World’s Hungry Watch U.S. Farm Bill

Photograph by Sanjit Das/Bloomberg

Daily wage laborers stack sacks of grain at a warehouse in Faridkot, India.

The farm bill, a Capitol Hill ritual of lobbying and log-rolling that connects farmers and health advocates with the urban poor and insurance companies, has been snagged in Congress in arcane disputes over subsidy-payment formulas and arguments over the extent of cuts to the food-stamp program.

The legislation takes on a different look overseas, where millions rely on humanitarian relief in limbo because of the lack of a new law, according to the head of the United Nations World Food Program.

The agricultural plan, which governs farm subsidies, nutritional aid to poor families and payments to crop-insurance companies “is a world farm bill,” said Ertharin Cousin, the Chicago native who heads the Rome-based agency, in an interview in the WFP’s Washington office. “What the U.S. does affects everyone, not just those who can buy food but for those who depend on the U.S.” to feed them.

The U.S. is the world’s biggest donor to the WFP, the world’s largest humanitarian food-aid distributor, covering about two-fifths of its budget. In 2012, the agency fed more than 97 million people in 80 countries. The $1.46 billion it received in U.S. aid in 2012 was nearly four times as much as the European Union’s contribution.

The bulk of that funding comes from the farm bill, which expired Sept. 30.

Congress may take up new legislation later this month, as House and Senate negotiators have said they are near an agreement that may be announced as soon as next week.

The impact of the expired farm bill on farmers and consumers has been slight thus far, although, as commodities programs covered by the bill begin to expire, pressure increases on the government to implement so-called permanent law, the 1949 legislation at the root of U.S. agricultural policy that would, among other things, double the price of milk.

So it is with food aid.

For the past several months, the World Food Program has met its needs from U.S. donors with existing funds and programs financed outside the farm bill, Cousin said. Without a legal structure governing U.S. food aid, procurement of future commodities becomes less certain, she said.

“We are very anxious about the passage of the farm bill,” she said.

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