Time to change international food aid policy, says former US president

The international community must stop treating food like a commodity and instead focus on increasing the ability of countries to feed themselves, former US president Bill Clinton told a United Nations gathering on October 16, World Food Day. The Associated Press reports that he said “we all blew it” by treating food crops “like color TVs” instead of a vital commodity for the world’s poor.

“Food is not a commodity like others,” Clinton said. “We should go back to a policy of maximum food self-sufficiency. It is crazy for us to think we can develop countries around the world without increasing their ability to feed themselves.” He said food aid from wealthy nations could bolster agriculture in poor countries. Canada, for example, requires that 50% of its aid go as cash — not as Canadian grain — to buy crops grown locally in Africa and other recipient countries. U.S. law, however, requires that almost all U.S. aid be American-grown food, which benefits U.S. farmers but undercuts local food crops.

Bush proposed earlier this year that 25% of future U.S. aid be given in cash. “A bipartisan coalition (in Congress) defeated him,” Clinton said. “He was right and both parties that defeated him were wrong.” Clinton also criticized the heavy U.S. reliance on corn to produce ethanol, which increased demand for the crop and helped drive up grain prices worldwide.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the gathering that prices on some food items are “500% higher than normal” in Haiti and Ethiopia, for example. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the number of undernourished people worldwide rose to 923 million last year.

Responding to Clinton’s suggestions for an increase in fair-trade provisions, direct marketing schemes and other policies designed to level the playing field between agricultural producers in developed countries and small farmers in developing countries, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf stressed the need for “new international relations” that would guarantee adequate incomes for farmers of developed countries, without penalizing the farmers of developing countries. He proposed a World Summit on Food Security to be held during the first half of 2009, to reach consensus to eradicate hunger from the world.

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