By SEAN ELLIS
U.S. farm groups are alarmed by the president's proposal to eliminate the country's international food aid program, which purchases U.S. commodities and ships them abroad, and switch to a new cash-based system that can buy food overseas closer to where it's needed.
The new system called for in the president's proposal "would no longer be a benefit for American agriculture," said Blaine Jacobson, chairman of the National Association of Wheat Growers' food aid working group.
Jacobson, executive director of the Idaho Wheat Commission, said the proposal would have a major impact on the domestic wheat industry, which accounts for half of total U.S. foreign food aid.
About 5 percent of the United States' wheat crop goes through food aid channels, representing the industry's 10th largest market.
The changes "would have a big impact on the wheat industry, as well as corn, soybeans" and other commodities, Jacobson said.
A long list of U.S. farm commodity groups -- dry beans, barley, oilseed, meat, rice, corn, soybeans, peas and lentils, wheat, potatoes, peanuts, cotton -- sent the president a letter opposing the proposal.
The proposal needs congressional approval and was not included in separate versions of the farm bill passed this week by the House and Senate agriculture committees. But it could be included through the amendment process, say officials of the Alliance for Global Food Security, a coalition of humanitarian aid groups that opposes the changes.
It's the first time a president has proposed that type of change to the Food for Peace program, which was created in 1954 and is funded to the tune of about $1.6 billion annually. That in itself is alarming, said AGFS Executive Director Ellen Levinson.
"We're a little shocked," she said.
She said the proposal, which would reduce funding to $1.4 billion annually, is an entire reformulation of America's international food aid program and would move funding to two different foreign aid accounts.
According to a White House briefing paper, the changes would allow assistance to reach an estimated 2-4 million more people annually by allowing the U.S. government to respond more flexibly to hunger needs.
According to the White House, regional procurement can get food to people in critical need 11 to 14 weeks faster and at a savings of 25-50 percent.
But Levinson said the proposal shifts money from a "well-established, transparent program" to very general foreign accounts that can use the money for other emergency needs.
"It's not well-planned," she said. "They will have endangered this really good program that really works with a wish and a promise. I think that's scary."
Jacobson said the current program has enjoyed widespread support because it benefits agriculture, transportation and other domestic industries. Decoupling the program from these industries would jeopardize future funding at current levels, he said.
"Besides the impact on farmers, there is no guarantee funding for food aid would continue at those levels," he said.