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Global food aid advocates plead against funding cuts

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The gulf between the need for global food security programs and fiscal reality came into stark contrast in Washington today as Obama administration officials and Microsoft founder Bill Gates called on Congress to spend more money on international agricultural development, while the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee cut funding for international food aid and congressional Democrats warned of more cuts to come.

At a conference sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah highlighted the Obama administration’s commitment to food aid and agricultural development since the food price crisis in 2008.

The administration intends to devote $1.15 billion to global food security in fiscal year 2011, Shah said, with $950 million going to its signature “Feed the Future” program of agriculture development aid and $100 million allocated to the Treasury to commit money to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a multilateral trust fund run by the World Bank.

But Shah also noted, “These commitments are all subject to congressional consultation.”

Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs Lael Brainard also told the conference that Congress should continue to provide money for the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program trust fund. The trust fund leadership will meet in Washington June 7 and 8 to allocate $200 million for food security projects, she said, and will then be out of money. If Congress does not provide more money to the administration to continue donations, U.S. leadership on global food security will be undermined, she said.

Development advocates have complained recently that governments have not lived up to commitments they have made for agricultural development.

In a luncheon speech, Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a major donor to agricultural development, noted that three-quarters of the world’s poorest people rely on small plots of land for their food and income, and said that helping these small farmers grow and sell more so they can become self-sufficient is the most effective way to reduce hunger and poverty.

“We have a big budget deficit, and foreign assistance is always an easy target,” Gates said. “So we need to tell people over and over why this spending is worth it — even in tight economic times.”

Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee passed a fiscal year 2012 Agriculture appropriations bill that cut the P.L. 480 food aid grants program from $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2011 to $1.04 billion and the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program from $199 million to $180 million.

Republicans said the cuts were necessary to try to bring the budget deficit under control, but Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a former chairman of the subcommittee, decried the cuts in the international food programs as well as those in domestic programs when Congress “does nothing about the oil subsidy.”

At a Capitol Hill reception tied to the Chicago Council conference, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said he sees the cuts in McGovern-Dole as “very disturbing” and worries that additional cuts will be coming when appropriators mark up the Foreign Operations bill, which covers USAID’s programs, including “Feed the Future.”

McGovern told the food and agriculture activists he hopes they can count on the Senate and the Obama administration to oppose the cuts planned by House Republicans.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., an agriculture development and food aid advocate on the House Appropriations Committee, pledged to fight for the “Feed the Future” programs, saying she believes hunger undermines other U.S. foreign assistance. People cannot take anti-AIDS drugs unless they get enough food to absorb them, she noted.

Former Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. food agencies in Rome, said the development budget had been treated in a “fortunate” manner in the final fiscal year 2011 budget, but that in 2012, the Republicans are going to eliminate a lot of programs.

In an earlier interview, Shah told The Hagstrom Report that he was pleased that “Feed the Future” funding held steady in the fiscal year 2011 budget process, and that he had made calls to more than 100 senators and House members to urge them to keep funding for the program.

Rep. Frank Wolf, D-Va., had a different message. Wolf said that until Congress agrees on a bipartisan basis to fix Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and tax policy, “we can’t deal with these issues.” Wolf urged the advocates to put pressure on Congress to resolve these issues so that the Congress could fund other programs such as international food aid and agriculture development.