The war raging in Ukraine has exacerbated food insecurity across the world — and food aid experts are looking to the 2023 farm bill for solutions.
Ukraine’s massive grain supplies typically feed 400 million people per year, but the war has “drastically cut supplies” and driven up food costs for consumers in rich and poor countries alike, according to the World Food Program (WFP).
U.S. legislators are currently drafting the farm bill, an omnibus agriculture act passed every five years, which includes provisions for international food assistance.
The farm bill authorizes a number of domestic and international food aid programs. The legislation doesn’t fully authorize funding for this aid, which must be decided in separate appropriations, but outlines how each program runs and how it can use future funds.
Lawmakers can use the must-pass farm bill draft to amend these programs as needed.
Experts like WFP’s Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Rebecca Middleton are hoping to see “robust authorization” for food aid support in the 2023 farm bill — especially the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, Middleton said.
The Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust builds up over time and then can be cashed out at the authorization of the Secretary of Agriculture.
In April 2022, $282 million was withdrawn from the Emerson Trust to support countries in need after the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict threatened food supplies in six major countries facing food insecurity: Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen.
The withdrawn money was used to obtain U.S. commodities and bolster existing aid in those countries, according to a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spokesperson.
The Emerson Trust was renamed to honor former Mississippi Rep. Bill Emerson in 1998 but was originally established in 1980 as a wheat reserve. Because of rising food prices, in 2008, the USDA converted the trust into a cash reserve that can be used to purchase U.S. commodities in times of need.
The trust was most recently reauthorized in the 2018 farm bill, and Congress must reauthorize the Emerson Trust in the 2023 legislation. Congress also has the authority to replenish funds after they are withdrawn.
“For all of those accounts [in the farm bill], the one that we’re really interested in is the Emerson Trust because it’s an account that’s not very well known, but is absolutely vital in situations like the one that we found ourselves in in 2022,” Middleton said.
“It’s really absolutely vital assistance that the U.S. was able to provide because of that emergency account in this time of historic need.”
The 2018 farm bill did not account for such crises like the COVID-19 pandemic or the Russia-Ukraine conflict, both which have had severe effects on supply and triggered more aid from the federal government, so the Emerson Trust was an essential resource in recent years.
“I mean, the need was extraordinary and then just compounded with the shock to the global food supply chain with the Ukrainian crisis,” Middleton said.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the former ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on nutrition, said in a statement that he supports keeping international food aid well-funded in the new legislation.,
“The FY 2023 farm bill reauthorization needs to continue to build on the trajectory of the past two decades and ensure that the U.S., in partnership with American farmers and non-profits, can respond swiftly and comprehensively to global humanitarian emergencies and invest in longer-term resilience and sustainability, especially for small farmers, so that they may more successfully withstand future economic and climate shocks,” McGovern said in a statement to The Hill.
In addition to the Emerson Trust withdrawal, the Biden administration committed $2.76 billion toward global food security last summer, on top of Biden and other G7 leaders’ contributing $4.5 billion to the issue in 2022.
High prices for fuel and fertilizer, theft of farm equipment, destruction of agricultural facilities, and the blockade of Black Sea ports all threatened to push millions of people internationally into poverty, hunger, and malnutrition starting in 2022, according to the White House. The Horn of Africa faced a particularly acute crisis due to prolonged drought and famine.
Henry Dalton, vice president of policy for U.S. Wheat Associates, is hoping to see solutions in the 2023 farm bill that prioritize using U.S. commodities as a “cornerstone” of donations to regions in need.
“We have a tremendous priority placed on making sure that hungry people around the world get fed and the farm bill programs do such a good job at doing that with commodities,” Dalton said.
He added that it’s “hard to say” how much farm bill policies will change from past years, but that the Russia-Ukraine war has inflamed existing hunger and food insecurity due to global conflicts like those in Ethiopia and Yemen.
Dalton said the war in Ukraine has made the need for international food aid more prominent.
“I think that, if anything, one of the big impacts is that the war has put global food security much more front of mind for a lot of folks,” Dalton said, “and probably shone a little bit more of a light on some of these programs that normally kind of fly under the radar.”
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