I don’t need a title for this
by Caleb Reading
The bag of green peas, stamped “USAID From the American People,” took more than six months to reach Haylar Ayako.
For seven of his grandchildren, that was a lifetime.
They died as the peas journeyed from North Dakota to southern Ethiopia. During that time, the American growers, processors and transporters that profit from aid shipments were fighting off a proposal before Congress to speed deliveries by buying more from foreign producers near trouble spots. As a result of legal mandates to buy U.S. goods, the world’s most generous food relief program wasn’t fast or flexible enough to feed the starving in Ethiopia’s drought-ridden South Omo region this year.
U.S. farm and shipping lobbyists have stifled efforts to simplify aid deliveries, leaving Africans to starve when they might have been saved, said Andrew Natsios, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who led USAID, the Agency for International Development, from 2001 to 2006.
“No one can take the high moral ground against it, so they hide behind closed doors and kill it,” he said. “It’s all done behind the scenes.”
Lawmakers this year failed to pass President George W. Bush’s January proposal to buy food closer to starving people rather than shipping American produce. In May, Bush renewed his request to spend 25 percent of the program locally after food riots broke out in Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean.
Cargill Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Bunge Ltd. accounted for 47 percent of 2007 commodities spending for aid, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program was created in the 1950s, partly to reduce domestic surpluses. The regulations require that almost all the peas, corn and other crops come from American sources, effectively steering the bulk of the business to the biggest food-trading companies.
The rules also stipulate that 75 percent of the food must be transported on U.S.-flagged vessels, benefiting ship operators, including Liberty Maritime Corp., based in Lake Success, New York, and Sealift Inc., of Oyster Bay, New York. In 2007, the program’s shipping contracts were worth $385 million, according to the USDA.
Politics isn’t the only manmade cause of the disaster that befell Ayako and his family in Ethiopia. Dozens of interviews on six continents show that the global food crisis also has roots in the failure by governments of developing countries to invest in agriculture, in a three-fold jump in fertilizer prices over two years and in speculators who doubled bets on grain futures and drove prices to records.