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Stuart Clark
Stuart Clark

Stuart Clark

An international food reserve would calm markets - and donors Add to ...

The way countries such as Canada share food with people caught in food emergencies is changing - and getting a lot harder.

The modern food aid movement began 50 years ago, when the world's richest countries met to decide what to do with food surpluses. Faced with a surplus at home and with millions of hungry people in the developing world, it wasn't long before the two were put together.

Fifty years later, changes are occurring in the delivery of food aid. Canada was among the first to decouple aid from its surpluses, allowing it to be purchased as close as possible to the need. This made food aid much more efficient by reducing costs and speeding up responses.

While this is a welcome development, other changes are not as beneficial. This is particularly true for the U.S., which supplies half of all global food aid. Unlike Canada, food aid from the U.S. still comes from surpluses - and this has been regarded as a "sacred cow." But now Congress has proposed a 30-per-cent cut to U.S. food aid appropriations.

According to the U.S. aid group Bread for the World, this will result in as many as 11 million people being cut from emergency and chronic food aid, including two million children who received school lunches in developing countries.

The urge to reduce the ballooning U.S. deficit is given as a reason for the cut. But another reason is that increasing amounts of U.S. grain, mostly corn, are being diverted into biofuel - there simply isn't as large a surplus of food as there used to be. In fact, the growth in the biofuel industry in North America and Europe threatens to replace or substantially reduce half of global food aid.

Another change is the wild swings in international food prices. Driven by a combination of shrinking food stocks, rising consumption, diversion of food to fuel, extreme weather events and investor speculation, food prices have shot up in the past 10 months, just as they did in 2008.

These price fluctuations haven't happened since the modern food aid movement started. It's making donors nervous about their promises. Starting this week in London, the secret negotiations for a new international treaty to replace the Food Aid Convention will be overshadowed by this fear. It's quite likely that many donors, including Canada, may seek to replace their promises of a specific amount of food with promises of money. As understandable as that may be, the result may be much less food for those caught in emergencies or in chronic hunger.

It doesn't have to be this way. The U.S. could decide to protect its food aid programming, perhaps by adjusting its biofuel programs, including its subsidies for biofuel, when food prices rise and threaten food aid programs.

For donors such as Canada, it could also mean using our voice at the June G20 agriculture ministers meeting to push for actions such as an international food reserve to calm volatile markets. This can provide assurances that we can continue to make promises to help a certain number of people, rather than simply spend a certain amount of money.

As one of the largest donors to the United Nations World Food Program, we could work together to create a system of regional emergency food reserves. This would provide an alternative to buying food during the price spikes, when it's very expensive.

Canada has been the most generous donor of food aid on a per capita basis for many years. Every year for the past decade, Canada has provided enough food for as many as two million people a year. As the world's richest countries meet in London to decide how they'll respond to food needs, we can continue that honourable tradition, and show leadership.

The lives of millions of people depend on decisions made during the Food Aid Convention negotiations. Canada has a key role to play.

Stuart Clark is a senior policy adviser for the Winnipeg-based Canadian Foodgrains Bank, a partnership of 15 churches and church-based agencies working to end hunger in developing countries.

Mr. Clark will be participating in a live discussion on food aid Wednesday, March 2 at 1 p.m. ET. To participate in that discussion, click here. In the meantime, feel free to leave questions for Mr. Clark in the comments field of this article.

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