Here we go again.

No sooner, it seems, did agriculture development spending fairly well survive the budget slashing for 2011 and 2012 then it is under attack again in the 2013 deliberations.  The House yesterday, working along party lines, passed a budget plan which nakedly proposes to kill the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative.

The plan, crafted by the House budget committee chaired by Paul Ryan, includes a paragraph titled “Eliminate Feed the Future.”  It says:

“Initiated by the Obama administration in 2009, Feed the Future aims to end global food insecurity through investments in nutrition and agriculture abroad.  While addressing the issues of poverty and malnutrition around the globe is important, the U.S. Government’s fiscal condition does not permit the expansion of U.S. foreign assistance initiatives, especially ones that overlap with existing programs.  The United States currently has two other major food aid programs: Food for Peace (the primary food aid account) and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program.  Both of these aid programs address global food insecurity in the world’s poorest countries, including through agricultural development efforts.  This budget reflects a need to consolidate our food air programs in order to eliminate associated costs with mission redundancy.”

This is wrong on so many levels, factually, logically, morally.

Factually.  There is really no overlap between Feed the Future and the “two other major food aid programs.”  Feed the Future is not another food aid program; in fact, it is the opposite.  It is an agricultural development program designed to create the conditions for poor smallholder farmers to grow more of their own food so food aid isn’t needed in the first place.  Food for Peace and McGovern-Dole may incorporate some agricultural development efforts, but they aren’t the primary focus of those programs and they aren’t as broad and targeted as Feed the Future.

Logically.  If the House Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget plan really want to reduce food aid costs, they would line up solidly behind Feed the Future, because it will do that budget cutting work for them.  The world’s smallholder farmers, ironically, are some of the main recipients of food aid.  Because of the neglect of agricultural development efforts over the past three decades, these farmers struggle mightily to feed their families.  The yields of Africa’s smallholder farmers are less than one-quarter the yields of farmers in the U.S., and much of what they do grow goes to waste because of poor storage facilities.  If Feed the Future is successful, the harvests of the smallholder farmers will grow in size and nutritional quality and they will become self-sufficient.  The need, and thus the cost, for food aid, will shrink substantially.

The budget slashers say this is the absolute wrong time to be expanding foreign aid for programs like Feed the Future.  In fact, it is absolutely the right time.  The Obama budget is requesting about $1 billion in fiscal 2013 for Feed the Future.  Cut that and you won’t see the multi-trillion dollar deficit-reduction needle move one bit.  But invest that, and the savings will accumulate year after year as the chronic need for food aid declines.

Also, this is precisely the right time to begin addressing the great global challenge facing us: the need to nearly double food production by 2050 to meet the demand of an increasing, and increasingly prosperous, population.  The smallholder farmers growing as much food as they can are indispensable to any success.  If we don’t start tackling this challenge now, then when?  Feed the Future is a key part of the momentum building around the need to reverse the neglect of agricultural development; it is building in corporations, foundations, humanitarian organizations and multilateral institutions like the World Bank.  All those allies – including other governments – who have joined the administration in marching forward in the fight against hunger would now likely join us in retreat.

Morally.  Eliminating Feed the Future would indicate that the U.S. is abdicating its leadership role in a great humanitarian challenge, a role it once relished in the times of the Marshall Plan and the Green Revolution.  Feed the Future has been emerging as one of the prime examples of the deployment of American “soft power” abroad; it puts the American people shoulder-to-shoulder with the smallholder farmers in their efforts to feed and educate their children.  I spent much of last year with farmers in western Kenya seeing how agriculture development can be a transforming agent in ending hunger and reducing poverty.  Their efforts are chronicled in the book, The Last Hunger Season, due out in May.

The Ryan budget proposal is also a retreat in the domestic fight against hunger.  It would cut 17% of food stamp spending, a heavy blow to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  Overall, the majority of the budget cuts would come from low income programs.

Last year, similar attempts were largely thwarted by the actions of many in the humanitarian community who formed a “circle of protection” around these domestic low income and foreign aid programs.  They stressed that the budget is a moral document, and shouldn’t seek to reduce the deficit on the backs of the poor and hungry.

That cry is rising again, the circle of protection is reforming.  The budget slashers may believe that their attack on foreign aid and domestic assistance programs is a far-sighted move.  But here they are wrong again.  For in terms of addressing the growing hunger problem both at home and abroad and the looming challenge of feeding the future, it is horribly short-sighted.


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