The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, Feb. 26:
The $1 trillion farm bill signed into law this month is largely a missed opportunity for taxpayers and a gift to special interests. But deep in the guts of this monstrous legislation, the careful reader will find at least one pleasant surprise. There's a reform that stands to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of hungry people around the world, at no additional cost to this nation.
For decades the U.S. has shipped stockpiles of emergency food abroad to relieve hunger and malnutrition. The nation spends about $1.4 billion on its main program, known as Food for Peace.
Taxpayers haven't been getting their money's worth.
By law, practically all the aid has had to be produced in the U.S. and shipped by U.S. companies to the remote places where it would be consumed or sold on the open market to fund development projects.
Buying wheat in Kansas City and sending it halfway around the world to Syria, Sudan or the Central African Republic is terribly inefficient if there's a supply of food in the region. Delivering bulk commodities costs a fortune and depresses prices to the disadvantage of local vendors.
It would be much smarter to use taxpayer funds to buy supplies where they're needed instead of shipping them from far away, or to provide vouchers that hungry people can use to buy food on the spot in their local markets. American farmers and shippers have long resisted these changes, however, because it would cut into their sales.
The farm bill provides much greater flexibility for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which runs the food program. About 20 percent of the money devoted to foreign food aid will no longer be restricted. The change is so significant that it should enable the program to serve 600,000 more people on the same budget, according to Dr. Rajiv Shah, who heads USAID. All told, with other changes in appropriations legislation, assistance will reach 800,000 more people.
Other provisions in the farm bill provide flexibility the agency needs to greatly expand its purchases of local provisions, and to deliver more nutrient-fortified, ready-to-eat foods, as opposed to corn, soybeans and wheat. In combination with reforms contained in the fiscal 2014 appropriations measure, the farm bill will enable USAID to greatly reduce the practice of selling bulk commodities from the U.S. in trouble spots abroad to raise cash that can be used for local purposes. That practice, known as monetization, plays havoc with fragile farm economies. It should have been eliminated long ago.
These changes will help the image of the U.S. abroad, and U.S. taxpayers will see their money spent more wisely.