WASHINGTON, April 22, 2014 – Less than three months after the 2014 Farm Bill passed with provisions on the $1 billion-plus program for food aid overseas, the international development group Oxfam America says another piece of legislation wending through the Senate could have disastrous implications for the federal government’s global anti-hunger strategy.
The measure doesn’t take up much room. It just calls for adding the phrase 'treated as 75 percent' after 'Minimum Tonnage' in Section 318 of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014. But Oxfam says the wording shifts the percentage of food aid that must be shipped on U.S.-flag vessels from 50 percent – the current level – to 75 percent. “The shift could prevent life-saving aid from reaching approximately 2 million people and cost $75 million in additional taxpayer dollars,” the group said in a release.
Shipping on U.S.-flag vessels, Gawain Kripke, Oxfam America’s director of policy, told Agri-Pulse, is much more expensive than allowing the free market to determine the cheapest and most viable shipping option.
A 2011 Governmental Accountability Office report concurs; its authors determined that the legal requirement to ship U.S. commodities sent abroad as food aid on U.S.-flag vessels “increases costs.”
More expensive shipping means less money to spend on commodities, Kripke said – in other words, less food.
The legislation could have “real consequences for poor people,” said Kripke. “ [The changes] literally mean life and death.”
The Obama administration has come out against the shift. In a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., the Department of Homeland Security says the provision would have “grave effects on United States humanitarian assistance programs.” The committee is currently reading the bill.
Others argue that the change could mean more long-term support for the foreign food aid program, which has suffered from recent tight-fisted fiscal policy. The bill has received behind-the-scenes backing from shipping interests and port state lawmakers, who see the overseas shipping of food aid as an important source of income for an increasingly underutilized U.S. Merchant Marine. And if the shipping lobby is firmly behind food aid, that could mean more support in budget battles to come.
Kripke says the timeline for the Coast Guard bill is currently unclear, though Oxfam America expects it will come up “in the next couple of months.”
The food aid fight is far from new. The 2014 Farm Bill made minor changes to the federal program, despite some objection by both shipping and agriculture groups. The updated Food for Peace program, operated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), now sets aside $80 million for what is officially called “local and regional procurement.”
That money will now be used to buy agricultural commodities abroad instead of in the U.S., facilitating faster emergency relief but costing shippers and agricultural worker and processors a modest but steady source of income.
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