Brasher: Food crisis alters farmers' views on foreign ag aid
by PHILIP BRASHER • • June 8, 2008

Washington, D.C. - The global food crisis has brought urgent new attention to the inability of many poor countries to feed their people. Part of the problem, critics say, is that rich countries have slashed their spending on agricultural development even as hunger has grown.

How could that have happened? One reason was the opposition of U.S. farmers to agriculture aid.

In the 1980s, Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers from Arkansas got legislation enacted to bar U.S. agricultural research funding for crops that could compete with American commodities.

That no doubt made sense at the time. The U.S. farm economy had collapsed and the world was awash in grain.

Soybean growers, who pushed for the legislation, didn't want U.S. taxpayers funding development of seed varieties that could be used in countries like Brazil and Argentina that have vast amounts of good farmland.

'Active hostility'

But those concerns made it difficult for U.S. officials to help countries improve production of a range of crops, including corn and cotton as well as soybeans, palm oil and coconuts. What resulted was an "active hostility by Congress to working in this area," said Gawain Kripke, who follows food policy for Oxfam America, a development and advocacy group.

Farmers preferred that aid dollars be focused on buying surplus American food and shipping that to poorer countries, rather than helping them improve their own production.

U.S. aid for agricultural development in Africa plunged from a high of $500 million in 1988, adjusted for inflation, to less than $100 million in 2006, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Other nations cut back, too. The amount of rich countries' development aid earmarked for agriculture in Africa fell from 15 percent in the 1980s to 4 percent in 2006, the accountability office says.

Hunger situation

Meanwhile, the hunger problem in Africa had been growing even before the prices of corn and other staple crops started skyrocketing in 2007. About 200 million people on the continent were malnourished in 2001-03, up from 170 million a decade earlier.

Food production has declined per capita in Africa during the past 30 years, according to the United Nations. Farm productivity in Africa, if measured by grain yield, is 40 percent of what it is in the rest of the developing world.

Lack of foreign aid isn't the only culprit. According to the accountability report, needy nations aren't doing their part. They pledged in 2003 to devote 10 percent of government spending to agriculture, but few do.

Some governments undermine their farmers. In Tanzania, for example, farmers have to pay 55 taxes, levies and fees that together account for 50 percent of the price of the crops, the accountability office found. Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of southern Africa, is now an economic disaster.

Still, interest in funding agricultural aid to Africa is increasing amid fears that rising commodity prices exacerbate hunger. Riots and protests have hit at least 15 countries, from west Africa to Indonesia.

Food production

The U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said at last week's U.N. food summit in Rome that global food production must rise by 50 percent by 2030. The same day, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization appealed to world leaders to provide $30 billion a year in agriculture aid.

The Bush administration earmarked $150 million in development aid in an emergency supplemental spending bill now working its way through Congress. The House and Senate have raised that to $200 million.

Farm groups

Some U.S. farm interests, while fending off allegations that the use of corn for ethanol is fuelling food inflation, support increased agricultural development aid. They also are calling for more use of genetically engineered crops, something poor African countries have resisted.

The food crisis must be addressed "in a thoughtful and comprehensive manner," said Chris Garza, who attended the Rome meeting for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Getting farm groups behind foreign agricultural aid raises the odds of increasing it. But there's still the question of how much to help and how best to do it. Priority: Normal ... /1001/NEWS