March 26, 2008 / 12:10 AM / 12 years ago

Billions for Iraq war seen squeezing food aid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The cost of the Iraq war is squeezing funding for U.S. global food aid programs and threatens to exacerbate hunger just as soaring prices are hitting the world’s poor, former U.S. presidential contender George McGovern said on Tuesday.

U.S. soldiers stand near the Swords of Qadisiyah monument in Baghdad March 13, 2008. REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz

McGovern, a special envoy for the U.N. food aid agency, is pressing U.S. lawmakers to guarantee funds for child nutrition programs that are part of an agriculture bill making its way through Congress.

The former Democratic senator from South Dakota said mandatory funding for the McGovern-Dole program — which sends U.S. crops to poor schoolchildren overseas — would sail through Congress were it not for the hundreds of billions of dollars being poured into Iraq.

“If we didn’t have this war going in Iraq, this thing would be a piece of cake. They could drop that much money through the cracks every lunch hour at the Pentagon,” McGovern told Reuters.

With the price tag of the Iraq war, five years on, around $500 billion, economists say the conflict is compounding a national debt that already tops $9 trillion. Some see Iraq costing up to $3 trillion in the long run.

Food aid from the United States, the world’s top donor, is a prominent issue as governments and aid groups strive to ensure that aid is not decimated by skyrocketing prices for grains, oilseeds and fuel.

After global food prices jumped by nearly 40 percent last year, the World Food Program has been forced to canvass donors for $500 million in last-minute donations.

CUTTING BACK ON MEALS

U.S. aid officials are in a similar quandary, bracing for cuts just as the world’s poor find it more difficult to afford food, even when it is available.

Josette Sheeran, WFP’s executive director, warned this week that most of the poor are now cutting back on meals.

Last year, the House of Representatives voted to make funding for the McGovern-Dole program, which has been $100 million in recent years, mandatory as part of the 2008 farm bill, the giant agriculture package that is now months behind schedule.

The House bill would ramp up funding to $140 million in fiscal 2009 and increase it to $300 million by 2012. That is just a small part of the farm bill’s five-year tally of close to $290 billion.

But the Senate chose not to guarantee funding for the program, leaving it up to Congress each year to set a funding level. That situation “throws program planners and administrators into a tizzy,” McGovern said.

“If we could get the Senate to accept this, and the House to stand firm ... that would be one of the most constructive single acts Congress could take,” he added.

McGovern, 85, who lost the presidential race to Richard Nixon in 1972, said he is hopeful the Senate will change course when it hammers out a compromise bill with the House.

The program, also named for former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate in 1996, claims success in bolstering school enrollment and attendance in countries from Afghanistan to Laos.

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington; Editing by Russell Blinch and Xavier Briand

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