“Local” purchasing of food aid? It may be good to think twice about this idea.

by Daniel E. Shaughnessy

May 30, 2008

There is a great deal of concern at this time about rising food prices, shortages of food and the inability of poor people around the world to obtain the food they need for themselves and their families. These are serious problems that deserve both immediate and longer-term attention.

While the long-term solution to food shortages and high prices is improved agriculture systems in many developing countries, the immediate, urgent needs in many countries still require food aid – actual donations of food to those in need.

The United States is the world’s largest supplier of food aid, providing millions of tons of food to many countries throughout the world. The US buys food aid from its farmers and processors – it is not “surplus” food – and ships it to those countries in need, with many shipments on US vessels. These donations are valued at more than a billion dollars each year and create thousands of jobs and considerable business activity here in the US , while at the same time, helping others overseas.

But some think that it would be better for the US not to buy food from its own farmers and processors, and not use its own ports and ships and just send money to the United Nations and other groups in order for them to buy food “locally” or in the region that is in need, and thus, it is assumed, save time and money.

However, this may not be as easy as it sounds.

First, we need to remember that in a serious famine or food scarcity situation, there will already be very little food in any significant quantities that will be available “locally” – and large quantities are often what is needed. In recent years, US grain shipments to famine-stricken areas of Africa have been in the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands tons. Even “regional” purchases in Africa would not be possible in that magnitude – those large quantities are just not available for purchase there, especially in countries that need to keep their food for their own needs.

While the United Nations has been purchasing food in some African regions needing food aid, the individual quantities from those sources have been relatively small – perhaps a few thousand tons at a time, but usually not in the very large quantities that have been needed for major famine relief. Most larger UN purchases have come from outside of Africa, including Canada , Europe and South Asia, not from African farmers, and these shipments may often involve the same time and expense as shipping food aid from the US . But even these purchases are becoming more difficult, as some countries, such as Pakistan , are restricting exports. Also, these “local” and regional purchases are very costly; prices are high and expenses involve freight costs and international traders and purchasing units earning fees and commissions.

Second, there are concerns about food safety and good quality of food. Poor and hungry people deserve safe, nutritious food. When the US buys food aid in its own market and ships it overseas, it is held to very high specifications for type and quality. The food aid that is provided by the United States is as good as we eat here. Having the UN or others, buy food from “local” or regional sources overseas carries no guarantee that these types of standards will be achieved. If they are achieved, it is estimated that the cost and time involved will be the same or greater than safely shipping the food from the US . (As an example of just a small problem in this regard, a major US relief agency purchased beans locally in Africa a few years ago, only to find stones mixed in with the beans.)

Finally, there may be concerns about “local” or regional purchases causing market disruption in food insecure areas or driving up prices for those who already cannot afford to buy what they need. Allowing these purchases to cause such harmful results is a contradiction of their purpose.

Clearly, a test of this process is needed before large amounts of US agriculture funds are transferred to the UN and others for these types of purchases. Fortunately, the Congress has just passed a provision in the US Farm Bill directing the US Agency for International Development and the US Department of Agriculture to conduct such a test over the next few years. This testing process can determine whether it really is less expensive and more efficient to purchase large quantities “regionally” and still maintain all the quality and sanitation controls currently required on US shipments. Shipping costs and delivery times may not be less or faster for these purchases and there is a serious question of who would actually do such purchasing and at what cost. But until a test is completed and verified, “local” purchasing with US money should be delayed.

Daniel Shaughnessy is the former Chairman of the Board of the World Hunger Education Service. He was also the Executive Director of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger, and directed US food aid activities in the US Department of Agriculture and the US Agency for International Development

Disclaimer: The contents of this opinion editorial do not necessarily represent the views of the WHES board.

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