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Buy Local helps Everyone – Farmers and the Poor

7 Aug

August 4, 2007


A Surer Way to Feed the


Globally, about 800 million people are chronically hungry, and the number rises every year. The Bush administration is pushing what should be an obvious policy change to help those most acutely in need — victims of catastrophe or some other emergency. Instead of shipping American-grown food abroad, Washington would send American dollars to buy food from local farmers.

The present food aid system is a favorite of American farmers. But it is also cumbersome, slow, expensive and leaves people hungry who could easily be fed. President Bush has rightly proposed shifting $300 million from farm subsidies to enable governments and relief groups to buy food locally.

This plan struck a responsive chord almost everywhere except the Congress. The House omitted the idea from the farm bill it passed last week. And prospects for the Senate approving anything more than a pilot program seem dim.

This is sad but unsurprising. Farm policy continues to be dominated by farm-state legislators who prefer the traditional approach of sending surplus food abroad, further enriching heavily subsidized farmers as well as the shipping industry.

A recent article by The Times’s Celia Dugger shows why that makes so little sense. Starving Africans in the arid reaches of northwestern Kenya desperately needed food. Kenyan officials did not want surplus American corn because they feared driving down the prices for local farmers. The obvious answer was for the Americans to buy local corn, but American law prevented this. So the corn was never shipped and people continued to go hungry.

The United States is the world’s most generous provider of food aid, amounting to $2 billion annually. But too much of that aid is wasted in overhead, mainly shipping costs. At the other end of the pipeline, subsidized American food can hurt local farmers, while local procurement gives them a commercial outlet. Administration officials also note that food purchased here usually takes four months to reach its destination. Food purchased locally takes days.

The virtues of Mr. Bush’s idea are self-evident. What it needs is full Congressional support, not pilot programs. It would be nice if, for once, America’s farm bloc could think of interests other than its own.

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