WASHINGTON, April 1, 2015 – The Senate could soon be debating a broad rewrite of the Food for Peace program along with the first congressional authorization for the Obama administration’s $1-billion-a-year Feed the Future initiative.

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, tells Agri-Pulse he blocked a popular Feed the Future bill from becoming law late last year because he wanted to consider the issue in tandem with a far more controversial overhaul of Food for Peace. It’s potentially a high-stakes strategy that could leave Feed the Future with more uncertainty.

Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., this year re-introduced the Food for Peace Reform Act (S. 525), which would send aid dollars to be used to purchase commodities overseas, not just from American producers. Their bill also would strike down a requirement, known as cargo preference, that at least half of Food for Peace commodities be shipped on U.S.-flag carriers. Corker plans a hearing on the legislation the week of April 13.

Corker faces stiff opposition to the changes he’s seeking in food aid policy. Senior appropriators, including the chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., have strenuously objected to shifting food aid purchases overseas. But the political dynamics could be shifting a bit, given the negotiations between the Obama administration and the shipping industry over the issue. Shipping interests have been among the strongest opponents of the changes Corker is proposing.

The administration is especially eager to get Congress to write the Feed the Future initiative into law, which would help ensure the agricultural development effort has some longevity. As it stands, the initiative is little more than a collection of aid programs that are dependent on annual appropriations. So far, congressional appropriators have been willing to fund the initiative year to year, but there are many conservatives in Congress who are deeply skeptical of foreign aid, and the next president could lose interest in the initiative. 

The House in December passed a one-year authorization of Feed the Future, which supporters hailed as a good starting point, but Corker wouldn’t allow the Senate to take it up and the legislation died with the end of the 113th Congress. He said in an interview that enacting Feed the Future would have taken away momentum for the food aid reforms he wants.

"What came over from the House last year we didn’t feel was as nearly as transformative as it needed to be and that’s why it didn’t go through the Senate. We didn’t think it moves near far enough. So we hope to move farther,” Corker said.

He went on: “I’m working with Sen. Coons and others, to develop something that’s a much bigger step in the direction of insuring with the resources we have (that) we feed far more people."

The risk for the administration is that if Corker does insist on linking the two issues – Feed the Future and food aid reform – and they don’t become law, President Obama would leave office with Feed the Future in limbo. Feed the Future is in many ways Obama’s PEPFAR, the acronym for George W. Bush’s hugely popular AIDS initiative. Congress wrote PEPFAR into law in 2003 and then re-authorized it in 2008 and again in 2013.

Feed the Future was the Obama administration’s response to the food-price spikes in 2007 and 2008 that triggered widespread criticism of biofuels policy. Feed the Future programs operate in 19 target countries, bolstered in many by partnerships with some multinational corporations, including DuPont and Cargill.

Corker’s comments show he’s “committed to moving on food aid or he sees that as the priority to get to a more ‘transformative’ effort to address food and nutrition security,” says Eric Munoz, a policy specialist with Oxfam America, which supports Feed the Future but also has called for reforms to Food for Peace. “I do think there are some concerns about trying to wrap both bills together. It will make getting authorization of (Feed the Future) more, not less, feasible, given that food aid reform remains a touchy topic.”

Food for Peace provides about $1.5 billion in annual emergency assistance, which under current law is restricted to U.S.-produced commodities. The administration has proposed to allow as much as 25 percent of the funding to be used to buy food in or near the countries where it is needed. Opponents of that idea and Corker’s proposed reforms argue that the commodity purchases should directly benefit U.S. farmers and processors and that allowing the funding to be spent overseas risks undermining political support for the program.

Meanwhile, an effort has started anew for the House again to authorize Feed the Future. New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, re-introduced a Feed the Future authorization bill (HR 1567) last week with Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn. The bill could be marked up later this month.

Groups backing the bill include the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Bread for the World, Food for the Hungry, InterAction, Lutheran World Relief, and World Vision. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., are expected to introduce a Senate version this month. But, of course, Corker has bigger plans for the legislation.



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