Members of Congress yesterday blasted plans by the Obama administration to modify food aid programs to allow more local and regional purchasing of food, citing negative effects on both farmers and the U.S. merchant marine.
Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Coast Guard and maritime transport subcommittee, noted the budget for the Maritime Administration is being increased 3.6 percent over the current year, but said “the increase comes as a result of the president's misguided effort to effectively eliminate the hugely successful Food for Peace program,” in which food grown in the United States is shipped on U.S.-flag vessels.
He said the president's plan to restructure food aid “will eliminate a vital program for farmers and put U.S. mariners out of work and undermine our national security by reducing the domestic capacity on which our military depends.”
In testimony to the subcommittee, Maritime Administrator David Matsuda agreed there would be an impact on the maritime industry, but noted MarAd's budget for fiscal year 2014 includes $25 million to help preserve mariner employment on militarily useful vessels that are not already enrolled in the Maritime Security Program. That program provides a subsidy to 60 ships to help them offset the higher cost of operating U.S.-flag vessels.
Matsuda also said U.S.-grown food will still be shipped in U.S. ships.
The U.S. Agency for International Development said in 2014 “no less than 55 percent of the requested $1.4 billion in total funding for emergency food assistance in Intenational Disaster Assistance will be used for the purchase, transport, and related costs of U.S. commodities.”
But Hunter said “the president's effort to placate the concerns of U.S. mariners by throwing some additional money at the Maritime Security Program will not work.”
John Garamendi, D-Calif., also expressed skepticism about the food aid reforms.
“I don't think it works. I'm trying to figure where the regional food purchasing is available,” he said.
“The proposal puts that entire industry on a downhill slope to the point where it won't exist because the program doesn't exist upon which it is based,” Garamendi added.
Gawain Kripke, director of policy and research at Oxfam America, told American Shipper
in an interview that sourcing food locally can sometimes be less expensive than shipping it from the United States and prevent unintended consequences such as forcing down the income of local farmers.
For example, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated the coastline of Indonesia, leaving many people in a food emergency. But inland rice paddies were not damaged, and it made more sense to buy rice and ship it to hungry people on the coast rather than buying it in America and potentially driving down the prices that poor, local farmers could receive.
"Often droughts and disasters are highly localized," he said. Kripke also agreed overland transportation costs are sometimes very high and it makes more sense to ship aid from the United States. "What we are hoping for and asking for is more flexibility," he said.
He also noted Cargill shipped $5 million of rice to the Horn of Africa, but sourced the food in India. - Chris Dupin