Farmers, shippers seek to nix Bush food aid plans

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Farm and shipping groups are pushing lawmakers to reject Bush administration pressure for U.S. food aid reforms, saying changes to purchasing rules would undermine overall support for hunger assistance.

The coalition of more than 20 companies and industry groups asked the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee in a recent statement to deny President George W. Bush’s request to use up to a quarter of funds from the largest U.S. food aid program to buy foreign-grown food in fiscal 2009.

The American Maritime Congress, the National Corn Growers Association and others asked lawmakers to “emphatically” reject the plan, which they said would to divert taxpayer dollars to foreign farmers while threatening to distort markets and feed corruption in the developing world.

“When the Europeans migrated to local purchase, their contributions to world hunger relief dropped dramatically. The world’s hungry cannot afford for us to follow in their footsteps,” the groups said.

Yet critics may not have to twist many arms on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers voted down similar proposals in recent years despite White House pleas that more flexible purchasing would save money and time when lives are at stake.

The debate is sharpened this year by soaring commodity prices that have eaten into stagnant food aid budgets, threatening to curtail donations even as needs in vulnerable places like Afghanistan grow more acute.

The industry groups also urged Congress to increase funding for overall food aid donations, asking for $1.8 billion in fiscal 2009 for Food for Peace, the largest U.S. aid program. The administration has proposed $1.2 billion.

Jennifer Spurgat, who heads government relations for the National Association of Wheat Growers, said her industry would lobby for more supplemental food aid funding for fiscal 2008.

The administration has already requested $350 million in last-minute funds in 2008, but some in Washington would like to see that expanded to as much as $600 million to offset the global commodity boom that pushed up world food prices by almost 40 percent last year.

“Most of our concern will be to ensure that funding is enough to work within the new prices we’re facing,” she said.

Another group, including some of the same commodity associations and a number of aid groups that carry out food aid programs overseas, made a similar appeal last week in a letter to Collin Peterson, chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

Peterson has been a central player in shaping the 2008 farm bill, the broad agriculture bill that will set farm and food aid policy for five years.

While the bill has been delayed by funding skirmishes and veto threats from the White House, the Bush administration hopes the House and Senate will scuttle a farm bill proposal to set aside at least $450 million a year for long-term development programs that are funded by food aid donations.

The administration argues the guaranteed funding for non-emergency programs would sap resources that are urgently needed when hunger crises strike. Critics see the programs as wasteful and inefficient at best.

But the letter cautioned that a failure to guarantee long-term funding, along other administration proposals, would “threaten to weaken long-standing public support for food aid at a time of economic uncertainty here in the United States and greater need for food aid in poor countries.”

Editing by Christian Wiessner