As a small tropical fruit farmer in Miami, I can recall when our local markets were distorted, directly affecting our economic lives and agricultural options. A couple of years after Hurricane Andrew, we saw prices on the longan fruit drop by almost 50 percent after imports arrived from Taiwan and China. That was tough on our family business and forced us to diversify our products.
But these kinds of local market distortions aren’t just happening in our community. They are happening all over the world, to hungry people who need the food the most. Since 1954, Americans have provided lifesaving food for millions of hungry people through a program called Food for Peace, but the system has never been seriously updated.
The 1950s were a time of large agricultural commodity surpluses, and the program was brilliantly conceived to serve the dual purpose of propping up the heartland farmers while providing a tangible expression of our compassion and generosity, perhaps the greatest symbol of U.S. leadership as a force for good in the world.
Much has changed since the time of President Eisenhower, and American farmers have far more opportunities to sell their crops as new products or for export. Rising costs of food crops and shipping have reduced the value of our aid dollar by as much as 70 percent.
Proposals to modernize food aid released by President Obama earlier this year include using some of the dollars spent on outdated subsidies to purchase food locally or provide vouchers for direct individual purchase. Most wealthy nations have already made this change and there are multiple benefits. Food commodities purchased locally in developing countries can be cheaper to produce and do not need to be shipped. Most important, in my view as a small farmer, the food does not end up hurting the very people we are trying to help.
We can see further evidence of market distortions affecting local farmers and agriculture nearby on the island of Haiti. So much American rice was sent to Haiti as food aid that virtually all the rice farmers went out of business because they could not compete. Former President Clinton has apologized for this unintended consequence of his humanitarian impulse. The people of Haiti even developed a preference for American rice causing an additional barrier to restarting agricultural production locally.
It is estimated that Obama’s changes to the current food aid system could feed as many as 4 million more people without costing taxpayers a dime if we adopt these simple and smart reforms. The food would also arrive more than 21/2 months faster, which could mean life or death for a person who is starving.
Buying food locally is more than just a fad. It is a way of supporting local agriculture, and nowhere is that more important than in poor developing countries. When we ship food to developing nations or provide it to relief organizations to “monetize” by selling cheaply in local markets, we distort those markets and damage local production of agricultural commodities. We also waste most of our food-aid dollar on subsidies and shipping.
Organizations such as CARE and Oxfam have been on the front lines advocating for more flexible and effective use of food-aid dollars. The poverty-fighting organization CARE, which works in more than 80 countries, found that these subsidies were hurting the very farmers and families they were trying to help. Many of these farmers are women. Seven years ago, CARE took a principled stand, abandoning open-market monetization. The decision cost the organization more than $45 million a year.
There are agriculture groups that oppose such changes to the way food aid is delivered abroad. They say the current system works and the food aid system is OK the way it is. However, if we know the reforms can feed millions more and reach those in need faster, shouldn’t a modernized food-aid system be the obvious choice?
Of course, there is still an important role for U.S. commodities in places where food is not available or where local purchases are not beneficial to the market. Under Obama’s reforms, groups can still purchase commodities from U.S.-based producers where and when it is appropriate.
It’s clear that a more modern food aid system can be a part of lifting more people out of extreme poverty. It can stabilize developing nations. It can lead to strong local markets and permanent economic growth. It saves lives and is the right thing to do.
As a small farmer in America, I encourage our policymakers to take this common sense stand and modernize our food aid system.
Alexandra Gordon is an environmental horticulturist with a family farm and nursery in the Redland District.