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Why is Congress Promoting Global Hunger?

Spending ShowdownCongress is considering re-imposing requirements that at least three-quarters of all US food aid be transported on American flagged ships. The requirement, which had been reduced to half of all US food aid by the Obama administration last year, is effectively a $75 million subsidy to the US maritime industry. By requiring that American food aid be transported on US-flagged ships, the law would increase the cost of delivering food aid dramatically and slow delivery times, effectively denying food aid to an estimated 2 million recipients around the world.

Now food aid has lots of problems. In can undermine production in recipient countries, depressing prices for local farmers. Food aid shipped from the United States—regardless of the requirement to ship on US-flagged vessels—is almost always more expensive than purchasing food in the region. And US policy makers have long been clear that the primary purpose of US food aid programming was to protect American farmer and American industry. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) noted that it cost roughly $1,188 per metric ton to purchase and ship food aid from the United States to recipient countries, but only $929 per metric ton to purchase food locally or regionally and distribute it to recipients. The roughly 20 percent savings found through local and regional sourcing—a process known as Local and Regional Purchasing, or LRP—would mean roughly 20 percent more food aid purchased and delivered for the same cost. The requirement that US food aid be shipped on US-flagged vessels represents the most egregious form of hidden subsidies. It increases the cost of delivering food aid, according to some estimates, by as much as 40 percent.

Defenders of the requirement argue that it’s necessary to ensure military readiness; that providing this hidden subsidy to US cargo vessels helps ensure that a fleet of cargo vessels would be available if the United States needed them for war. But the Defense Department has already rejected that claim,noting in a letter to Congress last year that most of the cargo vessels used to ship US food aid are too old, inefficient, and slow to be useful to the military. Studies by both the Department of Homeland Security and the Government Accountability Office support the Department of Defense’s conclusion.

The House of Representatives voted to approve the provision as part of the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act (HR4005). That bill is now being considered by the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.  So write your Senators and tell them to oppose the “cargo preference” requirement in the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act. Defeating that measure will go a long way to helping ensure 2 million more people are fed.

Setting Global Food Standards: What Makes Hummus, Hummus?

Lebanese_style_hummusOver the past few years, American consumption of hummus has grown dramatically. Until the 1990s, hummus was unknown outside of specialty Middle Eastern grocers. Today, it’s in virtually every deli and grocery store across the country. It was even named the “official dip of the National Football League.”

Hummus is a simple dish of Middle Eastern origin that combines chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. While both Israel and Lebanon claim ownership of the dish, its exact origins remain a mystery. But growing global demand for the dish is generating some interesting politics.

Last week, Sabra, an Israeli company that dominates the US hummus market, filed a request with the Food and Drug Administration to develop standards to define hummus. The proposals would limit the use of the term “hummus” to describe dips made primarily of chickpeas and that contain a minimum of 5 percent tahini by weight. Similar standards are already in place in countries like Jordan and Israel.

The primary concern of Sabra is the use of the term “hummus” to describe a wide variety of dips and spreads made from black beans, white beans, lentils, soybeans, navy beans, and so on. From its perspective, Sabra has spent millions of dollars growing American recognition of hummus. The use of the term by other dip manufacturers, they fear, could engender confusion in consumers. The new rules, Sabra argues, would “promote honesty and fair detailing in the marketplace among hummus manufacturers.”

The Costs of the California Drought

drought1The ongoing drought in California is raising concerns that this year’s fire season could be the worst on record. It’s also pitting farmers against environmentalists over who should be able to use how much of the state’s scarce water supply.

A report by the University of California, Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences contends that the drought could result in more than 14,000 jobs being lost and the state’s GDP to decline by over $850 million this year, as farmers are forced to leave fields fallow due to the absence of water. Central Valley farmers are demanding the state bypass water usage restrictions that mandate a minimum level of flow to protect fish in the state’s rivers and bays, and divert water to farms for food production instead. Environmentalists assert that the suspending the minimum flow requirements would pose threats to several fish and bird species on the Endangered Species List.

The drought’s impact will not be limited to California. A study by Arizona State University concluded that the entire United States will likely see sharp increases in the price of avocados (projected to increase 28 percent his summer) and lettuce (projected to jump 34 percent).  Price increases were also forecast for berries, broccoli, grapes, peppers, and tomatoes, and a wide variety of nuts.

California is responsible for about half the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States. As the short-term methods for coping with the drought are exhausted, food production will likely decline, and food prices will increase.

But even more alarmingly, long-term models suggest that this kind of drought will become increasingly common as climate change continues. It’s a bleak picture for the future of food.

Development, Public Health, and Nutrition

mcdchinaA study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published by the World Health Organization earlier this week reached some starting public health conclusions. The study found that the proportion of overweight and obese people increased in every country in the world between 1980 and 2013, and that nutrition-related diseases, including diabetes and pancreatic cancer, are also increasing. The report, published in the Lancet yesterday, found that globally, 36.9 percent of men and 38.0 percent of women are now overweight, increases from 28.8 percent of men and 29.8 percent of women in 1980. The study found that the fastest rate of growth in the prevalence of overweight and obesity was in the developing world. And perhaps most alarmingly, the report could not identify a single national success story—a country in which the proportion of overweight and obesity held steady or declined over the study period.

The study’s lead authors, Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, observed that, “It’s pretty grim…When we realized that not a single country has had a significant decline in obesity, that tells you how hard a challenge this is.”

It’s long been noted that economic development tends to be accompanied by a change in diets, as wealthier individuals tend to eat more meat and processed foods high in salt and sugar, and drink more sweetened drinks like soda. Urbanization also results in shifts in the types of work performed by large portions of the population, moving from outdoor physical labor (often on farms), to indoor, sedentary labor (often in offices).

If the trend observed in this week’s study continues, the benefits of economic growth in the global south could be offset by sharp increases in the cost public health necessary to treat diet-related diseases.

Good Beer and Good Water

The Reinheitsgebot, or the Bavarian Purity Law, dates to 1487 and specified that three ingredients—water, malt, and hops—and only three ingredients could be used to brew beer. While the law was amended in 1993 to permit the use of constituent ingredients like yeast, wheat malt, and cane sugar, the basic formula of water, malt, and hops, remains at the core of brewing, even as the number of brewers around the world has ballooned.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that a group of microbrews in the United States has joined forces to draw attention to the problem of clean water. Dubbed “Brewers for Clean Water” and sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the group works to draw attention to the importance of protecting water supplies. The group also commits to reducing their own water consumption.

Hunger on the College Campus

downloadAccording to a new study at Western Oregon University, 59 percent of students on that campus were food insecure at least once in the previous year, leading researchers to conclude that “food insecurity seems to be a significant issue for college students.” A similar study conducted in 2009 at the University of Hawaii at Manoa concluded that 21 percent of students faced food insecurity. Nationally, the figure for all households is 14.5 percent, leading most observers to conclude that college students face a higher-than-average level of food insecurity in the United States.

The 2014 Farm Bill makes things worse, limiting students’ eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  Blogging at TakePart, Kristina Bravo noted that “Higher tuition and expenses have forced students to cut back on food, and an increasing number of youths from low-income families are enrolling—higher education has long been championed as the key to social mobility. But an empty stomach can only get you so far, and we don’t need a study to prove that.” She’s absolutely correct.

In an era of high-priced meal plans and higher tuition, the “Freshman 15″ is increasinly a thing of the past. The question is, what are we doing about it?

Limiting US Food Aid

foodaidAfter much celebration of a loosening of US food aid regulations last year, we now appear to be moving in the opposite direction. About a year ago, President Barack Obama proposed reforms that would have effectively made US food aid programming more efficient, removing restrictions on requiring that US food aid be shipped on US flagged vehicles, ending the practice of monetizing food aid, and increasing the proportion of food aid provided in cash relative to the proportion provided in-kind. These reforms would have increased the amount of food aid the United States could provide by up to one-third without increasing the food aid budget at all.

But a provision tucked into a Coast Guard spending bill could undermine much of the progress promised by President Obama last year. The provision—already passed by the House and currently under consideration in the Senate—would increase shipping requirements for US food aid. Currently, federal law requires that half of US food aid be shipped on US flagged vessels. The new provision would increase the requirement to three-quarters.  The changes would both increase the cost of food aid shipments (thereby lowering the total amount of food aid that could be provided) and cause longer shipping times (thereby slowing the ability of the United States to respond to emergency situations).

The Obama Administration has worked to oppose the new requirements, noting that they would prevent aid from reaching up to two million people per year and would add $75 million to the annual cost of US food aid programming. Several international organizations, including Oxfam and the World Food Program have lined up in opposition to the measure. But the measure enjoys strong support from the shipping industry lobby, who maintain that the requirement helps to protect American jobs and bolster the country’s merchant marine, thereby contributing to national defense.

It’s always been clear that the primary beneficiary of US food aid has always been American farming and shipping interests. But the proposed reforms clearly illustrate the trade off involved here.


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