A five-year farm bill in Congress this week does little to address the growing global food crisis. Instead, it diverts money that could be spent feeding poor children abroad to give more subsidies for U.S. farmers now enjoying record high crop prices and incomes.
Food experts, international aid groups and the White House all complain that the $300 billion bill crafted by House and Senate negotiators focuses on the wrong priorities. The bill has widespread bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, but President Bush has promised to veto it.
While the legislation does send some food relief abroad, the amount is less than 1 percent of the bill's total cost. At the same time, the measure maintains subsidies to U.S. farmers at levels that hurt poor countries trying to produce food on their own, critics say.
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said last week the bill is incompatible with the world economy as poor weather, high fuel prices and growing need are contributing to higher food prices and severe hunger in developing nations. Bush contends it's too expensive and too generous to wealthy U.S. farmers.
"At a time like this, I just don't see how we can drastically reduce our capability to respond to those in need," Schafer said.
Lawmakers bypassed several opportunities to boost foreign food aid.
The House last year voted a big increase for one popular international aid program, the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. But that boost, which would have guaranteed $840 million over five years, didn't make it into the final bill, which is up for votes this week. That program now gets about $100 million each year but is subject to annual appropriations bills.
Instead, the McGovern-Dole program — named for former Sens. George McGovern, D-S.D., and Bob Dole, R-Kan. — was cut to one-tenth of the House amount in recent weeks as lawmakers scrambled for ways to maintain, increase and begin new subsidies for various crops.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. — no relation to George McGovern — said that rising global food costs would mean that more schools in developing countries will have to quit offering the promise of meals to encourage school attendance.
"The only thing crueler than not feeding hungry children is feeding them for a little while and then stopping it," he said.
International aid groups have long criticized U.S. farm bills for ignoring the plight of farmers in developing countries by making them compete with wealthy, taxpayer-subsidized American growers.
By maintaining the bulk of direct payments — billions of dollars in subsidies that are distributed to farmers no matter how much they grow — and other subsidies in this bill, lawmakers failed to help the poor, the groups say.
"The pigs at the trough continued to promote generous handouts from taxpayers ... even as agriculture markets are so strong and our economy so weak," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, an international aid group.
Oxfam and other groups have joined the White House in criticizing lawmakers for ignoring an administration request to allow a quarter of U.S. food aid funds for abroad to be used to purchase foreign supplies near crisis areas.
Farm groups have traditionally pushed for food aid designated for foreign locations to come from the United States, which means it often takes too long to get the food to where it's needed most, according to the Agriculture Department.
Instead, congressional negotiators set up a small-scale pilot program that would allow limited local foreign purchases using U.S. aid money and then study how effective that was. They say the idea of such local purchases is untested.
But Schafer says that local buying in foreign locations "would just simply help save lives in some of the most stressed areas in the world." He also criticized a mandate in the bill to reduce the amount of emergency foreign food aid in favor of more money for non-emergency assistance.
Farm-state lawmakers say a robust U.S. farm economy, including a safety net in case prices drop, will help economies worldwide.
"By reducing systemic risk to our growers, they can do what they do best, which is to grow food," said North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat who helped negotiate the bill.
Supporters of the legislation point to an increase in money for food stamps and other U.S. nutrition programs, which account for more than two-thirds of the bill. Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says available funding "fell well short of the need" for anti-hunger initiatives abroad, but he argued that those programs should be boosted through annual spending bills.
"We had to make hard choices and focused available funds on helping U.S. children and families who face tremendous hardships because of the recession and rising food prices," Harkin said. "These are programs typically funded by farm bills."
Supporters also point to a cut in the federal tax subsidy to refineries for corn-based ethanol fuel, which some say is contributing to higher food costs. That cut was made in favor of more money for cellulosic ethanol, which is made from plant matter.
Patrick Westhoff of the University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute says cutting the ethanol credit could lower food prices slightly. Otherwise, the bill is not really written to do that, he said.
"By design there's not much in the bill that is intended to increase production or otherwise reduce prices," Westhoff said.