Food aid: generosity in the national interest | 2021-12-15

KANSAS CITY — When The Southwestern Miller, the predecessor to Milling & Baking News, was launched as a weekly news magazine for the flour milling and grain industries in March 1922, the United States was engaged in what was at the time and for many years to come the world’s largest humanitarian mission ever, sending US food to Russa to save millions from starvation. It was the first but far from the last such US humanitarian food aid mission chronicled in the pages of Sosland Publishing Co.’s premier weekly news publication.

Drought and famine broke out in the Volga and Ural regions of the Soviet Union in 1921 and raged across broad expanses of the countryside through 1922. An estimated 5 million people perished from starvation. The Bolshevik government, having just prevailed in a devastating civil war, did not have the wherewithal to contain the catastrophe. In fact, during the civil war, the government dispatched Red Guard units from hungry cities to forcibly requisition farmers’ grain stores, even seed grain needed to sow the next year’s crops.

The Bolsheviks, having recently turned back the military intervention of US, British and other allied armed forces that sought to bolster anti-revolutionary armies arrayed against the fledgling Soviet government, were loath to accept outside assistance. But conditions were dire and threatening to become even worse, and the Bolsheviks relented.

The American Relief Administration, formed to distribute US food assistance to Europe during and in the immediate aftermath of World War I, led what became an international famine relief effort in Russia. The ARA was headed by Herbert Hoover, who directed President Woodrow Wilson’s Food Administration during World War I and became Secretary of Commerce in 1921 in the Harding Administration. Mr. Hoover later was elected the 31st president of the United States.

Initially, the ARA envisioned feeding 1 million Russian schoolchildren a day in famine areas, but it soon was feeding 10.5 million people a day at more than 21,000 local kitchens. It was a herculean enterprise with young American volunteers, most former doughboys, dispatched to Russia to organize food procurement, shipping, transportation and distribution, and even administer railroads in famine areas. In support of the effort, Congress appropriated $20 million to be used for the purchase and transport of US corn.

The Southwestern Miller, in its second issue, reported the US Grain Corp. (a food purchasing arm of the US government) was tendering for 5,000 tons of corn grits for shipment to Russia. This tender was one of several for corn grits, which was the mainstay of the US relief mission.

US wheat also was shipped to the Soviet Union during the famine but mostly for seeding.

The US-led effort in turning back the Russian famine of 1921-22 illustrated the principal underlying features of subsequent US international food assistance initiatives.

First and foremost, it highlighted the generosity of the American people in sharing their bounty with those who temporarily and through no fault of their own were unable to feed themselves.

Second, there was a measure of self-interest. In most years, American farmers produce more grain and other foodstuffs than can be consumed domestically. Commercial exports always have provided vital outlets for US agricultural products. But in years of particular bounty or narrowed export outlets, surpluses may weigh heavily on the market and depress farm prices. In the months before the Soviet famine-relief effort, corn had been selling in the United States as low as 11¢ a bu. Once purchases for Soviet famine relief began, the corn price advanced quickly to 60¢ a bu as the surplus was drawn down.

International food assistance in many years has provided an outlet for US surpluses that otherwise may have gone to waste or at the least would have weighed heavily on farm prices and incomes. This was especially true in years when the federal government impounded huge stocks of grain and other farm products it acquired through farm income support programs.

While US farm and trade policies have been reformed and have become much more market oriented in the past several years, and the US government no longer is a large, let alone the largest holder of US grain stocks, US purchases of grain and other foodstuffs on the open market for donation abroad still benefit the US farm and food communities while sustaining the lives of those in crisis abroad.

And third, there was in the Soviet famine relief effort, as there has been in all subsequent such initiatives, strategic considerations. Mr. Hoover was stridently anti-communist. But he believed that extending assistance directly to the people of the Soviet Union would provide not only an example of American generosity but also of American efficiency and know-how, in other words, the superiority of the American system. He never lost hope that the Soviet experiment would fail and that the Bolsheviks would be removed from power.

As Mr. Hoover might have said, the United States wants and needs friends. It wants stable and increasingly prosperous trading partners. Often extending a helping hand when assistance is needed over time may make for a more prosperous and secure world in which the United States may thrive.

WWII: Lend-Lease, and Feed

The Second World War in Europe broke out in September 1939 with the Nazi German invasion of Poland. The United Kingdom and France, having failed in efforts to prevent the German seizures of Austria and Czechoslovakia and concerned the Nazi’s expansionism knew no bounds, had warned Germany should it invade Poland, they would declare war. Germany invaded, and what tenuous peace existed across much of Europe since the end of the First World War was finished.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, concerned the United States would not be able to keep war at bay forever, began to beef up US defenses in 1940 and sought ways to extend a helping hand to the United Kingdom, which stood alone against the Nazis after the surrender of France and other European nations.

The United States greatly expanded aid to the United Kingdom through the Lend-Lease Program, which was established by an act of Congress in March 1941. Congress initially appropriated $7 billion, with more to come later, to assist the United Kingdom and its allies in procuring the wherewithal to resist aggression. Allies to receive Lend-Lease assistance soon were to include the Soviet Union, which in June 1941 was invaded by Nazi Germany. The Lend-Lease program expanded to include assistance to yet more allied nations after the United States entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

While most Lend-Lease aid was in weapons and equipment, President Roosevelt on April 16, 1941, authorized Secretary of Agriculture Claude R. Wickard to begin shipping food aid under the program as well. The Southwestern Miller in its April 22, 1941, issue carried an article headlined “American Food May Win World War II.” The article reported on a radio broadcast by Secretary Wickard who asserted, “Food raised by American farmers may yet win the war and decide the peace, and in such a way that this thing cannot happen again … England needs American food. This food will help her hold out against the Nazi. On the other hand, the lack of food is likely to defeat Germany. In the struggle between freedom and the goosestep, food may decide the issue.”

Initial food shipments to the United Kingdom under Lend-Lease included evaporated milk, cheese and eggs. But the same April 22 issue of The Southwestern Miller reported flour purchases for shipment to the United Kingdom were expected imminently.

Between April 16 and Dec. 25, 1941, arrivals of US Lend-Lease foodstuffs in the United Kingdom passed the 1-million-ton mark. A steady flow of American food and even vitamins to the United Kingdom continued through the end of the war in 1945.

Secretary of State Edward Stettinius in his wartime book titled “Lend-Lease, Weapon for Victory,” noted the important role Lend-Lease played in delivering US food to help feed Soviet Red Army soldiers fighting the Germans. When the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, was overrun by the Nazis, the Soviet Union lost a large part of its supply of hogs, potatoes and grain. In December 1941, officials of the US Department of Agriculture began to meet weekly with Soviet Union representatives on their country’s food needs, which were considerable and increasingly urgent.

“In the first part of 1942, shipments were limited almost entirely to wheat, flour and sugar,” Mr. Stettinius said. “Looking ahead, however, the Soviet Government Purchasing Commission had requested for future large amounts of canned meats and of fats and oils also. The Russians were short on food in general, but especially short on the proteins and fats necessary to maintain their fighting strength. I think it can be said that without the food sent from the United States, it would have been necessary either to reduce considerably the Red Army’s rations or to cut the ration of war workers well below the danger line in order to maintain the Red Army at top fighting strength.”

Food to secure the peace

Allied victory over Nazi Germany in May 1945 and over the Japanese Empire in September 1945 ended the fighting but not the misery and hunger in the United Kingdom and in those countries in Europe and Asia that were the war’s killing fields.

Immediate post-war food assistance to Europe was provided by the United States through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency. The UNRRA was primarily a US initiative but also drew on donations from other food-surplus countries. During its brief tenure, the UNRRA, which was discontinued in 1947, provided more than 25 million tonnes of food assistance, more than three times the post-World War I relief.

Such large-scale relief was essential as crop production in Europe was slow to recover from the ravages of the war years, and the bitterly cold winter of 1946-47 severely damaged winter crops planted for harvest in 1947.

With another harsh European winter in prospect, President Harry S. Truman in a radio and television address to the nation on Oct. 5, 1947, said, “The situation in Europe is grim and forbidding as winter approaches. Despite the vigorous efforts of the European people, their crops have suffered so badly from droughts, floods and cold that the tragedy of hunger is a stark reality. The nations of Western Europe will soon be scraping the bottom of the food barrel. They cannot get through the coming winter and spring without help — generous help — from the United States and from other countries that have food to spare.

“Their most urgent need is food. If the peace should be lost because we failed to share our food with hungry people, there would be no more tragic example in all history of a peace needlessly lost.”

The president’s remarks were reported in full in the Oct. 7, 1947, issue of The Southwestern Miller. Under a headline reading “Bread Saving; Meatless, Eggless, Days,” the editors outlined the president’s plan for food conservation in the United States to help meet emergency needs in Europe.

“The president called for meatless Tuesdays and asked that no poultry or eggs be served on Thursdays along with recommendations to farmers to reduce feeding of grain to livestock,” the editors said. “In the case of bread, the president asked every consumer to ‘save a slice every day’ and also asked that public eating places serve bread and also butter only on request.”

With Europe still on the ropes, the European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan, was approved by Congress in the spring of 1948. The Marshall Plan had as a principal goal stimulating the recovery of European economies and thereby curbing the influence of the Soviet Union and national communist parties. Food played a significant role in Marshall Plan assistance. About $3 billion of the $13 billion extended by the Marshall Plan was used by European nations to purchase US food, animal feed and fertilizer.

PL 480, food for peace

As the need for emergency food aid to Europe began to abate in the early 1950s and military demand waned with the end of the Korean War, surplus stocks of wheat and other farm commodities in the United States began to grow rapidly. Alarmed lawmakers sought means to dispose of stocks being accumulated by the government through its farm support programs and to develop new foreign markets for US farm products.

On June 30, 1954, both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, PL 480, which created a permanent structure for US international food assistance and the Food for Peace programs that continue to this day.

As reported in The Southwestern Miller in its July 6 issue of that year, the legislation provided $700 million for the sale of private or government-held surpluses to countries in need, which were allowed to pay for the commodities with their own currencies, not dollars. Also, ATDAA permitted the president to use up to $300 million in Commodity Credit Corp. (US Department of Agriculture) surpluses for gifts to “friendly peoples in meeting famine or other urgent relief requirements” over three years.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed ATDAA into law on July 10, 1954.

There initially were three primary titles in PL 480 through which food assistance was delivered abroad. Title I provided for concessional sales of food, for many years mostly wheat and flour, to foreign governments to be paid for in their own currencies over time and on terms more favorable than those offered commercial buyers. While after 1971, payment for Title I food was required in dollars, recipient governments still could pay the United States over several years, in instances up to 40 years, at low interest rates.

Title II provided for primarily humanitarian donations of US-sourced food commodities to arrest or avert famine. Title III provided for bartering US food for materials of value to the United States. Title III barter transactions ended in 1973.

For the first several years of PL 480, shipments of wheat sold on concessional terms under Title I dwarfed those of emergency wheat donations under Title II. In 1964, the tenth year of PL 480, 439 million bus of wheat were shipped under Title I, while wheat donations under Title II totaled around 19 million bus. Total PL 480 wheat shipments accounted for more than half of all US wheat exported in that year.

Food for Peace programs evolved over the years. Under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, there was less emphasis on surplus disposal and more on addressing famine and the nutritional needs of recipients of US food aid. US foreign aid itself became an increasingly important instrument in a structured foreign policy. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 established the US Agency for International Development, which would become the principal agency administering Food for Peace Title II donations in collaboration with the USDA.

Reforms in US and world trade and farm policies during recent decades have seen food donations under Title II become the principal means by which the United States provides in-kind food aid to other nations while concessional sales under Title I, the bane of other food-exporting nations that alleged it displaced their commercial sales, declined into insignificance.

Until recent years, US international food aid was provided exclusively as in-kind aid with commodities sourced in the United States and shipped to recipient countries. But in the last 10 years, US food aid increasingly has included market-based assistance, such as food purchased outside the United States and closer to a hunger outbreak, known as local and regional purchases (LRP), cash transfers and vouchers. This change was initiated under the George W. Bush administration and accelerated under President Barack Obama.

In 2010, USAID, drawing on authorities from the Foreign Assistance Act, began to provide market-based food aid in disaster situations under what was named the Emergency Food Security Program (EFSP). Congress permanently authorized the EFSP in the Global Food Security Act of 2016, and the Global Food Security Reauthorization Act of 2017 provided funding for the program through fiscal year 2023.

US use of market-based food assistance in recent years has expanded to the point where EFSP now is the largest among US international food aid programs in terms of total congressional outlays and food assistance provided.

The recent evolution of US international food aid programs toward increased use of market-based modalities initially was opposed but then largely accepted by US non-governmental organizations that have been partners in distributing PL 480 Title II food since the inception of Food for Peace.

Farm, food and grain organizations have lined up on both sides of the in-kind versus market-based modalities controversy. Resistance to the recent changes has been tempered in large part because of the diminishing portion of total US agricultural production and exports accounted for by today’s food aid programs. It was estimated that foreign food aid recently has accounted for less than 1% of total US agricultural output, although for some crops such as pulse crops and sorghum, foreign food aid looms larger in importance. In the case of wheat, US Wheat Associates estimated in recent years wheat purchased under PL 480 Title II for donation abroad has averaged about 800,000 tonnes a year, or about 3% of all US wheat exports. That compared with up to 15 million tonnes of wheat purchased for international food aid in the mid-1960s.

US flour exports under PL 480 in recent years have been miniscule compared with volumes shipped in the first decades of Food for Peace programs. The North American Millers’ Association indicated most milled foods provided as food aid today include fortified and blended grain-based products such as corn-soy blends, some of which have been developed by NAMA members in cooperation with USAID and the World Food Programme to meet the nutritional needs of aid recipients.

NAMA and other agriculture and food industry organizations also have been champions of pre-positioning US food products at strategically vital locations near areas where hunger outbreaks have been chronic to ensure US in-kind food aid reaches those in need more quickly and efficiently than when it is shipped directly from the United States.

A look to the future

The direction of US international food aid will be decided in the next several months as Congress prepares to draft a new farm bill and decides whether or at what level to reauthorize the Emergency Food Security Program beyond fiscal year 2023.

The USDA and USAID are partners in providing US international in-kind food aid.

The USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp. procures all US agricultural commodities to be donated abroad, including under programs administered by the USDA itself, such as the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program.

USAID administers the distribution of commodities procured by the CCC for PL 480 Title II donations in cooperation with non-governmental and international organizations.

The statutory authority for the Food for Peace Act and its programs is contained in the farm bill (the current farm bill being the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, which expires in fiscal year 2023). Farm bills must be renewed with modifications at intervals, usually every five years, by Congress. The House and Senate agriculture committees have jurisdiction over the farm bill and the Food for Peace programs. The agriculture subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees propose the funding for the programs.

The House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees have jurisdiction over programs and agencies with statutory authority derived from the Foreign Assistance Act, including USAID and the Emergency Food Security Program. The State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs subcommittees of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees propose funding for these programs.

With world hunger on the advance once again because of the pandemic, much is a stake as Congress weighs the future of US international food aid.

As Sosland Publishing Company, publisher of Milling and Baking News, gears up to celebrate 100 years of providing food industry professionals timely information, news and commentary, we will be publishing a series of articles across all our titles to celebrate the past, present and future of the people and industry that feeds the world.

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