The U.S. government is the world’s single largest donor of publicly-funded food assistance, a reflection of the support and commitment that the American people have shown over generations for those around the world who struggle with poverty and food insecurity, especially in times of natural disasters or conflict.
Over the last decade, the community of organizations dedicated to meeting the urgent food needs of poor and vulnerable people has searched long and hard to find better ways of achieving this goal. Budget stresses have flat-lined contributions from both public and private donors. Yet several protracted emergencies in conflict zones (Sudan, Mali, Syria) have reduced organizations’ capacities to respond robustly to fast-onset crises associated with typhoons (the Philippines), droughts (the Horn of Africa), and other natural disasters.
Actions taken in the 2008 Farm Bill allowed testing of some key innovations, such as enabling the purchase of food much closer to the sites where it was needed for emergency distribution rather than shipping supplies all the way from the U.S. This shift in strategy proved effective in reducing costs and increasing timeliness – enabling more people to be fed more quickly. Initially, there was opposition to sourcing food outside of the United States. However, weighing this choice on the scale of “what matters most,” it seemed clear that feeding more poor people more rapidly and more cost-efficiently was the right policy objective. The 2014 Farm Bill continued to endorse the approach in appropriate settings.
Recent progress on the food aid front was endangered, however, when the House of Representatives approved an authorization bill for the Coast Guard with a provision that would require 75 percent of all U.S. food aid to travel on U.S.-flagged vessels, up from 50 percent under current law. This would add costs and processing time to shipments while reducing the actual volume that could be shipped for a given budget. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates the change would increase annual shipping costs by $75 million, directly cutting into the amount of food it can afford to distribute.
While the provision in the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014 has already passed the House, there is an opportunity to reconsider this choice in the Senate. It is time to ask whether the interests of the U.S. shipping industry matter more than the urgent food needs of poor people living through crises and disasters? While there would be a gain in business for a few shipping companies, it would come at the expense of a humanitarian commitment that most Americans value highly.
The debate in the Senate needs to focus on “what matters most.” I believe the answer is very clear.
Emmy Simmons is a Co-Chair of AGree and formerly served as the Assistant Administrator for Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade at the U.S. Agency for International Development.