The lines in the fight to fix America's broken food aid programs have been drawn upon clear and understandable lines. In the pro-reform camp we seem to have major editorial boards, including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and New York Times. Think tanks across the political spectrum, including the Heritage Foundation, the CATO Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for Global Development have also been unusually non-partisan in lining up to support the reforms advocated by the Obama administration. Major humanitarian organizations, including Oxfam, Care, and Save the Children have also been outspoken advocates for reform. In short, anyone who has taken a serious look at the issue seems to agree that the current system for delivering food aid is just this side of crazy.
In a nutshell, these reforms would make food aid more flexible and efficient by purchasing a higher percentage of food aid closer to where it is actually needed. Currently, the overwhelming majority of food for U.S. government relief programs is purchased in the United States and then shipped thousands of miles overseas, often at great cost. The current system is great for large agribusiness concerns and shippers but not for American taxpayers or people in need. Most other donors procure food through local and regional systems, and more than half of every dollar spent on U.S. food programs currently goes to shipping and transportation costs rather than lifesaving food.
The opponents of food-aid reform consist of two main groups: 1) maritime companies and food-processing firms that are enriching themselves off of the current pork-barrel approach to delivering food aid; and, 2) timid members of Congress who worry about getting crossways with these shippers and Big Ag.
The arguments against reforming food aid from the maritime industry are perhaps the most risible. A February letter from the American Maritime Congress and other vested interests argued that the current food aid system should not be changed because it "provides support for our U.S. Merchant Marine" and is "essential to our national defense sealift capability."
Readers can be forgiven for not understanding what exactly the U.S. food aid program has to do with America's national defense sealift capability. The explanation rests in legislation that is now close to 60 years old. A 1954 law on cargo preference mandated that the majority of U.S. food aid commodities be shipped aboard U.S.-flagged vessels, i.e. ships registered in the United States.
The law was a reasonable Cold War policy originally meant to ensure that additional ships and their naval crews were available during times of war. From that good intention came a six-decade entitlement for U.S. shippers with zero military value. There has been no documented call-up of citizen mariners for national security purposes from agricultural cargo preference vessels since the program began. If we did not need this capacity in such major land wars as Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, it is frankly impossible to imagine when we would.