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Food the foundation of everyone's security

By Dan Nagengast
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, Sept. 27, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- "We're a blessed nation because we can grow our own food and, therefore, we're secure. A nation that can feed its people is a nation more secure." - President George W. Bush

President Bush is absolutely right. But what is good for this country would also be a blessing for the other nations of the world.

In 1980 I lived in Mali, a resource-poor country at the base of the Sahara in West Africa. American food aid was a common sight, in the form of soybean oil, bulgur wheat and even white grain sorghum. U.S. food aid relief had helped many survive during the previous decade's drought and famine, and flowed again in th1980s.

The primary livelihood in Mali is subsistence agriculture. People grow up resourceful and self-reliant, but that existence is always marginal. A drought can mean death and, in hard times, food aid was much appreciated. But in the early '70s an African cartoonist had satirized it. Much of the food sent was white sorghum, a grain eaten in the U.S. only by livestock. The cartoon pictured farm animals chasing President Nixon, berating him for sending their food overseas. This illustrated a little too much sophistication on the part of those being helped. While everyone was grateful for the food, there was also a common understanding that some of it was surplus feed grain.

The U.S. Food for Peace Program, known as P.L. 480, had the dual purpose of providing disaster and development aid and propping up U.S. grain prices. But there is sometimes an ulterior motive even beyond that. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development Web site: "Besides benefiting undernourished people overseas, P.L. 480 programs also support American agriculture. Strengthening the economics and agricultural infrastructures of developing countries also means helping to create potential expanded markets for U.S. agricultural product."

There are two ideas in tension, often confused, about American international food policy. There is food aid, often given through programs that seek to help poorer countries become more self-sufficient. During 2001, U.S. food aid was around 7 million tons. Of this, 88 percent, or more than 6 million tons, was grain or soy products. Meanwhile, total U.S. commercial grain exports were 128 million tons. So, while food aid is a part of our agricultural efforts and outreach to other countries, by weight it amounts to only about 5 percent of commercial grain exports.

So which is it? Are American farmers "feeding the world," with all that promise of largess and goodwill? Or are they a cog in an export machine that seeks to create dependency, and thus a good market, in countries that desperately need to develop more internal food production?

The answer, of course, is some of both. U.S. food aid and export policy slides up and down the scale between the two extremes depending on the circumstances and the motives of those setting policy. Certainly, in times of disaster and great need, the United States often comes through, showing solidarity with other humans in crisis. But in the hardball negotiations surrounding trade agreements, our market opening policy can be viewed as undermining the food production of countries much poorer than our own.

When world relations and tensions are stretched, the perception that the richest and most powerful country is working to ensure that wealth flows from poorer nations towards itself seems to be getting no play in Washington.

In Mali, I worked for a USAID project near Tombouctou. We helped wheat farmers by providing small diesel pumps for irrigation. For a lot of reasons, not least of which being the lack of diesel fuel, the project was not a great idea. But the farmers did have one or two years of good crops. The second year, just as their crop was being harvested, the price of wheat tumbled due to a large shipment of subsidized U.S. wheat. The Mali farmers' profit disappeared.

President Bush is absolutely right about food security. We need to remind ourselves that the principle applies to all nations of the world, not just the United States, and is a foundation for the security of us all.

- Dan Nagengast is a Lawrence farmer and executive director of The Kansas Rural Center. He is a member of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan.