INTERVIEW-U.S. sees no change to food aid policy-envoy
* Focus on agriculture does not affect food aid donations
* Buying food aid locally can have detrimental impact
* U.S. envoy doesn't rule out more WFP money if appeal made
By Silvia Aloisi
ROME, Oct 13 (Reuters) - A new focus on agriculture to help poor nations fight hunger does not imply a change in U.S. food aid policy, based on donating commodities rather than cash, the new U.S. envoy to U.N. agencies in Rome said.
Ambassador Ertharin Cousin also told Reuters that while Washington may consider topping up its contribution to the U.N.'s World Food Programme if there were an emergency appeal for humanitarian aid, other countries should also step in. The bulk of food aid from the United States, the world's largest donor, has traditionally come in the form of food bought from U.S. farmers and shipped on U.S. ships.
A U.S.-sponsored three-year commitment by G8 governments to spend $20 billion to help farmers in Africa and parts of Asia will not change that policy, Cousin said.
"The commitment to agricultural development made by our president would not affect our commitment to food aid nor would it change our food aid policies," she said in an interview.
"I've been out in the field. The children don't ask where the food came from, they want to make sure that we deliver food to them and we are going to continue to do that and it's been very successful for us doing that with commodities in the past."
As part of the G8 initiative, U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged $3.5 billion, although Cousin said the exact form that sum would take had yet to be decided .
She said that while there may be scope for buying aid products locally and regionally -- which is usually cheaper and faster -- on a limited basis, big purchases could backfire by driving up prices and creating shortages in poor countries.
"When we say yes, we should buy the products as opposed to provide food aid, there can be that detrimental impact."
"U.S. CAN'T DO IT ALL"
The focus on longer-term agricultural development has prompted some concerns that donors would cut back on emergency food aid as a result.
The WFP, which raised $5 billion last year when a food price spike caused riots and hoarding in some countries, says it has received just $2.9 billion for 2009 and has had to cut food rations and scale back operations in some areas, including Kenya and Bangladesh.
The U.S. remains by far the biggest contributor, but this year has donated $1.26 billion, down from $2.08 billion last year. Cousin said it was unfair to compare the two figures because in 2008 the U.S. government made a one-off special contribution on top of what had been budgeted for the year, in response to a WFP's emergency appeal for funds. She did not rule out that the same may happen this year.
"I cannot anticipate what our government will do but I think our government has been responsive in the past," she said, adding: "They (WFP) are talking about what they may not be able to do. I don't think that the pipeline is empty today."
Obama has said the initiative to boost farm aid would not divert resources from emergency food aid, but also warned the U.S. cannot fight the battle against global hunger alone.
"The president made clear that the U.S. can't do it all. We are open to appeals and we will continue to do what we can when we can but we also need other countries to continue to step up as well."
She said the drive by some richer countries to buy farmland in poor nations to secure food supplies was an opportunity "if things are done the right way".
"The challenge that we have is to work to develop a code of conduct" to ensure foreign investments in agriculture also benefit local communities.
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