Demand for U.S. commodity donations still strong

by Laura Lloyd
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KANSAS CITY — The role of direct U.S. government donations of raw agricultural commodities to developing countries facing natural disasters remains strong, even as the Food for Peace program, the principal program through which the United States provides food assistance abroad, embraces additional strategies to provide aid to vulnerable populations, Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told Milling and Baking News. Ms. Lindborg was a speaker at the International Food Aid & Development Conference, “From Harvest to Basket: Weaving Together Agricultural Markets and Food Scarcity,” May 7-9 in Kansas City.

Ms. Lindborg said climate change appears to be shortening the periods between extreme weather events in parts of Africa and Asia, such as droughts and floods, making it harder for impoverished populations to recover from disasters before facing new challenges. As a result, USAID has identified a number of beneficial strategies to help developing nations reeling from threats to their food supplies. She identified USAID initiatives such as creating risk-management opportunities that are similar in design to what U.S. farmers use, pre-positioning food commodities in storage facilities located near areas often at risk, and providing cash and vouchers to individuals to purchase agricultural products produced in their own localities or regions. These programs have been designed to increase resilience, or the ability to rebound from an increasing incidence of natural disasters, she said.

During a speech at the International Food Aid and Development Conference on May 8, Ms. Lindborg outlined the result of a two-year research project led by Tufts University: a need for a menu of responses to food crises in developing countries hit by severe drought, floods, wars and crop failures. Despite some new emphases, most U.S. food aid has remained in the form of donations of U.S. agricultural commodities, which the targeted nations use to help feed their populations.

In fiscal year 2011, the first year demonstrating results of the new research, the United States spent a total of $1,659.6 million on commodities donated to foreign countries. Of the total commodities shipped under the U.S. food assistance program, only 990 tonnes were in the form of ready-to-eat therapeutic foods aimed at feeding malnourished children. In fiscal 2012, an additional 270 tonnes will be in the form of nutritious bars and pastes that may be used in the early phases of a rapid onset emergency.

A much smaller amount — $232 million — was donated in the form of cash and vouchers to support local agriculture, representing 191,616 tonnes of commodities in fiscal year 2011. The initiative to support local agriculture and “teach people to fish” by supporting indigenous farming was a hot topic at the conference. Many speakers referred to building the practice of hungry people buying food such as fruits and vegetables from nearby farmers, sometimes using a card similar to a debit card to make purchases. The volume of such business remains relatively small so far, but is likely to build in future years.

Ms. Lindborg emphasized that poverty is the variable most responsible for food crises in regions such as the Horn of Africa. She cited statistics showing that a population can meet most of its caloric requirements when per capita incomes reach $2 a day. When incomes rise to $10 a day on average, populations become net importers of food because they seek more variety and higher-protein foods.

“That’s good for global markets and good for American farmers,” Ms. Lindborg said.

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