May 13, 2008 The Pump Handle 0Comment

An op-ed in the Baltimore Sun introduced me to a new use for the term “Iron Triangle,” this one pertains industries and organizations involved in food aid.  In “It’s Time to Stop a Tragic Waste,” David Kohn writes how hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. food aid is squandered on subsidies to “corporate agribusinesses, shipping companies and large aid agencies.”  Unlike other wealthy countries, he writes, the U.S.

“insists on buying 99 percent of its food aid from U.S. farmers, at U.S. market prices, and then sending this food overseas.”

There are a multitude of reasons why this arrangement is impractical and inexpensive.  Setting that aside, we undermine local farmers by not buying food locally—as other wealthy countries do as part of their food aid programs.  When U.S. food aid shipments hit a local market at cheap (subsidized prices), farmers from the local region can’t compete; ultimately, our food aid destablizes local agricultural efforts, damaging local food security and food sovereignty.

Certainly during crises, like the disasater today in Myanmar, direct shipments of food may be most appropriate answer in the short-run.  In the long-run, however, our agricultural policies need to be reformed to promote sustainable methods of farming, local needs and cultures, economic justice and public health.   

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy provides more information and insight on global agriculture and the influence of U.S. agribusinesses on food-aid policies.  These firms include Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto and Tyson Foods.  To help inform the dialogue on the Farm Bill currently being considered in Congress, the Institute issued “A Fair Farm Bill for the World”.  The report includes recommendations for an “International Farm Bill”, with reforms such as:

  • Commodity programs that ensure a fair market price for farmers and eliminate export dumping
  • Stronger anti-trust enforcement and improved price transparency in the food and agricultural industry
  • Support for local food economies, smaller farmers and greater food security, which would help diversity U.S. cropping systems and reduce agricultural exports
  • A transition to untied, cash-based food aid and a phase-out of sales of food aid by NGO’s.

A recent feature on PBS’ News Hour entitled “Malawi Food Programs Face Cash or Crop Dilemma” provides more insight on US food aid policies and programs; a longer segment of this report was broadcast on PBS’ Religion and Ethics News Weekly .

A vote in the U.S. House on the Farm Bill (one-page summary) (full bill) may come this week, with the Senate vote to follow.

Celeste Monforton would like to thank Roni Neff, PhD of the Center for a Livable Future for her helpful guidance understanding these critically important public health issues.


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