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U.S. Response to the Global Food Crisis: New Approaches

Henrietta H. Fore, Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and USAID Administrator
Opening statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Washington, DC
May 14, 2008

As prepared for delivery

Thank you Chairman Biden, Ranking Member Lugar and distinguished members of the Committee. I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to address this important issue.

Today we are facing an extraordinary number of humanitarian crises that strike the hardest at the world's most destitute people. It is times like these, where working in close collaboration with Congress, that America's humanitarian global leadership performs at its highest level.

Yesterday, I returned from Burma, where Admiral Keating, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command and I accompanied the initial C-130 relief flight, which brought basic humanitarian supplies such as mosquito nets, blankets, and bottled water for the Burmese people. Clearly, we face major challenges ensuring that our assistance reaches those most in need--we are in a race against time as hundreds of thousands of Burmese are in extremely dire circumstances.

The catastrophic cyclone in Burma, hitting that country's major rice producing region in the middle of the rice harvest, is a reminder of the fragile food situation we face in many developing countries. We are in the midst of a global food crisis unlike other food crises we have faced, one not caused simply by natural disasters, conflict or any single event such as a drought. It is not localized--but pervasive and widespread, affecting the poor in developing countries around the world.

From January to December 2007, the international food price index rose by 43%, compared with just 9% in 2006. While sharply higher prices have been welcome news for some farmers, they mean hardship for many, and for the poorest subsisting on $1/day or less, food price increases mean deprivation and real hunger.

For the poorest one billion, living on just a dollar per day, very high food prices mean stark choices between taking a sick child to the clinic, paying school fees, or putting food on the table. Africa and Asia are suffering most, but even in our own hemisphere, Haiti is gravely affected.

Experts tell us that the situation underlying the crisis is not a temporary one; demand for grain is outstripping supply. Our response is therefore three-pronged. We integrate immediate, near-term and longer-term components, all of which are needed to address the core causes of chronic hunger. We plan to increase our efforts in three key areas: 1) expand humanitarian assistance, looking at the most critical needs globally; 2) attack the underlying causes of food insecurity through a significant increase in staple food production; and 3) address policy barriers and trade policies adversely impacting food prices.

We will save lives both through short-term immediate food assistance and long-term help to increase agricultural production, so that food, whether domestically produced or traded, is both more available and more affordable. We will respond to urgent needs, but also will help small farmers increase production of key food staples in targeted countries and regions.

Because the underlying condition of this situation is impacted primarily by the increase in price, rather than the global supply of food, newly affected hungry people, especially those in urban areas, can be assisted through carefully targeted assistance. For example, targeted voucher programs can help the poorest obtain basic food staples without undermining commercial incentives for local food production and marketing.

As you know, the President moved quickly by requesting $770 million on May 2. Of that, $395 million will enable USAID's Office of Food for Peace to meet its ongoing emergency needs by maintaining purchasing power and address new food needs in both rural and urban areas. An additional $225 million of International Disaster Assistance will support crucial nutritional interventions, increased access to farm inputs, improved abilities to monitor widespread vulnerability, and local procurement and redistribution of commodities to stimulate production in surplus areas.

Our immediate efforts will help provide stability in the short term. This will provide the foundation to achieve medium and longer range goals that will help increase supply.

Years of high growth and low prices resulted in reduced attention to, and investment in, agriculture, rural infrastructure and markets. The President's emergency request will therefore increase our own investment by $150 million for FY 2009 in agriculture development assistance funding and work to leverage additional resources from the private sector.

We are seeking to increase our investment in agricultural research, harnessing science and technology and its application to boost productivity growth and environmental sustainability. We will continue to urge countries to end restrictions for acceptance of biotechnology-based crops, in either commercial trade or food aid. As we have seen during past food crises, distribution of food aid can be significantly complicated by barriers to biotechnology crops.

I urge the members of this committee to take a leadership role in helping overcome any global barriers to using modern science in an effort to help solve the problem of chronic world hunger.

We also are reaching out to our G-8 partners, applauding their efforts and encouraging still more. This June I will help lead the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) High Level Conference on World Food Security at which global leaders will gather to coordinate efforts to meet this challenge. Partnership with the private sector and non-government organizations features prominently in these efforts.

We will continue to invest in markets and work with countries and regional institutions to foster trade and rapid movement of food from areas with excess supply to those where shortages are occurring.

Taking a whole of government approach, we will work closely with partner countries, the World Bank, IMF [International Monetary Fund], foundations and other organizations to encourage wise policies that favor agricultural trade, avoiding export restrictions and other market interventions that exacerbate the supply-demand imbalance. We are advancing agreements on trade in the Doha round.

Failure is not an option. Though I have concentrated on the causes of the problem and its solution, we must never lose sight of the terrible human cost of hunger. Even short term hunger can unalterably affect a child by exposing him or her to disease, threatening normal cognitive development and lifelong productivity, or, tragically, even early death. Yet the problem posed by high food prices is one we know how to solve. In doing so, we can recommit to ending the scourge of chronic hunger.

Thank you, and I'd be happy to answer your questions at this time.

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