Kansas City, Mo. Amid a deepening world hunger crisis, leading food aid groups called Tuesday for a "green revolution" that would help impoverished regions develop their own agriculture economies rather than relying on U.S.-grown food.
Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Programme, told more than 700 people gathered in Kansas City for the International Food Aid Conference that the time has come for governments around the world to invest in their farmers.
Half of hungry African farmers can't even afford to feed their own families, she said. In Laos, farmers are planting a third fewer crops because they have no access to credit to buy seed and fertilizer at the same time that they have a fundamental mistrust in commodity markets. In many countries, remote farmers cannot access markets because of poor roads, she said.
Her comments came as soaring food and fuel prices have strained food aid budgets of humanitarian aid groups across the globe. The World Food Programme, the world's largest food aid agency, has seen its costs rise 55 percent since June, she said. That means that most countries are getting 40 percent less food for the same contribution, putting more than 100 million people under "severe stress" because of high food prices.
In addition to taking care of immediate needs and stabilizing shortages that have led to violent food riots in Haiti and other countries, Sheeran and other aid leaders are backing proposals to buy more food from local farmers in developing countries, cutting transportation costs while bolstering those nation's agricultural economies.
One solution is for humanitarian agencies to contract with poor farmers so they can afford to plant bigger crops. That would guarantee the farmers a market, in effect making the humanitarian agencies the buyers.
But some of the ideas are controversial in the U.S., particularly here in the nation's breadbasket. Currently, more than half of the food the U.S. exports for humanitarian relief is purchased from U.S. growers. And the United States accounts for the majority of the food aid distributed around the globe, feeding one out of every two recipients.
Rebecca Bratter, director of trade policy for U.S. Wheat Associates, told those attending the conference Monday that the nation's grain growers do not support the so-called cash option that would buy food aid in other countries rather than the United States. She said traditionally 6 percent of the nation's wheat crop has gone toward food aid purchases.
"Kansas is ground zero for the wheat industry," she said.
But Gaddi Vasquez, U.S. ambassador to U.N. agencies in Rome, said the hunger crisis has spurred interest in a greater global investment in agriculture. He urged Congress to back the Bush administration proposal to use 25 percent of U.S. food aid dollars for local procurement in other countries. He said innovative programs to buy locally would help small-scale farmers.
"The ultimate objective," Vasquez said, "is to help countries battling hunger to feed their own people."
President Bush announced Monday that it plans to draw down $200 million from its humanitarian trust to address the impact of the high commodity prices on food aid.
"Food aid is the most visible demonstration of the good will of the American people," said Mark Keenum, undersecretary for the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service for the Department of Agriculture.
Last year, the United States sent 2.5 million tons of food aid valued at $2 billion. Because of high prices, the actual tonnage was down 16 percent from 2006.