and other commodities. There are many places where US food commodities can help us avert starvation and where we’re already using them. We could especially put other such contributions to use in the Horn of Africa or Yemen, for instance.”

The U.S. has been the largest donor to the World Food Programme since it was created more than 50 years ago. Last year the U.S. contributed $3.3 billion out of the $8 billion in total donations to the WFP. So far this year, the U.S. has donated $1.06 billion.

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“We expect that figure to grow in the months ahead, given the US government’s long history of responding to crises around the world,” Taravella said.

Ryan Quinn, deputy director of Bread for the World, said he expects the international crisis to be long term as the rise in extreme hunger creates malnutrition on an epic scale.

“Acute hunger is doubling because of this crisis,” said Quinn. “We’re asking for at least an additional $12 billion for international relief as part of a future supplemental. ... We’re going to have a real problem on our hands if there isn’t a bigger infusion of cash.”

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