Will America’s food aid programs survive?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Excerpt from The Political History of American Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence by Barry Riley, a visiting scholar at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International StudiesCenter on Food Security and the Environment

How much do you know about food aid programs in the United States?

If your answer is “not much,” you are not alone. The dearth of information on the subject inspired Barry Riley, a visiting scholar at FSE, to write a book about it. In fact, The Political History of American Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence is the first book to tell the history of food aid programs in the United States.

It chronicles James Madison’s first discussions of aid in 1794, Herbert Hoover’s initiative to save Europe from starvation during World War I, the first wide-scale food aid programs launched in the aftermath of World War II, and how fear of communism influenced the American food aid programs we think of today.

The following excerpt is taken from the last chapter and glimpses the future of food aid in the United States.

To learn more about the history of American food aid and the challenges we face today, listen to Barry Riley on World Class, a podcast from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.


If anything has been made clear in the previous pages, it is that the historical willingness of the U.S. government to provide food aid has varied considerably throughout the country’s history. The same will almost certainly remain true in the future. Many future interest groups and legislators will oppose the expenditure of taxpayer funds. Some will favor it. Some will support food aid to protect children from starvation. Some will support the program only to the extent it uses food produced in the United States. Some will oppose food aid because the United States has done enough already and other governments are not doing their share. Some will favor any use of American food to better the lives of poverty-stricken groups in one geographic area but not in another. Some will be guided by humanitarian instincts, others by fear the United States is bankrupting itself. These positions have been argued in the past and they will be repeated in the future.

America will almost certainly be confronted by decisions, whether in twenty years, fifty, or a hundred, about whether to provide food assistance to countries (particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa) where food production will have lost momentum, food prices will have escalated, and increasing numbers of people will be unable — through self-production or market purchases — to provision themselves adequately every day, week after week, year after year. The likelihood of such a scenario can be reduced, but probably not eliminated, by the success of efforts now under way to develop food crops and livestock better able to withstand the future results of climate change. For rice-consuming populations in areas increasingly prone to floods, a new genetically modified rice variety has already been developed at IRRI that can survive total submersion for up to twenty days.* Research on drought-resistant cereals has been underway for decades. Progress has been slow, but there are promising developments, particularly for early-maturing varieties of millet and sorghum. Drought-tolerant barley has been developed by ICARDA for use in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. Research on drought-tolerant corn has produced some varieties that can survive hotter, water-stressed environments better than traditional varieties, but yields remain low and research continues. Similarly, research on drought tolerance in wheat has had some important but still limited successes, as “high variability in the nature of water stress and inadequate information about its complicatedness have made it difficult to identify specific physiological traits needed for improved crop performance.”**

These efforts may, in the end, be insufficient. Investments in employment-creating enterprises may fall short. Economic growth may benefit too few. The availability of nutritionally adequate foodstuffs may be too limited; prices too high. Access to needed foodstuffs may be impeded by poverty itself. If so, America and other food-exporting nations may at some future time be confronted with the ultimate decision: will the United States and other governments purchase food from the private food producers of their own nations, or other food-producing nations, to ship as aid to food-poor countries in order to prevent starvation, even when it means high expenditures, higher consumer prices in domestic markets, and denying food commodities to commercial customers?

From today’s vantage point, the future seems clouded with potential threats that would be particularly disadvantageous to the poorest residents of the poorest countries. There are many scenarios, readily inferred by assembling various projections of population growth, changing climate, political upheavals, international economic rivalries, and natural shocks, that can be aggregated into disconcerting combinations of failing governments, expanding terrorism, protracted warfare, protectionist threats to global trade, and climate-induced deterioration in cereal yields. It is likely that not all of these events will happen; it is possible but unlikely that none will. But such events have happened in the past, as earlier chapters of this book can confirm. Even the venerable insurance giant Lloyd’s has recently produced a study analyzing the shocks to the global insurance industry that could result from acute disruptions to global food supplies. It suggests that “the food system’s existing vulnerability to systemic shocks is being exacerbated by factors such as climate change, water stress, ongoing globalization, and heightening instability.”***

One must hope that the right decisions will be made in Washington and that Congress will appropriately assess the needs of tens of millions of hungry people and adequately respond to those needs, despite the near certainty of difficult political battles that would most certainly attend these decisions. The right decisions have been made against sometimes formidable odds in the past. Recall that proponents of aid to Venezuela succeeded against the constitutionalists in 1812. Herbert Hoover succeeded many times in providing massive food aid between 1914 and 1923, even when many in Congress opposed and American consumers had to be denied. Harry Truman could convince the infamous, do-nothing Congress of 1948–49 to provide food aid to Europe on several occasions. In 2016, a way was found in a highly divided Congress in a politically charged atmosphere to finance local and regional food purchases and the use of cash and credit assistance to hungry refugee families. The willingness to find political compromise has been a hallmark of the American political system.

Will there be similar champions of American benevolence and compassion in the remaining years of the twenty-first century and beyond? While one can never be sure that knowing the political history of American food aid will help answer this question, certainly it is better to be aware of this history than not. Will such knowledge help guide future decisions? This book is written with the hope that it will.

The book is available from Oxford University Press and Amazon.

Learn more about The Political History of American Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence.

*See Mitchel Benson, “New Flood-Tolerant Rice Offers Relief for World’s Poorest Farm- ers,” UC Davis news release, August 9, 2006.

**Nezhadahmadi, Prodhan, and Faruq 2013, 7.

***Lloyd’s 2015, 2.