In 1976, then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz coined the now infamous phrase, “food is a weapon.” At height of the so-called Green Revolution and firmly in the Cold War mindset, he was referring to the American policy of fighting famine worldwide to defend against political unrest and the spread of communism. The idea of food as another tool in the American political arsenal, however, remains just as relevant today.
The United States spends $1.5 billion annually on international food aid, shipping thousands of tons of American wheat, soybeans, corn, sorghum, oils, and a myriad of other staples to countries around the world. Genuine sentiments of charity are surely a motivating factor for the program, but under the surface and away from the discerning public, there are hidden forces at play. This is why the Obama administration has recently proposed overhauling the antiquated U.S. food aid law, only to be met by a barrage of lobbyists and special interest groups.
President Eisenhower started the Food for Peace program, which forms the basis of US food aid to this day, in 1954. With the rapid industrialization and commercialization of agriculture in the preceding 20 years, the United States had a significant food surplus for the first time in its history. Exporting excess food to needy countries while currying diplomatic favor with them seemed to be the best solution. As the decades rolled by and agricultural subsidies grew ever larger, food overproduction in the United States only grew more severe.
Recent data indicate that 75 to 90% of wheat production worldwide is accounted for by just four U.S.-based multinationals: ADM, Bunge, Cargill, and Dreyfuss, collectively known as ABCD. Wheat is one of the principal crops shipped by the United States as food aid. So it comes as no surprise that $1.2 billion of the $1.5 billion U.S. food aid budget went to the first three of those corporations; ADM alone was paid $300 million dollars in 2011 to provide almost half of the total tonnage of U.S. food aid. Because the 1954 law states that U.S. food aid must be in the form of crops grown in the United States, markets abroad are flooded by free American food and local agriculture is actively prevented from developing.
Moreover, by law at least 75% of that U.S. food must be transported overseas by American mercantile corporations. This brings us to the second major point of contention. You might think that Amazon overcharges you on shipping and handling, but official records indicate that a whopping 53% of the entire U.S. food aid budget is spent on shipping fees, tariffs, and the like. Think about that for a second. $1.5 billion of American taxpayers’ money is allocated to a supposedly humanitarian cause, but the majority is squandered due to a 50-year old protectionist law. The remainder is funneled into the coffers of corporate agribusiness. This seems very far from the United States’ incessant calls for free markets in developing countries.
A major campaign by the humanitarian organization Oxfam is calling for these and other restrictions in US food aid law to be reformed, a cause that the Obama administration has thrown its weight behind. A study estimates that if the same $1.5 billion was spent buying food from local farmers for the local poor instead of shipping American products around the world, humanitarian agencies could respond to the acute food crises an average of 14 weeks faster and reach 17.1 million more hungry people. 50 years of corporate favoritism and special interests do not simply concede their benefits, however.
Backed by mercantile shipping companies, lobbyists for American agricultural multinationals are assembling powerful forces against food aid reform, stating that American jobs would be lost if the food aid was sourced locally (within local markets). However, due to the extensive industrialization and mechanization of American agriculture by agribusiness, farmers in the United States are spread remarkably thin both in terms of jobs per crop yield and jobs per farm. This is particularly true for staple crops like wheat and corn. Meanwhile, small farms, unable to compete, have already lost both jobs and markets. The U.S. food aid program was first conceived of as a diplomatically advantageous way to maintain American food surpluses at a manageable level. Yet the reverse has occurred, with entire crops being grown in the United States for overseas aid markets. This has caused staple crop prices to fall worldwide, benefitting American agribusinesses trying to move as much tonnage as possible while hurting small farmers in the United States. These small farmers, already the victims of a systematic assault by agribusiness, are further hurt by food aid’s severe distortions of the American agricultural market. Reforming food aid to allow locally-sourced foods would help restore a competitive advantage to small American farmers, allowing them to expand their businesses and create a greater number of jobs than any that agribusiness might lose.
The current food aid debate is symptomatic of a problem with aid more generally. Providing for the needy around the world is a commendable effort by those with the means to do so: individuals, organizations, and wealthy countries. However, simply sending resources to the developing world while ignoring the need to build indigenous capacity has created a deep dependency on the West’s goodwill. This has opened dependent countries to manipulation; many developing countries are effectively diplomatic captives of their Western benefactors, without the power to seriously question their sponsors for fear of losing vital aid. This dependency also acts at the local level—recall an image you have doubtlessly seen of desperate famished masses fighting over food aid at distribution sites. If this is not disconcerting enough, a recent study suggests that countries receiving American food aid tend to have longer periods of civil unrest and war due to warlords stealing and then lucratively selling food aid to fund their insurrections.
If humanitarian aid is going to be truly humanitarian, resources must be allocated to local capacity building. American food aid is no exception; in fact, it may be the prime example. Almost all other countries with food aid programs do not ship food abroad, but use their national budget to purchase food in local markets for the most needy. If the United States were to adopt this model, it would allow aid money to build markets for local farmers and provide for their populations, and would ultimately extend every aid dollar spent. Poor countries would become gradually less dependent on wealthy countries, or at least in a less subordinate and vulnerable manner.
Yet vested interests are making every effort against the interests of the needy, adopting a manipulative and profitable agenda encased in a veneer of humanitarian sentiment. Food is indeed a weapon. To reform the cynical status quo, the United States must overhaul its aid programs to make them work for the poor, not against them. It seems President Obama knows that food aid is a good place to start.