February 29, 2008 / 2:44 PM / 11 years ago

Crop boom may prompt food aid rethink in US Congress

By Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - A lawmaker who has championed using U.S. food aid donations to fund development projects is rethinking his support of proposed legislation as soaring commodity prices eat into aid available for crises.

Rep. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, sponsored an amendment to U.S. farm legislation last year that would guarantee a minimum of $450 million from the largest U.S. food aid program, Food for Peace, for non-emergency programs that aim to break the cycle of famine and poverty in poor nations.

"I’m not backing off on my belief in developmental aid, but I do recognize that this dramatic increase in commodity prices in a very short time suggests that we’ve got to find a solution to the immediate crisis," said Moran.

The Senate passed a similar set-aside of $600 million in its version of the legislation, the 2008 farm bill, worth about half of the program’s overall regular yearly funding.

Now, as lawmakers prepare to broker a House-Senate compromise, Moran said record crop prices have prompted him to reevaluate.

"What that amendment is designed to do is make it more difficult to raid non-emergency money, but we are in an extraordinary time," Moran said in an interview.

Advocates of greater non-emergency aid argue such programs, in which private aid groups often sell U.S.-donated commodities in developing countries to finance nutrition, farming or other projects, say they help avert future food emergencies.

Yet the set-aside is opposed by the Bush administration, which says it sharply reduces money available for emergencies in countries reeling from drought, famine or war.

That could keep help out of the hands of up to eight million people, it says.

Aid officials are already struggling to stretch budgets to keep up with booming commodity markets, which have soared in step with growing biofuel production, rising incomes in emerging markets, and meager harvests.

Soaring prices recently forced Food for Peace to divert money destined for future aid to pay for past donations after the cost of the food it donates jumped 41 percent in the first half of fiscal 2008.

In recent years, the United States has spent about $350 million annually on non-emergency aid in Food for Peace.

The Senate appointed its negotiators to hammer out a farm bill compromise weeks ago, but the House has yet to do so.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is waiting until most issues are resolved by senior lawmakers before she will name House negotiators, according to House agriculture leaders.

"I’m very willing to sit down with colleagues in the House as well as colleagues in the Senate to see if we can find a better solution" to the emergency-non-emergency tension, said Moran, who is also co-chair of a House hunger committee.

"Developmental money has been raided year after year ... We also need to invest in the future," he said. (Editing by Walter Bagley)

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