The Role of the United States in the Global Food Crisis

Wed, 10/01/2008

 The governments and people of poor countries are bearing most of the cost of the global hunger crisis. Between 2006 and 2007, the cost of food imported by low-income food-deficit countries rose by $30 billion. Governments are subsidizing food, agricultural inputs like seeds and tools and fuel. So far, the financial commitments made by the international community have not come close to covering the costs to poor people and their governments.

When will the global hunger crisis end? Some of the impact is likely to be long term. Food prices are expected to fall somewhat but remain 50% higher than they were in 2004.

As the months pass, the issue may fade somewhat in the U.S. media. But many poor people and poor country governments will be suffering for years ahead.


The U.S. food aid system has been criticized in recent years as slow and wasteful. It can take 4 to 6 months for food to arrive once it has been authorized, and nearly two-thirds of the funding is spent on transportation and other costs that don’t directly help hungry people. And food aid often does not include food suitable for young children.

U.S. food aid commodities for Ethiopia, authorized in March, arrived in late August and early September.

Other donor countries have been able to respond more quickly with cash rather than food in-kind. But the U.S. remains the largest donor of food aid, so improving our food aid system is very important. The U.S. farm bill contains a small pilot program which uses food aid funding to provide cash to purchase food in the regions where it’s needed. Such local purchase options should be expanded, rules requiring U.S. sourcing eased, and the process of acquiring and sending food aid made less cumbersome.

Ultimately, emergency assistance is a short-term Band-Aid. It is poverty-focused development assistance that helps raise people’s incomes and improve their nutrition and overall health so they have an economic safety net and can build better lives for their children. “We need to reform U.S. foreign assistance. A stronger U.S. agency focused on development,” says Bread for the World President David Beckmann. Our foreign assistance structure, established in 1961, is simply not set up to cope with a global emergency. It is far better to invest in sustainable development.

The consensus among development professionals is that rural development and agricultural productivity should be U.S. foreign policy priorities. A good example is Africa where most of its food is grown by women who farm small plots of land. With the right support, the “silver lining” of the hunger crisis could be higher incomes for poor rural women and their children. But years of declining investment in agriculture, and other U.S. and international policy problems, pose barriers to realizing this hope. Studies show that the small amount of donor aid for nutrition is vastly outweighed by the cost to rural populations of agricultural subsidies and protectionism in high-income countries.

Experts are already speaking of a “lost generation” if the global hunger crisis is not addressed quickly and effectively: permanent harm to hundreds of millions of today’s babies and toddlers.

There is hope. The experience of countries like China and Brazil and the historical record in industrialized countries, show that the nutrition of mothers and children can be improved fairly quickly, given the right combinations of political commitment, strategic programming and resources. The U.S. must help build that commitment and secure the resources to help children, women and other vulnerable groups.