USA Maritime, a coalition of U.S.-flag carriers and labor unions, has expressed concern over possible changes to the federal government food aid programs, an important source of employment for U.S.-flag ships and seafarers.
"USA Maritime is deeply disappointed to learn that the Obama administration is considering the elimination of our flagship international food donation programs, Food for Peace (P.L. 480) and Food for Progress," said James L. Henry, chairman of USA Maritime.
"Since 1954, Food for Peace alone has benefited more than 3 billion people in 150 countries and is an important symbol of America's goodwill. Any move to eliminate these important U.S. commodity donation programs would be shortsighted, ineffective, and could ultimately jeopardize national security and merchant mariner jobs," he added.
Lee Kincaid, president of the American Maritime Congress, said about 80 different U.S.-flag ships each year carry some food aid. He noted some of these goods are shipped in either bulk or bags and the aid moves on both dry bulk vessels and containerships.
Ellen Levinson, executive director of the Alliance for Global Food Security, said her group learned that the Obama administration is considering eliminating funding for the Food for Peace and Food for Progress programs and instead seeking funding for a much smaller and not-yet-defined food aid program at the U.S. Agency for International Development based on international procurement.
"We hope the administration will not include these changes in its fiscal year 2014 budget submission and that Congress continues to support these critical programs," she said, noting that "USAID already uses the International Disaster Assistance account to buy commodities overseas for emergencies, spending $300 million or more per year. So, there are a variety options already in place."
The budget for the Food for Peace program, which is operated by USAID, is about $1.4 billion, and Food for Progress, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, is much smaller at about $170 million.
"Changing Food for Peace to an overseas procurement program, cutting its funding and overriding carefully-proscribed procedures in current statute would impede the ability of the U.S. to meet the needs of the hungry. It will destroy the U.S. food aid pipeline, which is a reliable source of wholesome foods and commodities. Moreover, it will eliminate an important component of our nation’s diplomacy, development and security toolbox," Levinson said.
Chris Barrett, a professor at Cornell University, said "my understanding is that the administration is floating the idea - perhaps even formally proposing in its budget - to convert most or all US food aid (at least P.L. 480 and Food for Progress) from the agriculture committees' appropriations and Farm Bill authorization to the IDA line under foreign relations and rely primarily on local and regional procurement (LRP) and cash vouchers for emergency food aid. That is how virtually every other food aid donor in the world does it now."
He called the U.S. system "a relic of decades long past when the US government was disposing of commodity surpluses it bought up under farm price support programs.
"USAID has now built up considerable experience, with overwhelming evidence that being free of the buy/ship American restrictions are far more efficient, timely and effective in lots of dimensions than operating under those constant restrictions," Barrett said. "USAID would still have the option to buy and ship from the U.S. under the realignment USAID seems to be considering, but would also have the option to provide food assistance in other forms that in most contexts are more effective. Of course, this is just an idea being floated and would require the Congress to go along with it."
Fourteen members of the U.S. Senate sent a letter on Wednesday to President Obama asking that funding for the Food for Peace program, also known as P.L. 480 be maintained in the fiscal year 2014 budget
“This program has been instrumental in linking rural America and the U.S. agriculture and transportation industries to communities in the developing world while building greater awareness and support for the needs of the poor, hungry and disenfranchised around the world,” the senators wrote.
"Unlike other foreign aid programs, these time-tested programs do more than just send aid overseas. Food for Peace is a point of pride for the 44,000 American farmers, shippers, processors, port workers, and merchant mariners whose jobs depend upon the program. Food for Peace is not just a handout,” Henry said.
“It's the sharing of American bounty and American know-how to help rescue those less fortunate from starvation and chronic food insecurity. By creating a uniquely sustainable public-private partnership among American faith-based organizations and charities, U.S. industry, and the U.S. government, Food for Peace leverages private and public resources to make a meaningful difference for millions of people in a way that government alone or cash handouts simply cannot" he said.
"And what's often overlooked in the foreign assistance debate is that a program's sticker price is not the only way to judge its value. In this case, the same U.S. citizen mariners and U.S.-flag ships that deliver food aid under the Food for Peace program also provide vital transport capabilities for our troops," Herny further explained. "In fact, they delivered more than 90 percent of defense cargo to military posts in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense, without the base of food aid cargoes to help sustain the commercial U.S.-flag fleet, we will not be able to sustain the national defense sealift capability our military needs without significant additional Federal expenditures."
Clint Eisenhauer, vice president of government relations for Maersk, said the changes are “very concerning—this is a system that has been most successful in getting food to starving people for 50 years.
“It goes to the cargo base that supports investment in U.S.-flag shipping,” he said, saying if that cargo base goes away, it may hurt U.S.-flag shipping and put sealift capability at risk.
Barrett said in a 2011 presentation to the Congressional Research Service that the United States accounts for 50 to 60 percent of total food aid worldwide. But his presentation also contended 70 percent of the agricultural cargo preference vessels were not militarily useful, yet these capture more than 90 percent of cargo preference premiums.
But Eisenhauer noted even ships that have limited utility for sealift play an important role because they provide jobs for seafarers who may be needed at time of war or national emergency, even though they're deployed to crew different vessels. - Chris Dupin