President Bush on Thursday proposed spending an additional $770 million in emergency food assistance for poor countries, responding to rising food prices that have resulted in social unrest in several nations.
The president’s proposal came only days after Democrats in Congress had called for increases, and it received a largely positive response, though some Democrats criticized the fact that the additional aid would not be available until the next fiscal year, which begins in October.
Bush’s proposal, announced in a previously unscheduled appearance in the East Room of the White House, underscored how quickly the global food crisis has risen to the top of Washington’s agenda.
The administration in April ordered the Department of Agriculture to release $200 million in commodities paid for by a special trust fund, while the U.S. Agency for International Development promised $40 million more in emergency aid to countries hardest hit by soaring prices and shortages.
“In some of the world’s poorest nations, rising prices can mean the difference between getting a daily meal and going without food,” Bush said.
The $770 million would be included in next year’s budget, increasing total U.S. food assistance to $2.6 billion, the deputy budget director, Stephen S. McMillin, said in a telephone conference. In the current year, the administration has proposed spending $2.3 billion, he said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, welcomed the president’s proposal “as a sign of the magnitude of this problem.”
But another Democrat, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview that the administration needed to act with “a real sense of urgency” and endorse a swifter increase.
Casey and Durbin this week asked the administration for an immediate $200 million increase in foreign food aid, on top of a $350 million emergency package the administration has already proposed in a supplemental spending measure.
In his remarks, Bush also called on other countries to ease trade barriers restricting agricultural imports or exports and to lift bans on genetically modified foods. He urged Congress to give the government greater flexibility in dispersing assistance. He said the administration wants to use a quarter of all the U.S. aid to buy food from foreign countries rather than here in the United States.
“In order to break the cycle of famine that we’re having to deal with too often in a modern era, it’s important to help build up local agriculture,” he said. But he did not insist on that approach as a condition for increasing aid.
The proposal received strong support on Thursday from the charity Oxfam America. “While America provides half of the world’s food aid, this generosity is undermined by legal restrictions and bureaucracy, as food aid must be purchased in the U.S. and transported on U.S.-flagged ships,” Oxfam said in a statement.