Feeding the hungry is lucrative

Elderly Samburu women patiently wait for the distribution of relief food. Photo/HEZRON NJOROGE
Elderly Samburu women patiently wait for the distribution of relief food. Photo/HEZRON NJOROGE 

From the expanses of Iowa’s green cornfields to the Horn of Africa, subsidised US corn flows into the bellies of some of the hungriest people on the planet.

In war-torn Southern Sudan, the World Food Programme (WFP), which began airdropping food in the area on November 4, estimates that 1.2 million people are already facing serious food insecurity.

Throughout the region, hunger is the result of decades-long civil war and multi-year drought.

The Sudanese government has had little choice but to waive a ban on GMOs to receive food aid to sustain the population and avoid famine.

Their calls for emergency food aid have repeatedly been met by the United States Agency for International Development (USAid), the single largest donor of food aid to Africa, who still refuse to acknowledge the threats of GE corn, despite several African nations’ having expressed concerns.


Since 2004, USAid has provided the WFP with 65 per cent of its cereal grains donations and paved the way for the expansion of GE agribusiness in Africa by attempting to “harmonise” GE regulations and African bio-safety policies.

Yet, the Sudanese are still at the mercy of aid and their call for food sovereignty has been boldly dismissed. Why?

US food aid deliveries contribute a pretty penny to US agribusiness.

When the US Congress passed Bill PL 480 in 1954, the American food aid regime was founded on four principles: find an outlet for the mounting tonnes of surplus agriculture commodities; promote American geo-political interests to combat communism; establish and develop humanitarian assistance programs; and create new markets abroad for US agricultural products.

Sixty years of US food aid has only achieved success with two of its four original goals: dumping surpluses and cornering markets.

Meanwhile, an estimated 90 per cent of the world’s farmers who work an average two hectares each can’t compete with the bottom barrel prices of subsidised American grains.

A devil’s advocate might say that cheap surplus grains are an efficient way to resolve world hunger.

However, as agricultural economist Chris Barrett points out in his book, Food Aid After Fifty Years, “Food aid is no longer a relatively cheap form in which to provide aid. Indeed food aid as practised by the United States is not necessarily even a cheap way to provide food.” In a study evaluating the costs of grain shipments to Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Kenya, it was shown that, “Corn food aid purchases cost more than 70 per cent in excess of the equivalent market prices faced by private sector buyers.”

Further, American ocean-line shipping would have been all but outcompeted by cheaper Chinese lines if they weren’t subsidised through bylines of US food aid legislation that require food aid deliveries to be transported solely through American carriers.

It’s estimated that it costs $2 to US taxpayers for every $1 worth of corn food aid sent to African nations.

Dumping surpluses

By dumping grain surpluses through food aid deliveries, food prices drop.

Communities won’t purchase food from neighbouring farmers when they can receive it for free or at drastically distorted low prices.

Thus, one of the biggest criticisms of food aid is that it functions as a driver for US grown food commodities, rather than African-grown food, which in turn profits US firms instead of African farmers and peasants.

Food aid doesn’t address the root causes of hunger: it’s a band-aid for emergencies that require immediate attention.

Despite all of its faults, emergency food aid is still extremely important for addressing immediate hunger needs, but must be accompanied by programmes and policies that protect small farmer and pastoralist livelihoods, support sustainable agriculture and protect natural resources.

Perrey is a food policy analyst.