Lugar lauds Obama's call for stepped-up foreign food and ag assistance

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Efforts to bolster the United States’ commitment to foreign food and agriculture assistance in the wake of a significant increase in the number of hungry and malnourished people in the world received a boost by President Barack Obama, who at the recent G-20 summit in London said the U.S. government would double its support to agricultural development in poor countries to $1 billion in fiscal 2010.

Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana was among the first to applaud the president’s announcement and said it was in accord with the Global Food Security Act of 2009, which he introduced in February and approved by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on March 31.

"The president’s commitment will restore U.S. leadership and reorient assistance toward addressing a major factor in global instability," Mr. Lugar said. "Hungry people are desperate people, and their desperation can have destabilizing effects on the global economy and national governments. Passage of the Global Food Security Act will provide continuity and support for the president’s effort."

Mr. Lugar’s bill was co-sponsored by some of the most powerful figures in the Senate — Richard Durbin of Illinois, the majority whip; John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations; Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins of Maine.

The bill would create a special coordinator for global food security in the executive office of the president. The coordinator would be charged with the responsibility to develop a global food security strategy based on a "whole-of-government" approach. The coordinator also would be responsible for managing U.S. government collaboration with international organizations, non-governmental organizations, world financial institutions and other donor countries in implementing the strategy. The bill designates the U.S. Agency for International Development as the lead agency in implementing the strategy.

The bill would create a new emergency food assistance fund that would be administered by USAID. The fund would operate separately from P.L.480 Title II under which the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchases U.S. agricultural commodities and food for donation abroad. P.L.480 Title II funding would be unaffected.

The new emergency fund would be authorized at up to $500 million and may be used for local and regional purchase. Local and regional purchase refers to the purchase of food in nations or regions closer to the outbreaks of food emergencies as distinct from purchases of U.S. food for donation abroad.

Local and regional purchase has been controversial in the U.S. food aid community. Some non-governmental organizations advocate a transition to cash-only food assistance as opposed to the traditional in-kind contributions, while defenders of the current program point to the broad-based public support for donation of U.S.-produced food abroad and caution a switch to a cash-only aid program might have the unintended effect of diminishing overall U.S. financial commitment to food aid over time.

The approach advocated by Mr. Lugar would include both in-kind food donations and local and regional purchase with the government’s determination of which mechanism to be used based on what was deemed most appropriate for a given circumstance. Mr. Lugar said on the Senate floor in introducing the bill, "The Government Accountability Office reports that it can take four to six months from the time a crisis occurs until U.S. food shipments arrive. Our intention is to respond to emergencies more quickly in order to complement food aid programs in the U.S. Department of Agriculture [P.L.480 Title II]."

That the proposed emergency food assistance fund was not meant to supplant P.L.480 Title II was reflected in the fact both Mr. Durbin and Mr. Harkin, co-sponsors of S.384, also were signatories of a March 19 letter to President Obama written by Mr. Harkin and co-signed by 28 members of the Senate urging the president in his fiscal 2010 budget to fully fund P.L.480 Title II at the authorized $2.5 billion.

The Lugar bill would authorize appropriations for providing agriculture, rural development and nutrition assistance to developing countries at $750 million in fiscal 2010 with funding for those purposes rising each year and reaching $2.5 billion in fiscal 2014.

The bill also would create a new program, Higher Education Collaboration for Technology, Agriculture and Extension (HECTARE) that would increase U.S. support to bilateral and multilateral agricultural research efforts.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, March 31, 2009, starting on Page 34. Click here to search that archive.

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