WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of U.S. Senate Democrats called on the White House on Monday to support a $200 million increase in international food aid this year beyond the spending boost President George W. Bush has already requested.
"This is the worst global food crisis in more than 30 years. It threatens not only the health and survival of millions of people around the world, many of them children, but it also is a threat to global security," said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat.
The Democrats want to attach the $200 million in added money to an "emergency" bill that mostly would pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the next several months. Bush is seeking $350 million in emergency food aid.
Bush has warned Congress he would veto any measure that spends more than the $108 billion he has requested for combat and related matters. If approved, the $550 million in emergency food aid would be on top of $1.21 billion Congress approved in December for international food aid.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel declined to directly comment on the Democrats' proposal. He said $200 million in food aid had already been allocated from a U.S. trust and urged lawmakers to support a plan to provide assistance by buying crops directly from farmers in developing countries.
"This flexibility would not only get food to people in emergency situations faster, it would also build up local agriculture and help break the cycle of famine," he said. "Unfortunately, Congress has repeatedly failed to act on this proposal."
The war-funding bill could be debated in the House of Representatives as early as next week, followed by the Senate.
Rapidly rising crop prices are making it more difficult for international organizations to provide enough food aid to Darfur and other hot spots.
On April 18, the World Food Program said it was facing a $750 million shortfall for buying and delivering food aid this year.
Durbin said he had spoken twice recently with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who "shares my feelings on this issue." He said he "urged her to reach out to the White House" to support the additional money.
Kai Eide, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, who met with Rice on Monday and is scheduled to see Bush on Tuesday, said, "Rising food prices are also a serious, serious problem for Afghanistan and we have to act to address it."
Democratic Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, one of seven Democrats calling for further expanding U.S. food aid contributions, said developing countries also needed to "permanently increase" their agricultural production and there must be more efficient distribution and storage of donated commodities.
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert and Jeremy Pelofsky)
For more stories on global food price rises, please see here