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Food Insecurity, Famine, and US National Interests

Food Insecurity, Famine, and U.S. National Interests

Alan P. Larson, Under Secretary for Business, Economic, and Agricultural Affairs Testimony Before the House International Relations Committee Washington, DC April 1, 2003

(As prepared)

Chairman Hyde, Ranking Member Lantos, Members of the Committee: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss with you the threat that food insecurity and famine pose to U.S. national interests, and our response to address these threats. We welcome your leadership in keeping a focus on this issue in the House of Representatives. We also appreciate the strong leadership of Mr. Wolf, who has brought both passion and policy insight to this issue.

The Foreign Policy Threat Posed by Famine

Mr. Chairman, famine is insidious. It does not always capture headlines, like military conflicts or hurricanes. Rather, it creeps over a vulnerable population with an equally destructive force, stunting the growth of children, greatly weakening and often killing -- adults in their prime, and unraveling decades of development progress.

Moreover, the carnage that famine exacts does not end when sacks of grain and powdered milk are distributed to the hungry. Individuals, communities, governments and the international community are left to deal with the aftermath of the famine's wake, including loss of assets, income and productivity; increases in disease and regional instability; and widespread suffering and death.

Desperate to keep their families and themselves alive for another day, victims of famines take actions they feel necessary to survive. Concerns for sustainable land management and property rights vanish in the face of imminent death. In the worst cases, refugees stream across borders, citizens riot, and governments collapse. Respect for treaties and demarcations are luxuries these people cannot afford. For this reason, we must approach issues of food security -- hunger and associated poverty not only as an urgent humanitarian imperative but also as a serious foreign policy concern that profoundly threatens our interests in a democratic, stable, prosperous, free-trading world. Regrettably, this threat is growing.

The world is currently facing a series of food security crises around the globe, particularly in Afghanistan, Horn of Africa, North Korea and Southern Africa. As a result, current budgets for food aid are reaching their designated limits. Global food aid requirements this year are expected to exceed 12 million metric tons, according to the World Food Program (WFP). And this is before we factor in our need to address any humanitarian crisis in Iraq, where the agricultural sector is reeling from years of neglect by the Hussein regime.

Due to reduced harvests worldwide and this surge in demand, the amount of food available for aid has dropped to its lowest level in more than five years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). They also estimate a decline in global cereal production by more than 3.1% over the last year, which contributes to the difficulty and cost of addressing famine.

U.S. Leadership: Second to None

The United States has a long tradition of providing humanitarian assistance, dating back to 1812 when the Congress passed an "Act of Relief of Citizens of Venezuela." The first major U.S. food aid operations occurred during and after the First World War. President Eisenhower summed up both the humanitarian and strategic wisdom of providing commodities as assistance when he said, "Food aid can be a powerful instrument for all the world in building a durable peace."

U.S. food aid programs stand as shining examples of the commitment we have shown to help the needy, regardless of political affiliation or the state of our bilateral relationship. Indeed, the United States is the world's leading provider of food aid to the U.N.'s World Food Program, contributing 51.4% of its budget (about U.S. $929 million) this past year. Moreover, as President Bush has stated, "we will not use food as a weapon." Consequently, the United States was the largest supplier of food aid to Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power. We are providing 40,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea in 2003, and will offer 60,000 metric tons more if the D.P.R.K. government agrees to improvements in UN monitoring and increased access to vulnerable populations.

Similarly the United States has led food assistance efforts in the Horn of East Africa. Since July 2002 we have contributed 560,000 metric tons of food aid to Ethiopia and 70,000 metric tons to Eritrea. That brings our share of total contributions to 50 percent to date. We have also recently pledged 200,000 additional metric tons for delivery from the Emerson Trust.

We have no international legal obligation to feed others, but do so because we believe it's the right thing to do -- not because we are obligated by treaties or unenforceable statements of rights. But even if charity motivates us, we provide this aid with a clear-eyed view that doing so is very much in our national interest.

Famines Are a Process

Administrator Natsios has often noted "famine is a process." Unlike a war or natural disaster, which can wreak havoc on an unsuspecting community in a moment's notice, famine situations build over time and can be predicted and prevented. This makes them all the more tragic.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan recently highlighted the multidimensional nature of famine when he warned that "HIV/AIDS, food insecurity and failure of governance comprise a triad of crises leading to unparalleled catastrophe in Africa." Each of these factors, which on their own so severely afflict individuals and communities, are now combining to form a vicious downward spiral from which few can escape -- a "poverty trap." HIV/AIDS incapacitates or kills farmers at a time when they should be at their most productive, reducing food availability and often preventing the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next. Lack of food weakens the immune systems of those already ravaged by HIV and increases the likelihood of opportunistic infections. In addition, poor government policies inhibit the growth of vibrant rural sectors and often fail to take appropriate actions to stem the AIDS crisis.

Aid To Meet Immediate Needs

Last year, the Administration saw these forces coming together. Under the leadership of Administrator Natsios, the Administration acted quickly on multiple fronts to lessen their impact. The most immediate need, which Mr. Natsios will describe in detail, was to warn the international community of the dangerous confluence of these factors and to make ready the humanitarian assistance we knew would be needed.

As we have done so consistently in the past, the U.S. Government is stepping up to the plate with substantial humanitarian resources which Administrator Natsios and Deputy Under Secretary Butler will describe in more detail. In addition, President Bush has proposed in the FY2004 budget a new contingency fund, the $200 million Famine Fund, to improve the ability of the U.S. to respond flexibly to current or imminent famine conditions. Use of the fund will require Presidential approval, and we intend to use it to help leverage increased assistance from other donors.

Administrator Natsios who has done so much to put food security squarely on the foreign policy agenda, has pressed the donor community hard to provide more assistance. Working with him, I have sought to galvanize the G-8 behind an effort to address the immediate crisis and to take more effective international actions to prevent famines in the future.

Ending Famine: A New Initiative

We are working with our G-8 partners to increase the supply of food aid to meet the immediate crisis in Africa. At the same time, we are seeking to promote a more proactive approach to ending famine.

Indeed, in February, the United States and France (which holds the G-8 presidency this year) co-chaired a meeting of the top food aid policy officials of the G-8 countries at the UN Headquarters in New York. Administrator Natsios, Ambassador Negroponte and I represented the United States. We were especially honored that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan opened the session with challenging remarks on the importance of ending famine and participated actively in the subsequent discussion, despite his heavy schedule.

Addressing the Immediate Crisis

Working with the World Food Program, we are seeking to get the firmest possible fix on 2003 emergency food aid needs. This WFP analysis will be matched against anticipated contributions to identify the gaps that need to be filled. We are counting on G-8 countries to take the lead in mobilizing the necessary resources. Former Congressman Tony Hall, now our Ambassador to the UN food agencies in Rome, is playing a crucial role in this effort. We aim to have completed this work by the June 1-3 G-8 Summit in Evian.

Preparation: Early Warning

Even as we address the current crisis, we need to prevent future ones. Our proposal within the G-8 recognizes famine as a process and offers actions to defeat it based on the stage at which it is encountered. The first step is to prepare for famines by using advanced early warning systems and improved communication to raise awareness of an impending food crisis and to mobilize support within governments, international organizations and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to respond. We have set up within the G-8 an experts group to better coordinate our famine efforts and to improve the sharing of information. Early warning systems in the Horn of Africa worked well, and early donor response there has saved many thousands of lives.

Mitigating the Impact of Famine

But where we cannot stop the onset of famine conditions, the second step centers on famine mitigation and ways to get food or the resources to acquire food to those in need. The United States already provides an exceptionally high percentage of the world's food aid. We are actively encouraging other donors to increase their food aid donations, and we are open to discussions on ways to protect more fully commercial sales and local agricultural production.

Sadly, many countries that have commodities in surplus are unable to give to the World Food Program, because they do not have the cash to pay the WFP's required full-cost recovery. Under this system, the donor nation must pay all costs, including administrative and transportation, related to the donation. To free up these commodities and cover the WFP's costs, we have proposed changing WFP procedures to allow "twinning," whereby countries with cash, such as Japan, Singapore or Saudi Arabia, are paired or twinned with countries with commodities, such as Russia, Kazakhstan or Ukraine. Simply put, one country provides the cash, and the other provides the food. We believe this simple concept can go a long way towards providing resources needed to meet crisis needs.

Our mitigation efforts, however, go beyond food aid. We are also proposing more flexible tools to help us better fight the entire array of famines, including those driven by lack of buying power, not the more traditional, lack of supply. In some cases, such as Afghanistan last year, food availability was adequate to meet the populations' needs. Rather, the food crisis was driven by a lack of family financial resources to purchase the food. In such circumstances, excessive injections of external food aid would not increase families purchasing power but could damage local farm prices and farm income. To meet these demand-driven famines, we have proposed well-targeted cash-for-work programs, which allow governments to use cash to pay people to work, such as in agricultural development activities like planting, irrigation or road construction.

The Longer Term: Increasing Agricultural Productivity

In the long run, the most important step is to strengthen the capacity of developing countries to grow more whether to feed themselves or to sell in foreign markets. The starting point is, in the words of Secretary General Annan, to create a second Green Revolution. We must increase agricultural productivity, especially in Africa, to give Africans a chance to leave the poverty that are both a cause and an effect hunger and malnutrition.

Beginning last year, the Administration began a new effort to fight hunger by increasing agricultural productivity. We show-cased our approach at the March 2002 UN Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, at the June World Food Summit, the G-8 Summit in Kananaskis, and then at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

As Administrator Natsios will describe in more detail, the Initiative to End Hunger in Africa (IEHA) will provide increased funding to raise agricultural production and reduce poverty. The strategy is to empower African farmers in key countries and regions by increasing access to both new technologies and markets. The United States increased its 2003 funding for African agriculture by 25% to support implementation of IEHA. The initiative's goal is to double the production of the basic food crops that make up African diets and increase family incomes.

We are committed to working with and assisting developing countries on a bilateral basis. Yet, the needs are too great for one country to shoulder the burden alone. It is critical that a broad group of stakeholders must work together to build a strong international framework for assisting countries in creating thriving and resilient agricultural sectors.

A Foundation of Good Governance

While food aid is not conditional on reform, we must seize every opportunity to urge, pressure and help leaders to increase political and economic liberty, to protect property rights of farmers and to maintain policies that support economic growth.

In Ethiopia and Eritrea, some important governance challenges are being met, but many remain. Peace between the two sides is holding. Both sides accepted the independent Boundary Commission's decision on delimitation. Demarcation is expected to start by early summer this year. Differences over the border have not significantly affected emergency food deliveries. Both governments are cooperating with donors and NGOs to distribute aid to the most needy as quickly as possible. The Ethiopian Government has clearly indicated they welcome biotechnology as a means of increasing agricultural production and preventing future famine. Both governments cooperate with donors in seeking to increase local food production and enhance the early warning systems that have prevented mass starvation so far in this year s drought.

This emphasis on good governance is central to and illustrated by the President s Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) initiative. The Administration seeks to significantly increase our development investment in countries that rule justly, invest in their people and encourage economic freedom. Countries that qualify for MCA by adopting sound governance and policies may choose to focus the aid on improving agriculture. And as the President made clear when he launched the initiative just over a year ago, this Account may be used, among other things, to "increase harvests where hunger is greatest."

Freer Agricultural Trade Promotes Food Security

Multilateral agricultural trade liberalization is fundamental to the goal of food security. Developing country economies are especially dependent on agricultural. Developed country subsidies to agriculture stymie developing countries' -- particularly Africa's -- agricultural potential by suppressing the world price of commodities. Moreover, these subsidies are very large and badly undercut the impact of what we spend on development assistance. By some estimates, liberalization of trade in agriculture could provide developing countries with at least $100 billion in new annual income -- money desperately needed for infrastructure, education, health care and other social services.

Yet the blame for barriers to agricultural trade does not lie solely at the feet of the developed world. Trade between developing countries is already 40% of developing country trade. By reducing their own barriers to trade in agricultural products, developing countries would raise incomes, increase investment and ensure that food products flow to where the need is greatest.

This is one of the reasons why the United States is pressing so hard for comprehensive liberalization of agricultural trade as part of the WTO s [World Trade Organization's] Doha Development trade negotiations. We believe freer trade in agriculture would not only advance U.S. commercial interests, but would also promote economic development of the poorer countries and significantly improve food security.


Mr. Chairman, food security is a serious foreign policy concern that profoundly threatens human health, economic prosperity and political stability. The Administration is acting quickly and decisively to counter food insecurity, we are pushing forward with new initiatives to address the short-term, medium-term and long-term policy responses. While the challenges are great, the opportunities are great as well; with the concerted efforts of a wide range of partners around the world, we can have a real chance to make famine and chronic food insecurity a thing of the past. [End]

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