The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Why US Farmers Should Take “Pride” in Reforming Food Aid

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A member of the Farm Bureau disagrees with its president.

It feels good to be productive. As a Kansas farmer and rancher, I like the fact that I help transform air, water, and minerals into wheat and meat that can help sustain people. And as an agricultural advocate for Oxfam America, being productive means supporting sisters and brothers around the world to farm as I do and help feed their neighbors.

A US wheat field in Kansas. Photo via Flickr
A US wheat field in Kansas. Photo via Flickr
An Ethiopian wheat field in Oromia. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Oxfam America
An Ethiopian wheat field in Oromia. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Oxfam America

That’s why the reforms to US food aid are so important to me. As a member of the Farm Bureau, it’s also why I am so disappointed that the Farm Bureau would distort the need for those reforms in a recent editorial.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Stallman calls in to question the accountability and efficacy of using cash, rather than shipping food, when he writes that:

“Shipping a cargo load of food, rather than the money to buy food (if it is available), is the best and most secure way to ensure that taxpayer-funded international food assistance actually makes it to hungry people overseas.”

Really?!? When the distance between the US and the country we are supporting means an average of 130 days between procurement and delivery, I find this hard to believe. When over half of those taxpayer dollars that could be helping to feed people are siphoned away into the pockets of middlemen before one hungry child is fed, I’m concerned that there are many a slip between the cup and the lip.

Yes, I like to know that what I do as a farmer can help people to be fed around the world. But I don’t think that way when I consider that my “feeling good” (Stallman uses the word “pride” here) hurts the ability of other farmers in developing countries to feed themselves and their communities.

Mr. Stallman is concerned about “good international relations.” So am I. Consider the effects on a Haitian farmer with rice to sell when the earthquake hit in 2010, as “free” commodities flooded the local market in Port au Prince. This same question arises for crisis areas in other countries and their neighboring regions, where food is available, transport is closer, and markets are functioning.

The proposed reforms don’t eliminate US-produced commodities from being used for aid. In fact the majority of emergency food aid will remain in that form. But, these reforms are something of which the Farm Bureau should be “proud”.  First, they follow the conservative principle that public money needs to be used efficiently and seeks to achieve the greatest bang for the buck. Second, the reforms hope to take of advantage of and support existing markets by purchasing food locally or regionally when feasible.

From where I sit, overlooking my land on the Great Plains, US support of international agriculture has undercut neither our farmers, nor our national security over the decades. Some of the biggest markets for US commodities are in countries that used to struggle with food security. While emergency food aid may be a band-aid for a day, our support of long-term agricultural programs and market development helps create stability, more food, and new customers for our own goods.

Now that is the pathway to friendship—something we can feel good about for years to come.

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  1.  avatarBrad Wilson

    I agree with this, but it doesn’t go far enough. Neither Oxfam nor Farm Bureau have supported Farm Bill Price Floors to end export dumping. Oxfam has thought that giving subsidies causes dumping. That’s like saying that if you cut Food Stamps, then Walmart will pay fair wages. 80% of the undernourished are rural. Decades of lower and lower prices, supported by Farm Bureau, (and then Oxfam, unknowingly,) have been so damaging that there are savage dilemmas that must be faced to fix it.

  2. Jim French

    Oxfam’s opposition to price floors will continue to be an area where we will respectfully disagree with many groups that otherwise do great work to support small-scale, community-based agriculture. Up until the food price spike of 2008, commodities like corn, cotton, rice, and peanuts had price floors that exceeded the cost of production. This influenced planting decisions and technological shifts (irrigation in the Great Plains) that drove huge surpluses of crops, plummeting prices, and adverse environmental consequences. Even now, rice and peanuts continue to leverage inflated price floors. While Oxfam does not oppose subsidizing agriculture, we want to do it in ways that support stability, sustainability, and flexibility. Instead of tinkering with price, we think that farmers might be better supported for environmental services, with research and extension supporting “specialty crops,” diversification, and environmental conservation. These approaches prevent distortions to markets, and don’t fuel consolidation and expansion.


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