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Government Reports Scrutinize US Approach Toward Food Crisis

As skyrocketing food prices push millions into poverty, a recent swath of government reports have lambasted U.S. food aid policies for failing to encourage the development of sovereign agricultural programs abroad and overemphasizing the production of staple food-based biofuels at home. 

The reports, one released on May 29th by the Government Accountability Office, and the other released May 30th by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have come at a crucial time for the U.S. Agriculture Department, as it prepares to defend its food aid policiesat the three-day United Nations food summit beginning in Rome tomorrow.

Both reports shed light on the lack of progress on a commitment made at the 1996 World Food Summit to cut the number of undernourished people by half the 1990 level by 2015.

The number of undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa has actually increased since 1990, the GAO report says (pdf). It focuses in large part on U.S. efforts to assist sub-Saharan African nations in their struggle against hunger, and criticizes USAID's failure to make a proposed shift from providing emergency food aid to helping African countries grow their own food, saying that the USAID's funding for emergency food aid has "increased substantially, while its funding for development has not changed."

Both reports are critical of the rising use of corn for ethanol in the U.S., which the reports say decrease the amount of land used for food production, and cause an increase in food prices.  The U.N. is also concerned that demand for biofuel production in sub-Saharan Africa might push food production onto lands that are less fertile. 

The GAO points out that the biofuel production is propped up by government subsidies, and calls its energy efficiency and environmental benefits into question:

"World Resources Institute estimates that it took 13 percent of the U.S. corn harvest in 2005 to displace less than 3 percent of fuel needs. It further reports that, since planting, fertilizing, and harvesting; fermentation; distillation; and transportation of 1 gallon of corn-based ethanol requires between 60 and 75 percent of the energy that is produced by that gallon, global greenhouse gas emissions are only reduced by about 25 to 40 percent relative to oil."

As The New York Times reported on Saturday, Agriculture Secretary, Edward T. Schafer defended U.S. biofuel production in the face of rising oil costs, saying it only increased global food prices by 2-3 percent.

"We think that policy-wise in the United States of America - and certainly in the rest of the world - as we see the price of oil and petroleum escalate dramatically beyond anyone's imagination, that one of the ways to deal with that is to produce biofuels which are renewables, better for the environment and help lower that cost," he said.

Meanwhile, food prices show no sign of slowing down on their dramatic climb.  Reuters reports that a recent analysis by Bill Lapp of Advanced Economic Solutions, predicts that food prices will rise by 9 percent a year through 2012, nearly double the 5 percent increase that the Department of Agriculture forecasted for this year.


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