The bag of green peas, stamped “USAID From the American People,” took more than six months to reach Haylar Ayako.
For seven of his grandchildren, that was a lifetime.
They died as the peas journeyed from North Dakota to southern Ethiopia. During that time, the American growers, processors and transporters that profit from aid shipments were fighting off a proposal before Congress to speed deliveries by buying more from foreign producers near trouble spots. As a result of legal mandates to buy U.S. goods, the world’s most generous food relief program wasn’t fast or flexible enough to feed the starving in Ethiopia’s drought-ridden South Omo region this year.
“I am so grieved that I lost those children,” said Ayako, a Bena tribesman, speaking in his local Omotic language. “They died of the food shortage.”
The dry peas Ayako took home almost eight weeks ago had traveled more than 12,000 miles (19,300 kilometers) by rail, ship and truck, starting 15 miles south of the Canadian border with their harvest in August 2007. Stops included Lake Charles, Louisiana; Djibouti, the small African country whose capital on the Gulf of Aden serves as a port for food aid; and Nazareth, Ethiopia, two hours south of Addis Ababa, the capital. Warehouse stays punctuated each leg until the peas finally arrived in the village of Shala-Luka.
‘Behind Closed Doors’
U.S. farm and shipping lobbyists have stifled efforts to simplify aid deliveries, leaving Africans to starve when they might have been saved, said Andrew Natsios, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington who led USAID, the Agency for International Development, from 2001 to 2006.
“No one can take the high moral ground against it, so they hide behind closed doors and kill it,” he said. “It’s all done behind the scenes.”
The shortcomings of the half-century-old humanitarian program show how efforts to protect American shareholders can have unintended consequences. After approving $2.62 billion of food aid in June, Congress has since authorized 267 times that much in the $700 billion financial system bailout and begun debate on requests from U.S. automakers for billions more.
Lawmakers this year failed to pass President George W. Bush’s January proposal to buy food closer to starving people rather than shipping American produce. In May, Bush renewed his request to spend 25 percent of the program locally after food riots broke out in Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean.
Cargill Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Bunge Ltd. accounted for 47 percent of 2007 commodities spending for aid, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program was created in the 1950s, partly to reduce domestic surpluses. The regulations require that almost all the peas, corn and other crops come from American sources, effectively steering the bulk of the business to the biggest food-trading companies.
The rules also stipulate that 75 percent of the food must be transported on U.S.-flagged vessels, benefiting ship operators, including Liberty Maritime Corp., based in Lake Success, New York, and Sealift Inc., of Oyster Bay, New York. In 2007, the program’s shipping contracts were worth $385 million, according to the USDA.
Politics isn’t the only manmade cause of the disaster that befell Ayako and his family in Ethiopia. Dozens of interviews on six continents show that the global food crisis also has roots in the failure by governments of developing countries to invest in agriculture, in a three-fold jump in fertilizer prices over two years and in speculators who doubled bets on grain futures and drove prices to records.
While food costs have fallen 25 percent since June, according to the United Nations, some seed and nutrient expenses haven’t declined, threatening next year’s supply. Brazil lowered its projections. The corn crop in the U.S., the planet’s largest exporter, will be 8.1 percent smaller this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Nov. 10. The number of the world’s hungry will grow from about 967 million this year to 1 billion in 2009, predicts Olivier E. De Schutter, a professor of human rights at the University of Louvain in Belgium and an adviser to the UN on the right to food.
One ingredient in this recipe for famine, U.S. food aid, differs from policies of the European Union and Canada, which buy food near where it is to be used. The U.S. program serves domestic interests more than the world’s needy, said Gawain Kripke, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam America, a Boston-based affiliate of the aid group Oxfam International.
2.5 Million Tons
In 2007, the U.S. shipped more than 2.5 million tons of food aid to 61 countries, based on Agriculture Department and USAID data. Of $813 million in commodities purchased for assistance programs, Decatur, Illinois-based ADM supplied 25 percent; Cargill, based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, 13 percent; and Bunge of White Plains, New York, 9 percent, the USDA said. Each company’s sales amounted to less than one-third of 1 percent of its revenue.
Shipping and logistical costs and administration can consume as much as two-thirds of the budget for Food for Peace, the Government Accountability Office said last year. Delivering aid “from vendor to village” averages four to six months, the GAO said.
On March 11, the UN’s World Food Program sought U.S. peas for Ethiopia. By then, the peas that Ayako needed had been harvested for months. Three of his adult children had died in late 2007, he said.
Until last year, Ayako, who guesses he’s in his 60s, was better off than many in South Omo, an 8,600-square-mile (22,360- square-kilometer) region of livestock herders, subsistence farmers and coffee growers. He owned hundreds of chickens, 40 goats, 30 sheep and 15 head of cattle, he said. His five fields cover about 3 hectares (7.4 acres) in a country where 87 percent of farms are smaller than 2 hectares.
Dirt turned to dust in his hands as he recalled the days when his three wives prepared meals from his own crops: corn, sorghum and teff, a grain used to make injera, Ethiopia’s basic bread.
After sparse rainfall hurt his harvests, he traded animals for grain. Last year, a 100-kilogram (220-pound) bag of corn cost one cow, he said. This year, it’s a cow and a goat, and there isn’t enough grain available.
Ayako’s grandchildren might have survived if the U.S. purchased food closer to Ethiopia, Georgetown’s Natsios said.
“It would increase the amount of food available, and the time to deliver it would be less,” Natsios said. “We’d be able to get his family more food, more quickly.”
After failing to act on Bush’s local-purchase proposal, U.S. lawmakers in June approved a four-year pilot program involving no more than $25 million a year, about 1 percent of the 2008 U.S. food aid budget. In separate legislation, Congress also authorized one-time spending of $50 million on local purchases in 2009.
ADM, the world’s largest grain processor, spent $1.78 million to lobby Congress and federal agencies though Dec. 3 this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non- partisan research group in Washington that tracks spending on campaigns and lobbying. Over the past two decades, the company’s campaign contributions amounted to $8.2 million, 91st among political donors, the center said. ADM declined to comment for this story.
Cargill, a closely held company that is the world’s largest agricultural business, spent $660,000 on lobbying this year, the center said. ADM, Cargill and Bunge lobby on other issues besides the aid programs. Cargill favors the added flexibility of local purchase, spokesman Bill Brady said in an e-mail.
Bunge, the biggest oilseed processor, devoted $395,000 to lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The company advocates the use of U.S. crops to ensure quality, said Deb Seidel, a company spokeswoman.
‘Support Not There’
“The support is not there in the Congress” to overhaul the system, said Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Peterson, mentioned as a possible Agriculture Secretary under President-elect Barack Obama, received the second-most donations from crop processors and farm groups among non- presidential candidates in this election cycle, $236,500, according to the center. He ranked behind Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, with $304,349.
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Democrat who is chairman of the Agriculture Committee, and panel Republicans Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas are among the top 10 non- presidential recipients. The list also includes three Democratic members of the House Agriculture Committee, Bob Etheridge of North Carolina and Dennis Cardoza and Jim Costa, both of California.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group, has “always had a little reluctance to cash aid,” said its president, Robert Stallman. The current system encourages domestic political support and prevents funding cuts, he said.
Obama pledged to make USAID a “restructured, empowered and streamlined” agency that’s “more nimble in the face of change,” according to a position paper on his campaign Web site. Transition spokesman Nick Shapiro declined to elaborate.
Near Minot, North Dakota, Larry Kersten, 68, grows wheat, barley, canola and peas on 6,000 acres. His family has farmed in the area since the early 1900s. He says he is pleased that some of his harvest helps Africans in need.
“Quite amazing, all the process it must go through to get there,” he said.
At the beginning of April, the USDA bought Kersten’s peas through Premier Pulses International Inc., a Minot-based broker. At the same time, the Agriculture Department also purchased sorghum from Cargill, wheat from ADM, and blended corn and soybeans from Bunge to fulfill aid requests from other countries including Zimbabwe and Sudan.
$16 a Bushel
The agency paid about $16 a bushel for the peas, which included BNSF Railway Co.’s fee for hauling them in May more than 1,800 miles to Lake Charles.
By publishing what it pays, the government provides market data for peas, which aren’t traded on any major U.S. commodity exchange, said Mike Watson, manager of Premier Pulses’ office in Lewiston, Idaho.
The aid programs’ ability to affect markets varies. While less than 1 percent of U.S. corn is exported as food aid, according to USDA data, about a seventh of the pea crop is, according to the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council in Moscow, Idaho.
The peas spent June in a 255,840-square-foot (2.4 hectares) warehouse, waiting for the John A. Chapman, a 27,000-ton Sealift ship. The GAO found that ocean freight rates for U.S. food aid averaged $171 a metric ton in 2006, compared with the $100 that the WFP reported as its cost.
25,000 Maritime Jobs
The aid programs’ transport rules protect American shipping companies from foreign competition and help ensure there is a domestic fleet in case of war, said Gloria Tosi, a maritime consultant and Washington lobbyist who represents Sealift and Liberty Maritime, the two largest U.S. food aid transporters. They also ensure the quality of what’s delivered, she said.
About 25,000 maritime-related jobs depend on the aid plans, Tosi said, citing an industry study, and much of the U.S. domestic fleet, including almost all of Liberty’s, is designed to carry humanitarian aid, she said.
“Losing in-kind food aid would be devastating,” Tosi said.
Liberty Maritime has spent $287,000 on lobbying this year and Sealift, $27,000, according to the CRP data. Sea transport companies’ political campaign contributions totaled almost $5 million, this election cycle. Neither company would comment for this story and referred questions to Tosi.
Four Grandchildren Die
In June, Congress voted to increase the Food for Peace budget 48 percent to $2.62 billion. Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said the food crisis threatened “the health and survival of millions of people.”
The next month, as the number of undernourished rose, the WFP and the Ethiopian government cut rations to villagers by a third, citing supply constraints.
By then, four of Ayako’s grandchildren had died. Many of his extended family members were eating wild plants, he said. As food supplies dwindled, Ethiopians resorted to “famine foods” — plants and roots, some of them toxic, “that desperate people eat when there is nothing left,” said Jennifer Parmelee, a WFP spokeswoman, in an e-mail.
“Because we are eating these grasses and cabbage, it makes you weak and kills you,” Ayako said. He tried to save some of the children’s lives by slaughtering a goat.
“They don’t have the appetite to eat the meat,” he said.
History of Famine
Malnourishment weakens the organs and leaves the digestive system unable to process meat, so starving people don’t feel like eating it, Parmelee said.
On July 8, starting at 7 a.m., five teams of 17 longshoremen began filling the Chapman with 280 tons of peas for Ethiopia, more peas for the Congo, wheat and lentils for Syria and dry beans for Iraq. The Chapman set sail July 20.
Ethiopia, one of the world’s oldest countries and Africa’s second-most populous behind Nigeria, has had famines throughout its history. A 1973 food shortage helped depose Emperor Haile Selassie. Others in 1984 and 1985 killed more than 1 million people.
Millions in Need
Since then, the government has improved aid distribution and tried to modernize agriculture. While the country’s population of 82.5 million grows at an annual rate of 3.2 percent, its corn, wheat and sorghum crops may shrink 9.7 percent this year, according to U.S. government data.
Food-aid advocates, including Oxfam and CARE, say the Ethiopian government was slow to increase this year’s estimate of people in need of emergency help, curbing international assistance.
In April, the projection rose to 2.2 million from 860,000. It reached 4.6 million in June. Based on surveys from July, the government increased the number to 6.4 million in October, a month after aid organizations started using that number in their fundraising.
It’s still about half the 12.5 million Ethiopians that the WFP says need additional assistance because of the drought.
Addisu Legesse, the country’s deputy prime minister, disputes that number. Aid organizations tend to exaggerate because big statistics help them raise funds, he said in an interview over tea in his wood-paneled office.
To the Warehouse
Legesse, who until October was also Ethiopia’s agriculture minister, takes issue with his government’s estimate too.
“There are not millions,” he said, and Ethiopia isn’t “begging” for food. As for Ayako, he added that one farmer’s story doesn’t reflect an entire country.
Two more of Ayako’s grandchildren died about the time the Chapman set out for Africa. The seventh died while the ship was on its way.
It arrived Aug. 25 in Djibouti. The peas were trucked to Nazareth, where they sat for about a month in the region’s largest warehouse. It and other area storage centers, along with a U.S. unit opened in Djibouti last year, are meant to keep commodities on hand for emergencies. Peas received earlier were distributed first.
By September, in the Southern Nations region of Ethiopia, which includes South Omo, 1.5 million people needed immediate food aid, according to the UN. Area hospitals had admitted more than 33,000 children for severe acute malnutrition, typified by arms less than 110 millimeters (4.4 inches) in circumference or a ratio of weight to height less than 70 percent of the median.
Animal Supply Dwindles
Ayako’s trek to the food distribution center in Shala-Luka, about 400 miles from Addis Ababa, on Oct. 16 — World Food Day — yielded about 11 kilograms of grains, peas and lentils and 300 grams of vegetable oil. It was enough to supply about 1,300 calories a day for a month. The minimum for staving off malnourishment is 1,800 calories, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The average American consumes more than 3,700.
Ayako is running out of farm animals to slaughter or barter for food. By October, he owned one chicken, one rooster, four goats, four sheep and three head of cattle.
Aid organizations are seeking more funds, said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the WFP. Her agency expects a $465 million shortfall for Ethiopia by April.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” she said.
During the last famine that so threatened Ayako’s community, in the 1980s, “some people survived eating the wastes of their cattle, some even the skins of their cattle,” he said. “Sometimes we wonder if that time is going to repeat itself now.”
(Recipe for Famine: Part 1 of 7.) Bloomberg