The global food crisis, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware warned today, will not be solved quickly, easily, or with piecemeal measures. Rather, he said, the U.S. government must be willing to drastically overhaul its thinking on food policy and its approach to combating global hunger.
"This is big think stuff here," Biden, a Democrat, said during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chairs. "Up until now, we've had people who focus on energy, we've had people who focus on food, people who focus on trade. But yet there's no place you can go in any administration, Democratic or Republican, and say, 'What's the plan, Stan?' or 'What's the deal here?' "
Underscoring the gravity of the situation, the House Financial Services Committee also held a hearing on the crisis today. Biden's remarks seemed to encapsulate legislators' mixed emotions at the situation: dismay, frustration, and, to a significant degree, confusion. Congress, like many government bodies in recent weeks, has been fielding emergency requests for food aid because of soaring food prices, and it has been forced to grapple with serious and often difficult questions: Are U.S. trade and agriculture policies part of the problem? How much food aid is needed in the short term? What should be done in the future?
In a very broad sense, Biden, Sen. Richard Lugar and several other senators expressed support for a second "Green Revolution." The idea is that the United States should fund agricultural development in parts of the world that were bypassed by the far-reaching farming innovations of the 1970s. Several witnesses testified that improvements in seed technology, fertilizer use, and harvesting techniques could help boost yields in developing countries, which tend to be the most vulnerable to spikes in commodity prices.
If that happens, it would represent a remarkable reversal by western countries. In his opening remarks, Lugar, an Indiana Republican, noted that foreign assistance for agricultural development has fallen precipitously over the past quarter-century, and the decline has been felt most acutely by poor countries in Africa and Asia. In 1980, Lugar said, the World Bank spent 30 percent of its budget on agricultural projects; by 2007, that percentage had been cut by more than half. During the same period, the amount of money given by the United States as foreign agriculture assistance tumbled from more than $1 billion annually to less than $330 million. "This amounts to a neglect of what should be considered one of the most vital sectors to the alleviation of poverty," Lugar said.
To illustrate the extent to which rising food prices have worsened living conditions in the developing world, Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the World Food Program and one of the witnesses at the hearing, raised a red coffee mug off the table at which she was seated. "This is a cup from our school feeding program in Rwanda," Sheeran said. "Today we are actually able to put 40 percent less food in this cup than we could even last June simply due to rising food prices." On average, the price of rice has jumped 75 percent since the first of the year; in some locations, prices for some wheat products have doubled.
As several senators and panelists noted, improving yields in the developing world will be a multiyear undertaking, and food prices will likely stay high as long as fuel remains expensive. Biden, noting that the current U.S. response had been "belated and disjointed," said that hard questions must be asked about whether U.S. biofuel policy is diverting too much corn from food to fuel.
Congress also is debating short-term measures, food aid in particular. Those proposals provided the hearing's more lively moments. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania pointed out that President Bush recently requested an additional $770 million in funding for humanitarian food aid, but that money will not be available until October, when the new budget year begins. Congress, Casey said, has requested that the president support an extra $200 million in immediate aid, but Bush has not agreed to do so.
"Tell me why the president won't agree to the $200 million supplemental request," Casey said to USAID Administrator Henrietta Fore, noting that the request represented "a scintilla" of what the government is spending in Iraq each month. "I wish that the actions by the administration would match the urgency and the gravity of the human misery we are seeing."
Another point of contention: whether U.S. aid can be used to buy crops from local markets, rather than from American farmers. Bush has asked that a quarter of all aid money be used to buy food in the areas where it is needed, which many aid organizations say is more efficient and cost-effective. A 2007 Government Accountability Office report found that more than half of all U.S. food aid money is spent on transportation and administration, since most food aid has to be shipped thousands of miles from American ports to its final destination. But Congress has balked. The final version of the farm bill, which was recently approved by a congressional committee and is awaiting a formal vote, would authorize the U.S. to purchase $60 million of local food—"a drop in the bucket," according to one witness.
During this morning's hearing, some senators suggested that Congress should revisit this policy on its own, apart from the farm bill.