Chris Barrett talks food aid to D.C. policymakers

Chris Barrett speaks at a forum hosted by the American Enterprise Institute Oct. 19 in Washington, D.C.

Congress can change the United States’ international food aid programs to save lives without increasing taxpayer costs, said Cornell expert Chris Barrett.

Barrett, the Stephen B. and Janice G. Ashley Professor of Applied Economics and Management and dean of academic affairs for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, presented research focused on U.S. international food aid and assistance policies in Washington, D.C., Oct. 19.

During a morning forum hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Barrett joined Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) to discuss a new report, International Food Aid and Food Assistance Programs and the Next Farm Bill, co-authored by Barrett. The conversation centered on the need for flexibility in implementing food aid policies. Barrett said: “Humanitarian aid agencies need flexibility to meet the needs of local communities and employ best practices suited to the local context. It is time for the U.S. to join other nations in shifting the debate on food aid.”

Later in the day, the discussion moved to Capitol Hill, where Barrett testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The credible research on food aid is clear and consistent in finding that restrictions imposed on how U.S. international food aid programs procure and deliver commodities waste taxpayer money at great human cost,” Barrett said.

He offered two ideas for reforming U.S. international food aid and assistance: relaxing cargo preference restrictions and loosening domestic commodity purchasing restrictions.

Cargo preference currently requires that at least half of food procured for food aid be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels. “This policy, like most anti-competition regulatory restrictions, drives up cost and causes delays. Those predictable consequences recently compelled the White House to temporarily suspend the Jones Act – which restricts ocean freight carried between U.S. ports to U.S.-flagged vessels, much as cargo preference does for shipments abroad – to reduce delays and costs in delivering emergency supplies to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria,” Barrett said in written testimony.

Barrett said there is no hard evidence that cargo preference achieves the goals of supporting domestic agriculture, maritime employment and military readiness. Rather, Barrett said, “Cargo preference matters only for a very small number of owners of ships with limited alternative commercial uses. As a result, roughly $40-50 million in taxpayer money appropriated each year to feed starving children gets diverted to windfall profits to shipping lines.” Barrett’s research indicates that 83 percent of cargo preference food aid is shipped on 13 vessels operated by three companies – a concentration that would elicit anti-trust concerns in other industries.

Regarding domestic commodity purchasing restrictions, federal law requires that most agricultural commodities shipped to recipients abroad be bought in the U.S. Barrett found that purchasing food aid abroad saved 53 percent relative to purchasing in the U.S. and cut 14 weeks off delivery time. “The most efficient way to help hungry people abroad access food is typically to provide them with cash or electronic transfers, or with food purchased locally or regionally. Such policies save time, money and lives, while providing foods that are equally healthy and safe and are preferred by recipients over commodities shipped from the U.S.,” he said.

Barrett ended his testimony by emphasizing the human cost associated with food aid restrictions. “A conservative estimate is that we sacrifice roughly 40,000 children’s lives annually because of antiquated food aid policies,” he said. “And what is Congress buying taxpayers for an extra 40,000 child deaths annually? Tragically, very little.”

Rachel Rhodes is a public affairs and media relations specialist in Cornell’s Washington, D.C., office.

Media Contact

Joe Schwartz