Worldwatch Perspective: With the 2007 Farm Bill, the Local Goes Global

Iowa Farm
the U.S. Farm Bill will have consequences both domestically and abroad.
Photo by pattie74_99 via Flickr

The 2007 Farm Bill, a critical piece of legislation that highlights America’s agricultural priorities, has been on lawmakers’ agendas this fall. With the authority of the 2002 Bill due to run out by the end of the year, more than 65 proposals put forward by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are in need of extension or reauthorization. The Farm Bill is also seen as evidence of the U.S. government’s commitment to rural areas, and is recognized for its investments in alternative energy sources and food production.

Yet the contents of the Bill as it currently stands may have unintended consequences for thousands of rural communities worldwide. Alongside proposals on conservation funding, support for beginning farmers and ranchers, and strengthened disaster relief, the Farm Bill outlines the U.S. plan for international food aid over the next five years. The United States is the longstanding leader in such donations, providing $2.1 billion worth of food aid in 2006, or the equivalent of 3 million metric tons of commodities such as grain and cooking oil. In total, the country is the source of more than half of all international food aid provided.

But there’s a problem. In spite of large contributions and good intentions, U.S. food aid is not nearly as efficient as many hunger experts say it could be. While other leading donors like Canada, the European Union, and the United Nations are able to provide both food and money, the United States has historically resorted to offering only American food products. In short, the country is unable to purchase emergency food aid beyond its borders—preventing it from “buying local” in the countries it is trying to help and increasing both delivery time and costs.

The Bush administration is proposing changing the system to free up cash for local or regional purchases for emergency needs, hoping this will be a means of reform in a successfully adopted Farm Bill. But not everyone is waiting for a possible change in policy.

This summer, the aid group CARE International made waves in the development community with its announcement that, as of 2009, it will no longer accept U.S. federal support in the form of food aid, citing adverse effects for farmers and lowered market prices in countries that receive aid. Turning down large quantities of food that amount to some $46 million a year, CARE is acting on the widely held belief that U.S. food aid, while sorely needed by millions of the world’s most vulnerable, is inefficient.

This controversial decision has received both praise and criticism from a wide range of international development actors. George Odo of CARE’s Kenyan operations has justified the group’s move on the grounds that accepting aid in its current form “compromised our ability to speak up when things went wrong.” However, CARE’s decision is facing criticism from other organizations such as World Vision, who are in favor of working through whatever problems are inherent in the aid delivery system in order to have all anti-hunger measures at their disposal.

On the other hand, CARE has set the tone for potential reform. Whether or not the proposal finds its way into law, by deciding to forgo millions of dollars in sorely needed funding, CARE’s actions in recent months demonstrate a larger desire to reform how America gives food aid, providing a much-needed wake-up call—if only the 2007 Farm Bill provides the opportunity for more widespread change.

Jessica Hanson, a food and agriculture intern at the Worldwatch Institute, recently completed her M.A. in International Relations at the University of Sussex, where she wrote her dissertation on global food issues.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.