Food aid as big business
For more than half a century, the American government has operated something called “Food For Peace”. A 2004 booklet from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the program, proclaims that it is a “unique combination of American compassion together with the unmatched efficiency of our nation’s farmers . . . an unbroken chain of humanity stretching from this country’s fertile fields to hungry families half a world away. In the end, hope is what America has promised, and hope is what Food for Peace delivers around the world every day.”
Or so they say.
It is absolutely true that in emergency situations food aid saves lives. It can also be an important tool in development projects that involve providing food for work on labour-intensive community works or to encourage school attendance among vulnerable groups. If food aid is purchased locally or regionally, it can also help spur local agricultural production and improve rural livelihoods.
But food aid is also very, very big business and it’s also a foreign policy tool. In the United States, after President Eisenhower signed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act in 1954, food aid became a central part of American foreign policy. That meant that any U.S.-friendly government around the world that needed propping up against any left-wing opposition or uprising could get that support to pacify the masses with food from the U.S. strategic grain reserve. By 1960, more than a third of global trade in wheat was actually American food aid, and eight years later nearly four fifths of the food aid went to countries in the global south, which were becoming hooked just as surely as any victim of an unscrupulous pusher of narcotics.
Over the decades many things have changed, including the geo-political landscape and foods included in the aid packages, but food continues to play a big role in international politics and to be what a former US Secretary of State called “a weapon in the US negotiating kit”. It has also remained a profitable perquisite for some very large corporations.
American law requires that 75 percent of any food aid that the United States government finances be purchased, processed, transported and distributed by U.S. companies. Transaction costs consume more than half of the food aid budget. This is convenient for the two U.S. leviathans, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, which already in 2002 controlled 75 percent of the grain trade on this planet. They get to transport and deliver almost a third of American food aid; only four companies control 84 percent of the transport and delivery of all food aid worldwide.
Hope and help for whom?
So to whom, exactly, does American food aid offer the most “hope” that USAID hypes in its celebratory booklet on a half century of Food For Peace? Sometimes, when one follows the money and the food back to its origins, that so-called “unbroken chain” seems to have less to do with humanity than it does profitability for American agribusiness. The way this works is with “monetization” of the food aid. American foodstuffs are sold in the recipient country to raise the funds for American development projects in that country.
In Sierra Leone, I’ve tried to unravel this tangled web, see how it all works and what’s in it for the U.S. and for the impoverished recipient country and its farmers. The only thing that emerges clearly about this whole arrangement is that it is not clear at all. There are lots of layers, lots of benefits accruing in the U.S. long before a single food item lands overseas.
It begins with USAID and its Office of Food For Peace back in the United States. The Office has a long list of food commodities produced by giant American agribusinesses and processors, which can be made available for projects, that is, bought up by the US government for sending overseas. To carry out the program in Sierra Leone, Food For Peace then hires a giant “non-profit that means business” called ACDI/VOCA (a merger of Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance). ACDI/VOCA says it “receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the World Bank and various regional banks, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, private sector firms” and is also “partnering with a growing number of private sector corporations such as Mars, Inc., H.J. Heinz Company and Nestlé.”
ACDI/VOCA sends out its people to Sierra Leone and they lease a giant office building with a breath-taking view atop Regent Hill, a stone’s throw from the high security walls zone around the grandiose new American Embassy, for which a mountaintop of precious forest was razed. Then lots of expensive vehicles are purchased and emblazoned with the name of the new project, Sustainable Nutrition and Agriculture Promotion, which boils down to the snappy little acronym “SNAP”.
Sustainable Nutrition and Agriculture Promotion in Sierra Leone
But what is SNAP actually going to do? How is this project going to bring “sustainable nutrition and agriculture promotion” to Sierra Leone? This is what I ask an ACDI/VOCA spokesperson, when I meet up with him at the Family Kingdom resort on Lumley Beach, where he is lodging. He says it’s a five-year, 60 million dollar program that will reduce food insecurity among vulnerable rural populations by reducing chronic malnutrition among children under five as well as “enhancing livelihood opportunities”. Unsure what he means by this, I press for more details, and he explains that SNAP will be working with farmers, holding farmer schools to increase farm production and profits, focussing on improved marketing, processing and storage. He says in this way, they are going to improve agricultural production in the country.
To fund the project’s activities, however, SNAP will be monetizing American food aid, selling it on local markets. Over the five years of the project, SNAP will be bringing in 64,350 tonnes of American food commodities, including bulgur, corn soy blend (CSB), lentils, and vegetable oil. To put things in perspective, according to USAID calculations, that works out to enough food to fill 2,574 trucks, each one carrying 500 bags, each weighing 110 pounds. That is a lot of food, especially if much of it will be flooding local markets.
I wasn’t recording our conversation, but I was taking notes and from these I’ve reconstructed the essence of how our exchange went from there.
“Wait, wait,” I say, “you’re going to sell American foodstuffs in Sierra Leonean markets to pay for a project that is supposed to help improve farmers’ livelihoods and food production in Sierra Leone?”
“Well, we will use some as food aid, for vulnerable women and infants,” he says. “The rest we have to sell on the markets to pay for the project.”
“But might you not be harming the very farmers you’re supposed to be helping?” I persist. “One of the big problems that farmers face here is unfair competition from subsidized produce that is dumped from overseas and that undermines local production. So how can your project claim to help farmers when it could result in still more competition from US food aid on the market?”
“No, no,” he says with a dismissive wave of his cigarette. “We won’t be hurting local farmers. We’ll be helping them.”
“But unfair competition harms them,” I venture.
“This isn’t unfair competition. They don’t produce bulgur, corn soy blend or vegetable oil here.
“They don’t need bulgur, corn soy blend or vegetable oil here,” I reply. “They have palm oil and rice is their staple, and they should be encouraged and supported to produce more of their own diverse foods. They need fair prices and a fair playing field for their own produce and the many crops that nourish them if they are to produce more and profit from it.”
A 2009 study done for the Office of Food For Peace on which products should and should not be monetized in Sierra Leone stated that vegetable oil was “not recommended for monetization” at that time. While the civil war that began in 1991 decimated agriculture in the country, agricultural production has been steadily rising in Sierra Leone since peace was restored in 2002. A more effective way of supporting agriculture and combatting malnutrition in the country would be to purchase locally produced crops and use these to supplement school feeding programs and provide food aid where needed, to ensure that local food production continues to increase.
But I decide not to push any further on these points, or ask him if the corn-soy blend contains genetically modified (GM) crops, which seems highly likely given that more than two-thirds of all soy grown in the United States is genetically engineered.
It appears that one group that stands to benefit from SNAP is large agribusinesses in the United States whose produce is being purchased by the Food For Peace fund. To find out which ones they are, how much they are paid for the produce and whether GM crops are included, in December 2011 I sent an inquiry to the Food For Peace Fund. I didn’t receive a reply, so I tried again in August 2013, asking where the food was sourced, if any was GM and how many tonnes would be given away as food aid and how much would be monetized. This time I did receive a reply from a Deputy Director of Community Development telling me that he would need to check with his internal team to see what level of detail could be provided “around the SNAP program”, and then I heard no more.
I’m still waiting, hoping he will come through with answers to my questions. If he does, I’ll be sure to pass them along.
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