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Farah Stockman

Food aid fattens up lobbyists

istockphoto/Globe staff photo illustration

EACH YEAR, the United States spends more than $1.5 billion feeding starving people overseas. But our charity comes with a catch: The food has to be bought in America, and much of it must be shipped on American ships.

That might sound like a reasonable requirement. After all, we are giving a gift. Why shouldn’t we benefit from it too? But it takes months to buy corn in Iowa, truck it to Louisana or Detroit, and load it onto a ship bound for Ethiopia or North Korea. In an emergency, that process costs precious time and lives. And it’s incredibly expensive.

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Researchers estimate that buying food closer to where needy people are costs about half as much. And as far back as 1990, the Government Accountability Office estimated that the United States was paying $150 million a year more in transportation costs because of the requirement that the food be shipped on US vessels.

We are the last donor country in the world to have these rules. (Canada changed its policy after it saw how money could be saved by buying rice for Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka after the 2005 tsunami.) We could feed millions more people on the same amount of money, without these rules. At a time of budget cuts, you would think that one thing Republicans and Democrats could agree on would be making sure every tax dollar stretches as far as it can. Everyone knows how wasteful the system is. Why don’t we just change it?

Christopher Barrett, a Cornell professor who studies food security, has an answer: About a dozen shipping lines and four giant agricultural corporations get the lion’s share of the food aid business.

“You are talking about millions of dollars per company involved,” he said.

Since the benefits are concentrated in a small group, they are motivated to fight fiercely to keep the restrictions. Indeed, Maersk, one of the world’s largest shippers, spent more than $650,000 on lobbyists last year.

Meanwhile, the waste in the system is spread thinly across 310 million Americans, giving almost no incentive for the rest of us to fight for change.

“It costs each of us something like $1,” he said. Nobody is going to get up in arms about that.

So food aid is the perfect storm for special interests: Benefits are big enough for a small group to fight for, but small enough for the rest of us to ignore.

“That’s the Logic of Collective Action,” Barrett said, referring to a theory by Mancur Olson, an American economist who explained why small groups so often carry the day in Washington, even when the policy they are fighting for is detrimental to the rest of us.

But we shouldn’t give up hope. Even though the United States retains its cumbersome rules, some progress has been made. Last summer, President Obama dropped the percentage of food that had to be shipped on US-flagged ships from 75 percent to 50 percent. And there are efforts underway to expand a pilot program that allows food aid to be bought locally.

Efforts to reform food aid seem to have stalled in the House, but have made good strides in the Senate. Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, has championed reforms that allow for more local purchase.

But even Stabenow hasn’t pushed to get rid of the shipping rule. It turns out that in the aid pipeline, her home state of Michigan gets its cut, too: A decades-old federal law requires that a significant portion of food aid must be shipped through the Great Lakes.

Food aid advocates say it will still be many more years before decisions about aid are based solely on what is best for people who are dying of hunger, rather than the corporate interests that want to feed them. But they also say they believe that day will come.

Which leads to yet another problem: The fear of what will happen if the system becomes too efficient. Once the Iowa agribusinesses and the Louisiana shippers no longer get their cut, will Congress still vote for food aid?

“Some people say once you remove the special interests from the equation, there won’t be enough support to get these bills through,” said Eric Muñoz, a senior policy adviser for Oxfam America. “It’s a widely held hypothesis.”

Muñoz believes we ought to test that theory. I agree.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter ­@fstockman.
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