TALKING POINT: The global food aid controversy

by Reuters
Tuesday, 27 September 2005 00:00 GMT
LONDON (AlertNet) -

Each year, the world's wealthy nations dish out more than 5.5 million tonnes of food aid to poorer countries, reaching refugees, families in famine zones, schoolchildren who can't afford to eat, mothers with HIV and people all around the world who tread the poverty line.

While no one disputes that food aid can save lives, the global system is in fact extremely controversial and the source of a serious rift between Europeans and the United States that rears its head during agricultural trade talks.

Following is a summary of the major controversies surrounding food aid. For key facts about global food aid see FACTSHEET: How does food aid work?

What could possibly be controversial about giving food to hungry people?

Many aid professionals think food aid should be a last resort, arguing in favour of giving cash or vouchers to hungry people instead. They say food aid can disrupt local markets and make it harder for people to recover from a crisis.

People who subscribe to this view say hunger rarely exists because there's no food in the area - it's just that the food is too expensive for people to buy during a crisis.

Meanwhile, aid workers often argue that the current food aid system puts the interests of donor countries above the needs of hungry people.

International donors are locked in an ongoing argument over the best way to contribute resources to fight hunger. Some countries offer their surplus food production as food aid while others have shifted towards providing money that can be used to buy food in areas where it's needed.

How can food aid disrupt local markets?

If you flood a market with cheap food, prices tend to fall. While that's good for those buying the food, collapsing prices can hurt poor farmers who are struggling to make a living. This has a knock-on effect on the whole agricultural sector. Say wheat prices drop and people start buying wheat instead of maize. Then maize producers suffer.

There is also a danger when food aid arrives too late that it will disrupt the market for the next season's harvest, making it harder for local farmers to recover. Many experts say this happened to Malawi in 2002, and could become a problem in Niger in 2005.

What are the alternatives to food aid?

Some food experts say the international community tends to be far too quick to respond to disasters with food. They argue that what people need isn't food handouts but hard cash or vouchers to use in local shops. This buying power can be used to get food, soap, kerosene or whatever else people need most, even if they've lost their means of making a living.

But if people are starving, surely it's best to fly in food as soon as possible?

Sometimes airdrops of food supplies save lives. But many aid workers say airdropping food should be the absolute last resort of last resorts, because it's random who it reaches, it's expensive and dangerous.

Even in the worst food crises, it's unusual for food to be unavailable -it's just that people can't afford the food that's there. Many food experts say the only circumstances when food aid is appropriate are when it's an absolute emergency, the food arrives at the right time, comes from nearby, is the kind of food that local people eat and goes to the people who need it most.

What's the argument for buying food locally?

Food is expensive to transport, and the cost goes up if oil prices rise for any reason. And it can take a long time. For example, it takes four to five months for food to be shifted from North America to Africa, according to food expert Edward Clay.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that it costs, on average, 50 percent less to procure food locally than to purchase "tied" food imported from donors abroad. However, sometimes food bought locally isn't up to standard.

Sometimes the food aid that's sent from abroad isn't what local people usually eat. This happens less than it used to, but critics say that traditionally European and North American grain crops like wheat and yellow corn are still favoured over African crops like white maize, millet and tubers like cassava.

When Californian raisin producers were having problems in 2003, raisins were included among the food aid the United States gave the U.N. World Food Programme, according to Oxfam.

And then there's the whole issue of rich countries giving surplus food to help their own farmers.

If rich countries have extra food and poor countries don't have enough, surely everybody wins??

The trouble is that there tend to be larger donations of food when international prices are low. This means that when there is most need for it - when prices are high - less food aid is available.

It also means the amount of aid fluctuates unpredictably. Some donors, especially in Europe, have moved since the 1980s away from "tied aid" - meaning that the donor country supplies the food. They say they're trying to provide more appropriate and timely food bought locally or in the region.

Australia and Canada are in the process of moving towards the same practice. Meanwhile, the United States and some new donor countries such as China and South Korea give almost all their food directly to the recipient country. Attempts by the U.S. administration to become more flexible have been blocked by Congress.

The Europeans - including Norway and Switzerland - want the United States to stop tying food aid to subsidised surpluses from its own farmers.

There is no consensus on what would happen if food aid was untied. The WFP argues along the lines of the United States, saying that if this happened immediately it would mean a drop in food aid. The Europeans counter that changes could be spread over several years.

What happens when food aid is genetically modified?

This became a big issue during a food crisis in southern Africa in 2002. Countries that rejected genetically modified (GM) food were accused of letting their people starve unnecessarily, and countries that offered it were accused of forcing it on people with no choice over the matter.

Aid agencies and the WFP were directly involved in the controversy because it was cheaper to supply GM yellow maize from the United States than white maize from South Africa.

It's not just a question of whether eating GM food is healthy, but also about its potential impact on the receiving country's trade relationships. If grain given as food aid is planted or fed to chickens bred for export, it could have serious consequences if products end up being turned down by markets that reject GM food, like Europe. One way to offset this is to mill grain before distribution, so it can't be planted.

Where can I read more?

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