Feeding the Hungry: More Harm Than Good?

Hunger is, at its root, one of the oldest problems to plague the human race. Currently there are reportedly over 800 million people suffering from hunger worldwide. The United States, in particular, has played a leading role in the perennial struggle against hunger and malnutrition. In this role, the United States both provides cash-based assistance and in-kind transfers of commodities produced and purchased in the United States to both NGOs and foreign governments for distribution to populations in need.

Image courtesy of USAID © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of USAID © 2010, some rights reserved.

Contemporary US food aid programs trace back to the immediate aftermath of World War II. At that time, Europe’s requirements for foreign food (in addition to other essential products) far exceeded Europe’s ability to pay for such food, a fact recognized by the Secretary of State at the time, George C. Marshall, in a speech at Harvard in 1947. The sentiment expressed in that speech, that the United States should assist in the revitalization of European societies, became the Economic Cooperation Act of 1948. The Agricultural Act of 1949, moreover, granted the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to provide surplus US commodities to countries with food shortages. US commitment to food aid was cemented by the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, signed into law 10 July 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. That law, popularly known as Public Law 480, enabled ‘friendly’ foreign countries with food deficits to purchase US agricultural surpluses with local currency, allowing them to conserve their foreign exchange reserves. The effects of Public Law 480 are plain to see: between 1950 and 1970, for example, the share of agricultural exports headed to the developing world increased from 19 per cent to 66 per cent.[1]

Current food aid efforts are centered around the Food for Peace Act, the current iteration of Public Law 480, which features four main program areas. Principal among these areas is Title II, which provides for the donation of US agricultural commodities to support specific emergency or non-emergency food needs. Since the mid-1980s, Title II has served as the largest source of funding for US food aid, according to the report by the Congressional Research Service. Other programs include Food for Progress, the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition, the Emergency Food Security Program, among others.

Despite the laudable aims of US food aid programs, they have rightly come under criticism from a number of angles. The primary critique of US food aid has been on its reliance on in-kind transfers of commodities from the United States. More specifically, it has been noted that US food aid has consistently benefited the producers of said aid in the United States, allowing them to move surplus production overseas and ‘…compensate producers for poor demand on the international marketplace.’[2] Moreover, the Guardian reports that the major beneficiaries of these programs are ‘the highly profitable and politically powerful companies that dominate the global grain trade’, as opposed to rural American farmers. And that is just the tip of the iceberg: other reports, such as one by Foreign Policy, suggest that food aid actually prolongs armed conflicts by feeding the warring parties (and their budgets via resale of looted food aid).

This piece, however, tackles a different problem with food aid programs, and not just those of the United States. According to a NPR piece covering the Food for Peace program, most of the food aid provided by the US is made up of wheat, corn and soy meal, or vegetable oil. These foods are considered staples in a variety of cultures. They transport well and have long shelf lives. However, in keeping people from starvation, these foods also contribute to the world’s leading cause of death—non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

NCDs, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), kill 38 million people worldwide, with three quarters of these deaths occurring in middle- and low-income countries. These diseases—which include cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and diabetes—initially impacted affluent societies greatest, but now strike hardest, according to a WHO report, at poor and disadvantaged populations. These diseases have become a silent epidemic, and are chiefly caused by diet.

The past thirty years has seen an increase in the supply of cereals, which is noteworthy for the fact that traditional cereals of many developing countries such as millet, sorghum, and maize have been replaced by processed ‘global grains’ such as wheat or rice.[3] Highly processed grains such as white flour or white rice are digested exceedingly quickly, resulting in rapid changes in blood sugar, which in turn results in an overproduction of insulin, making the body hungry again. Put succinctly, foods of this nature (termed ‘high glycemic’) promote obesity and type 2 diabetes.[4]

The number of adults with diabetes has increased from 153 million in 1980 to 347 million in 2008. It is predicted that, by 2030, that number will rise to 472 million. While 70 per cent of these observed cases have been attributed to population growth and aging, there has clearly been a dramatic spread of this non-communicable disease. Granted, the increase in diabetes has not been limited to the developing world. According to a US Center for Disease Control publication, less than one per cent of the US population was diagnosed with diabetes in 1958 compared to over seven per cent in 2013.

It is commonly assumed that food aid is supposed to, at least nominally, benefit the recipient country. While it would be tremendously inaccurate to insinuate that US food aid programs have not been valuable, the United States can be—and should be—doing more to ensure that it is providing aid that is most beneficial to its recipient country and not just most profitable to its corporate suppliers. The most straightforward method of achieving this would be to tailor aid packages to specific recipient states, concentrating on traditional staple foods of the region rather than focusing on the export of US surplus agricultural commodities.

However, there are serious obstacles in the way of realizing this recommendation. At its most basic, substantial reform would entail a drastic shift in US aid policy. The good news is that such a shift would also address some of the more common criticisms of US food aid policy, namely its tendency to profit large corporations at the expense of the American taxpayer and those in the recipient state. These issues would be resolved, or at least significantly ameliorated, by the large-scale reduction of in-kind transfers in favor of cash-based assistance devoted to purchasing traditional staples cultivated locally. However, any comprehensive legislative approach to reforming food aid programs would face opposition from corporate interests, as agricultural conglomerates receive millions of dollars in compensation for commodities given as aid by the United States.

In spite of such hurdles, it is important to remember that the fundamental purpose of food aid is to, well, aid the recipients. The food aid policy of the United States, as it stands today, has somewhat sacrificed this goal by tying food aid to domestic agricultural surpluses. While a turn to cash-based assistance focused on reasonably local procurement of traditional staples would by no means address every criticism of US food aid, it could play an understated yet profound role in preventing an increase in non-communicable diseases in the developing world. One would hope that such rationale would suffice to alter US aid strategy, but vested corporate interest and a lack of legislative impetus make such change unlikely in the near future.

[1] Chopra, Mickey. “Globalization and Food: Implications for the Promotion of “Healthy” Diets.” In Globalization, diets and noncommunicable diseases. Geneva: World Health Organization (200): 7.

[2] Diven, Polly J. “The domestic determinants of US food aid policy.” Food Policy 26 (2001): 471.

[3] Uusitalo, Ulla, Pirjo Pietinen, and Pekka Puska. “Dietary Transition in Developing Countries: Challenges for Chronic Disease Prevention.” In Globalization, diets and noncommunicable diseases. Geneva: World Health Organization (200): 5.

[4] Lieberman, Daniel. The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease. London: Allen Lane. 2013. Kindle Edition, location 3792.

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