This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Feed the World: How the U.S. Became the World’s Biggest Food Aid Donor—And Why That Might Not be Such a Great Thing, first released on May 22, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
BROADCASTER: Dawn. And as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside of Karim, it lights up a biblical famine. Now, in the 20th century. This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on Earth.
NICOLA TWILLEY: I remember this! I was really young at the time—this was 1984—but I remember watching Michael Buerk on the BBC and not really understanding why we—why I couldn’t give these kids—kids my age! that were starving! the food they needed so badly.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I remember the images of starving children from Ethiopia more than any particular newscast, or really any newscast, but the American government certainly had a response, and it was—give Ethiopians food, the food that they needed so badly.
TWILLEY: I’m Nicola Twilley, and I was a kid in England during the Ethiopian famine of 1984.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and I was in junior high in suburban Maryland. And you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history.
TWILLEY: This episode, we’re talking about American food aid. Obviously, feeding the hungry is a massive, enormous, complicated, incredibly important subject. We’re just biting off a tiny little chunk of it today, although it’s a big important chunk in its own right.
GRABER: We are not talking about how to solve hunger, either in the U.S. or in the rest of the world. We’ll certainly come back to questions of how to tackle hunger and food insecurity in later episodes.
TWILLEY: But this episode, we want to know: how did the U.S. become the world’s largest supplier of food aid? All those bags of grain the West sent to a starving Ethiopia—they were mostly American.
GRABER: But were those bags of grains the right thing to send? And an even bigger question, is food really the best thing to send when you’re trying to help people in the most dire circumstances? Are there better ways to help?
TWILLEY: This is a complicated story, but it’s a really interesting one, so stick with us!
CLIP FROM BBC FOOTAGE
TWILLEY: Seriously, Cynthia—rewatching this, I had to stop half way through the clip. It was unbearable. And it was unbearable at the time. This was the famine of my youth.
GRABER: This was the famine of everyone’s youth, if you were a child of the 80s. It was everywhere. There were TV news documentaries, there were front-page headlines.
CLIP FROM “DO THEY KNOW IT’S CHRISTMAS?”
TWILLEY: There were songs that still get stuck in my head.
GRABER: Nicky and I, we were both young at the time and we had no idea really what was going on, or why. So why was Ethiopia starving?
BARRY RILEY: They have every conceivable potential problem creating food deficits that any country could possibly have. I won’t go into all of them.
TWILLEY: This is Barry Riley. He’s worked in food aid and development aid his entire career, and he’s just written a book called The Political History of American Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence. And it is way more fascinating than a 500-page book with the words political history in the title would lead you to believe.
GRABER: I agree. But back to Ethiopia. As Barry said, it had basically everything going wrong for it. In part it’s because the land has been inhabited forever, people have been living and using resources and farming there for thousands of years, and the soil is just totally degraded.
TWILLEY: Plus Ethiopia had recently experienced exponential population growth. There were 20 million Ethiopians in 1950, there were 44 million by the time of the famine in 1983-84. And don’t get us started on the country’s colonial history.
GRABER: All of this made Ethiopia vulnerable to anything that might worsen the situation.
RILEY: Drought, floods, insect infestations, overpopulation, bad roads—everything you could conceive of in that mountainous country was causing enormous hunger problems.
TWILLEY: And then a couple of things happened—one man made, one weather related.
RILEY: There had been a military coup in 1973-74. A communist government had come into power, kind of screwing everything up, trying to organize peasants into cadres, and Ethiopians just didn’t take to that.
GRABER: And then also the rains stopped coming. In 81, 82, and 83, there wasn’t enough rain. And then in 84, the rains totally failed. It didn’t rain. The harvest failed.
TWILLEY: By the time of that BBC news report—the one that seared itself into my young brain—untold thousands of people had already died, mostly babies and children. And more than a million had left their homes in search of food.
GRABER: The American public couldn’t turn away from the newscasts, and so neither could the government. President Ronald Reagan had to act. He asked government development people and nonprofits on the ground what the Ethiopians needed.
RILEY: In Ethiopia, most of the need is for grain commodities and vegetable oil and certain fortified foods which are intended for emergency feeding of children and lactating and pregnant women. All these estimates come back to the food aid bureau and USAID and to certain extent to the USDA.
TWILLEY: And all these requests get put into the sausage factory of the budgeting process and eventually Congress provides money to buy food and send it to Ethiopia.
RILEY: When the food arrives, it arrives in ramshackle ports and is carried on a ramshackle railroad or by trucks to as close to where the hunger is as possible.
GRABER: Some of that food gets given out to people who’ve left their homes because they have nothing to eat.
RILEY: These are people that are so starved that they’ve come into towns and are being taken care of by Save the Children or Doctors Without Borders or other organizations that are engaged in keeping people alive.
TWILLEY: There are tens of thousands, even millions at some of these camps. These are people who are going to die imminently, in a matter of days, if they don’t get food.
RILEY: Gradually, as the emergency calms down a bit, more and more food is available in country, the idea is to prevent people from having to come into town to be taken care of.
GRABER: At this non-emergency point, people are given sacks of grains, and tins of vegetable oil, and they can carry the food back home to their families and communities.
TWILLEY: This whole Ethiopian famine relief effort—it was huge.
GRABER: And it had an equally huge impact on how the world thought about how to help hungry people.
TWILLEY: Today, more than thirty years later, the U.S. is still the world’s largest food aid donor. As it was in the 1984 Ethiopia famine.
GRABER: But in most of the rest of the world, they started to think that maybe gathering sacks of grains thousands of miles away and putting that grain on boats wasn’t the best, most efficient, most cost-effective, and most helpful way to treat hunger. Many other countries started to give cash, for instance, instead of food, which allows people to buy food from farmers who live closer to the crisis.
TWILLEY: So we wondered: why? Is cash better? And, if so, why is the U.S. so entrenched in its own way of giving food? After all, shipping corn all the way from Chicago is maybe not the most logical response to a famine taking place in Northwest Africa.
GRABER: And so: how did we get here—how did America become such a big donor of food in the first place?
TWILLEY: Because it certainly didn’t start out that way.
GRABER: The first major food aid crisis came at the very beginning of the creation of the United States of America. The country was a baby. It was only 1794.
RILEY: Refugees arrived on the shores of the United States in sailing ships fleeing a slave revolt on what is now the island country of Haiti.
TWILLEY: There were some three thousand refugees, mostly women and children, and they landed in Maryland totally destitute. And both the people and the government of Maryland gave them food.
RILEY: And then they sent representatives to our then Capitol in Philadelphia seeking reimbursement. Well, the Congress basically said, love to help and we do so out of our own pockets. But there’s nothing in our Constitution that allows us to do that. There’s no language that allows us to spend public monies for the benefit of foreign people. And the opposite debate in Congress was: how can you say that? We are Christian people after all and this is Christian charity we’re talking about and the Founding Fathers obviously didn’t want us to suspend our Christian beliefs.
GRABER: We can certainly argue about how deserving these people were, since these are obviously white people fleeing a slave revolt, and frankly I wish we’d sent aid to the slaves to help them free themselves. But that’s another story. That’s not what the folks at the time were arguing about.
RILEY: So the debate, which was an interesting one, was finally resolved by the Constitutionalists, James Madison in particular, being overruled by those who felt that humanitarian requirements demanded that there be some help to the state and cities of the east coast that had provided help to these French refugees.
TWILLEY: But it turns out that feeding these French citizens fleeing Haiti was the exception, not the rule. Take the Irish potato famine in the late 1840s. Senator Clayton of Delaware argued in Congress that we couldn’t just stand by as one out of every eight Irish people died of hunger.
RILEY: So Clayton made that argument. It was a pretty good one. It did not carry the day. We did not provide very much support for the people of Ireland. And over a million of them starved to death.
GRABER: Overall, for its first almost century and a half, the people making the Constitutional argument mainly won. And so the U.S. was not too excited about helping out starving people around the world. The aid we did give?
RILEY: Well it was short term. It was small. And it was private. It was a few thousand private citizens trying to get together something to send over to maybe the country that their parents had originated from. But the government was rather steadfast that the Constitution didn’t allow us to do very much.
TWILLEY: And then World War I started.
RILEY: The German army confiscated food that was available in Belgium and the poor country of nine and a half million people was going to run out of food and had no ability to bring it in in the middle of a war zone.
GRABER: The U.S. stepped in and fed our starving allies in the war effort.
TWILLEY: So what had changed?
RILEY: The big change was Herbert Hoover himself.
TWILLEY: This is Hoover before he was president. He was a forty-year-old mining engineer, and he was based in Europe. His first task was helping to repatriate thousands of Americans trapped behind enemy lines by the rapid advance of the Germans.
GRABER: He was asked to help the starving Belgians by a group of Belgians and Americans and Brits, and he said yes. He genuinely cared about helping, he cared about hungry kids, and he took to the problem with all the business acumen that he’d gained in his years of being a mining expert.
TWILLEY: But still, however brilliant of a businessman Hoover was, there was still this question of getting his fellow Americans on board with feeding hungry people overseas. Here was a country that had spent a century saying no.
GRABER: But some things were changing at the time in America that made it ripe for saying yes.
RILEY: American farmers were getting more productive all the time. Hybrid seeds are being introduced. There was the beginning of the use of equipment rather than animal-drawn power. And so farmer productivity was increasing and the amount of food being produced by farmers. We had an excess that was available for that purpose. Two, international transport had changed. We had moved from sailing ships in the 1860s and 70s to steam powered ships that could carry much larger cargoes.
TWILLEY: So on the one hand, we had the food and we could get it there. But still, that doesn’t explain America’s change of heart on the whole idea of foreign aid.
GRABER: That change required a different technological revolution.
RILEY: We’d laid these undersea telegraphic cables so news about the situation in Europe could get into American newspapers the next day. And so Americans for the first time were seeing in rather short order the magnitude of the suffering that was being faced. And the posters that Hoover’s organization provided and sent around the country are amazingly—you know, poor little children on crutches and their mothers with bandages for their blindness and it just really got into the hearts of the American public who were quite willing to respond.
GRABER: And the net result: America’s now taken on the role of feeding the world, at least, feeding our allies, for the first time—in part, frankly, because American farmers had been producing so much food that they wanted to get rid of some of it.
TWILLEY: But that agricultural productivity—it ended up backfiring.
RILEY: After the end of World War I, U.S. farmers who had geared up to to grow as much as they possibly could to feed the war effort were suddenly faced by a total collapse in demand, international demand. They were ready and had been willing and in fact produced an amazing increase in the tonnages of grain and and livestock, pigs mostly, to feed the war effort.
GRABER: But now the war was over and that demand was gone. The farmers still had all this grain and all these animals, but prices began to plummet.
TWILLEY: And then, on top of all that, the Great Depression hit in 1929, and lasted for an entire decade.
GRABER: There are many reasons for why the Great Depression happened, and we’re not going to tease them all out here, but it just made an already quite bad situation for farmers even worse.
RILEY: Farmers were losing their land. Banks that had lent them money were going out of business.
TWILLEY: The government had to do something. And the solution it came up with would change the shape of farming in America, with effects that continue to this day.
RILEY: When Roosevelt came into power he immediately inaugurated a series of programs to come up with ways to purchase that food by promising farmers that the government would buy it if no one else would.
GRABER: The farmers most certainly needed help. But the government didn’t have to help farmers by buying up the extra food. Hoover had an idea to give farmers loans and let the market sort the situation out and lead farmers to produce less food, but that money for the loans was swamped by how desperate the need of the farmers’ was during the Great Depression. The loan money ran out.
TWILLEY: The other thing the government could have done is just give farmers direct financial support during this difficult time. Again, that might have let them ride out the immediate crisis without distorting the market, and eventually they would have reduced their production.
RILEY: The problem is that individual farmers find it very difficult to accept the argument that we’d all do better if we produced less because the individual farmer’s saying, OK, I’ll produce less but will my neighbors produce less? I’m not so sure about that. I’m in Iowa—will the guys over in Kansas produce less? I’m afraid I’m not sure they will and therefore I’m going to continue to produce all I can. And all that they could produce was more than we needed domestically.
GRABER: Whatever might have happened if we had come up with a policy that tried to let the market convince the farmers to produce less food, that’s not what we did at all.
TWILLEY: And the result was a gigantic surplus of food that the government had to purchase.
GRABER: As it happened, this was useful, because it wasn’t too long before we were involved in yet another World War.
TWILLEY: During the Second World War, once again, America largely fed its allies. And then after the war, they had to keep on feeding the allies, and all the newly liberated countries too.
RILEY: Post World War II, Europe was extremely hungry. But by 1947, Europe was—and certainly 48—Europe was beginning to produce enough of its own. And we’d lost those customers.
GRABER: But, once again, American farmers didn’t stop producing all that extra food.
RILEY: And we had developed this enormous surplus of government-owned food stored in every conceivable location, you know, in Butler buildings and ship holds, and every silo they could rent—hugely expensive and we didn’t know what to do with the food.
GRABER: In case you missed that, the grain was literally being stored in retired warships!
TWILLEY: There was grain everywhere, America was bursting at the seams with food. At one point, the USDA reported that the storage bill for all this surplus grain was costing the government more than a million dollars a day!
GRABER: So the government had to come up with a plan to get rid of all this extra food.
TWILLEY: Enter the era of big, institutionalized American food aid.
RILEY: Starting in the Senate and later in the House, the idea was let’s institutionalize this idea of getting rid of our surpluses. And it was a piece of legislation that sailed rather quickly through Congress, was approved in June of 1954, and signed by President Eisenhower. This is the so-called PL 480 program.
GRABER: You can’t tell in Barry’s voice, but this is it, people—this is the turning point, this is the program, the bill that created the modern era of institutionalized American food aid. And actually, to call this a turning point is putting it mildly. Pretty much everyone who studies food aid says American food aid started, at least in its current form, with PL 480 in 1954.
TWILLEY: But wait! America was supposedly Constitutionally opposed to giving food aid. Generations of Senators had made speeches claiming they would love to help the hungry overseas but the Constitution wouldn’t let them. What had changed?
RILEY: Well, when people want to make the Constitutional argument, they continued to do so. But there were other elements of the Constitution that could be brought into play by those who were clever enough to find the language that supported their own positions.
GRABER: There’s the General Welfare Clause—it’s in the Constitution in two places and it says it is the role of the U.S. government to improve the general welfare of the American people.
RILEY: Among the American people whose general welfare needed to improved was the American farmer.
GRABER: This was actually argued back in the 1920s. That’s when the U.S. government provided a massive shipment of food aid to Russia to help the starving Communists.
TWILLEY: A.k.a. America’s sworn ideological enemies.
GRABER: The argument then in favor of helping them was that buying corn from American farmers would greatly increase the farmers’ income, and their income was pretty low at the time.
RILEY: And by God there is nothing in the Constitution that prevented the government from doing that, after all. And once we had the food in hand, the Constitution was rather silent on what we would be able to do with it. So it was the general welfare clause that kind of broke that Constitutional logjam.
TWILLEY: PL 480, the bill that began America’s food aid career—it was definitely a welfare bill. And the welfare was quite definitely directed at American special interests.
RILEY: These are American farmer groups in this case, agribusinesses, those who transport food, those who ship food. And they wanted to get into the legislation protections for their particular interests so that the food would come from American farmers. The food would be shipped on U.S. flag vessels. Once Congress agreed to that then they got the support of those groups which helped other legislatures also to vote in favor. I mean, this is the typical American political system at work.
GRABER: The farmers get their piece of the pie. The ports and the shipping companies are getting their piece of the pie. And there’s another kind of strange interest group here—the NGOs actually get a piece of this pie, too. They get to be the ones to hand out the food. They also get to sell some of it low-cost in needy countries and use that money for the programs that they run.
TWILLEY: The whole thing is a giant bureaucratic trough filled with different provisions and programs that are designed to help different groups. Even the grain millers got some, because a certain percentage of the aid had to be sent as flour.
GRABER: And all of these mouths at the trough aren’t the only way Americans are benefiting. There was a strategic use for this food aid, too, especially during the Cold War.
RILEY: When we were using food as a tool or a weapon to help prevent or try to prevent Soviet incursions to countries that appeared to be going communist.
TWILLEY: Take Yugoslavia.
RILEY: The issue there was that Josip Tito and Joseph Stalin, two communist leaders, did not at all get along with each other. Yugoslavia in 1950 faced a rather severe drought situation and a lack of food and the U.S. idea was to provide them with the food as a way of drawing Tito further away from Moscow and closer to the United States.
GRABER: Congress approved that food aid package faster than you can imagine. Yes, it was a communist country, and yes, we’re talking about Congress, but they did it.
RILEY: And we did provide food and in quite large amounts and in time to prevent serious hunger in Yugoslavia.
TWILLEY: Yugoslavia stayed communist of course, but we tried.
GRABER: At least not as many people died.
TWILLEY: Over the following decades, as the Cold War rumbled along, some presidents used food aid like this, purely as a lever.
GRABER: But some tried to put a slightly different twist on food aid—like Kennedy.
RILEY: I wouldn’t characterize it as a slight difference. It was a major difference.
RILEY: I was actually a student here at Stanford at the time when Kennedy was running for president. And he came here and made a presentation about foreign aid to Latin America. Can you imagine a presidential candidate wanting to talk about foreign aid to Latin America as part of his campaign? But he also had a major element, which I think was aimed at the U.S. farmers, of using our agricultural productivity as a tool for the development of foreign populations that were hungry. And he wanted to call it Food for Peace. It was his way of using an abundant commodity in the United States to bring about—not relief, not feeding hungry people so much as using it as a tool together with other tools—dollars and technical assistance—to begin helping these poor countries, principally in Africa and South Asia, to be able to produce more.
GRABER: In other words, Kennedy believed that food should not only be used to feed the hungry but also as a tool in genuine international development.
TWILLEY: This vision of food aid goes beyond just getting sacks of grain to the starving. Instead, it means setting up a whole host of programs that use food to encourage other social and infrastructural changes—programs that make food available to breastfeeding mothers, or give food to women as part of initiatives to take them out of the fields and into classrooms.
GRABER: Food can be provided as a wage for people in rural communities who work on a variety of jobs—irrigation projects, or erosion control. In all these cases, food is in theory being used to help people become self-sufficient.
TWILLEY: At the end of the day, whether it was being used purely as a political tool or a development strategy or as emergency relief, the U.S. ended up giving out a lot of food.
GRABER: Back in the 1950s, America provided 50 percent of all food aid in the world. We were giving an unimaginable amount of food.
TWILLEY: So this is awesome, right? America is feeding hungry people, winning hearts and minds, and propping up our own farmers with their overproduction problem. What could possibly go wrong?
GRABER: Well, as part of our food aid, we were actually doing two things in particular, we were giving some food away, and we were selling some food super cheap on long-term loans that could be repaid in local currency rather than dollars. And our food-producing allies were not excited about that second part.
RILEY: Canada objected of course, because they said look, we Canadians don’t provide food for local currencies. We’re a commercial operation and you’re hurting our commercial operations. New Zealand objected because the same thing was happening with butter. Egypt with cotton. There were oh, 30 agricultural exporting countries that were very unhappy with the U.S. for its PL 480 program.
TWILLEY: America wasn’t just hurting wealthy countries with this program
RILEY: I use the example of Burma in the book because it’s really the quintessential example. Here’s little Burma trying to sell rice, its only commodity that it can earn foreign exchange. And we were coming in with our PL 480 sales in local currency at loan rates of 40-year repayment, two percent interest. And poor Burma couldn’t compete with that and so they were losing their customers, Indonesia and other customers, to our PL 480 program.
TWILLEY: So then what happens? Burma sells its rice to communist countries instead. Which is a bit of an own goal for America.
RILEY: And the State Department was saying look, that’s a really bad idea. We’re using food and it’s harming our foreign policy in these regions. But USDA—as it always does—had more in Congress who were willing to accept USDAs arguments than were willing to accept the arguments of the Department of State. USDA has quite a constituency, as you can imagine.
TWILLEY: So countries that weren’t receiving our food aid were upset with America, but some of the countries that were receiving it—they weren’t necessarily happy either.
RILEY: Almost always the issue was India, because India was far and away the largest recipient of PL 480.
GRABER: In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson was president and evidence seems to point to the fact that was a genuine humanitarian. He really wanted to help India.
TWILLEY: But they needed a lot of help. At one point, India was receiving ten percent of America’s total wheat production.
RILEY: So their requirement for food aid was rather incessant and in Johnson’s mind could be eternal, at our expense.
GRABER: So Johnson has to look tough to Congress. He was a tough politician, and he knew he needed to make it clear that these weren’t just easy giveaways.
RILEY: And what he wanted India to do was to do more on its own to change its agricultural policy, to introduce incentives to Indian producers so they would begin producing more, to build fertilizer factories they so desperately needed.
TWILLEY: These were all things that India needed to do to become self-sufficient. The issue was that India already knew that.
RILEY: And had already begun the process, in a very difficult political system, of trying to make the very changes that Johnson was pushing them to do. Johnson’s reporting was coming to him from the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Agriculture, bless their hearts, I don’t believe were very conversant with what India was doing internally politically to try to get its ducks in a row to become more agriculturally productive.
GRABER: So at this point, Johnson is basically being a micro-manager. He’s checking up on all the details to make sure the food was where it was supposed to be and the Indians were doing what he told them to do.
RILEY: And the Indian government, particularly in their Ministry of Agriculture, was saying, why is he doing this? Because we are already doing what he wants us to do. But Johnson didn’t believe they were. And the totality of that process in India led to some very bad feelings and bad taste on the Indian side.
TWILLEY: It was a perfect example of the subtitle of Barry’s book—an uneasy benevolence. We’ll feed you but we won’t make friends doing it.
GRABER: This takes us almost all the way back to where we started, which is the famines in Ethiopia. We’ve now teased out the arguments for and against food aid in all sorts of situations. But obviously, America always debates whether or not to give food. So what really was going on behind the TV coverage? We remember the distended bellies and the rock star-filled concerts, but what was happening behind the scenes?
RILEY: It was a complicated situation.
TWILLEY: Surprise, surprise. Which we will untangle.
RILEY: Reagan was faced with, how do I deal with this communist country? Many people in his administration, conservatives, said we don’t want to support a communist government. It’s their problem and since they receive assistance from Russia, let Russia take care of it.
GRABER: But Reagan couldn’t ignore the images that Nicky and I can’t forget. All those headlines and songs and TV docs, the public was really paying attention to Ethiopia. And so the government had to, too.
TWILLEY: Which is still an issue today—oftentimes the places that receive aid—they receive it because they’ve been covered in the media. It’s not just about the need, or even about our diplomatic relationship with the country in question.
GRABER: In terms of Ethiopia, we spent millions of dollars and sent tons of food and it helped. But food aid didn’t prevent that famine in Ethiopia from killing hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million people.
TWILLEY: More importantly, it didn’t prevent the next famine. The Ethiopian harvest was great in 1986, and the U.S. stopped sending food. And then the rains failed again, and internal conflict flared, and Ethiopia was starving again.
GRABER: And so everyone, all the countries that had been sending aid to Ethiopia, they all start wondering: Are we doing the right thing? Are we trying to solve the problem the right way?
TWILLEY: This is exactly what Patrick Webb was tasked with figuring out.
PATRICK WEBB: I was working for the International Food Policy Research Institute and was conducting research in Ethiopia right at the tail end of the famine.
TWILLEY: Patrick and his colleague Bea Rogers are now at the Tufts University School of Nutrition. Like Barry Riley, they have decades of experience in both administering and studying food aid.
GRABER: One of the things Patrick was studying was whether food aid was more effective if it came with livestock, or even cash.
TWILLEY: And after these kinds of post-Ethiopia evaluations, lots of countries decided that cash was more effective.
RILEY: They realized in the 1990s, that it was a heck of a lot cheaper to send money to these countries and neighboring countries to buy food locally where they could do so or buy food in neighboring countries.
GRABER: That decision was backed up by a lot of scientific studies. They found that sending cash was cheaper and a better way to feed people.
TWILLEY: In some situations where the local markets do have food available to be purchased, giving people cash to buy that local food is a lot better than shipping corn from Chicago.
RILEY: It’s cheaper, it gets to that where it’s needed more quickly, and it’s the type of food that these recipients prefer because that’s what they’re used to. We send yellow Dent corn from the United States, dry yellow corn. That’s not what people are used to eating in Africa. They’re used to eating their large kernel white corn. And it’s difficult for them to make that transition.
GRABER: But sometimes food isn’t available locally. Or sometimes it’s impossible to move food from where it’s produced nearby to the people who need it. Before I looked into this closely, I’d seen those studies saying cash was better, and that seemed logical to me. But it’s far more complicated than that.
BEA ROGERS: I think the assumption that it’s cheaper to handle cash and hand out cash is not always a valid assumption.
TWILLEY: That’s Bea Rogers, Patrick’s colleague at Tufts.
ROGERS: Not as many people want corn-soy blend as want to cash. And so managing cash and making sure that it’s not diverted is administratively challenging and that is something else that needs to be taken into account in providing cash.
WEBB: Those questions remain actually, because the context of many emergencies is very different, right? The regional crisis in Syria is very, very different from what is going on in South Sudan. Context is really, really important and in some cases cash does work better than food. In some cases, food is much more urgently needed than vouchers. So there’s a body of literature which is continuing to grow in that space.
GRABER: This is a really important body of research. Unfortunately, it might not have a huge impact on what America gives overseas.
TWILLEY: Shock, horror, political decisions are not always based on evidence. America may not have such giant agricultural surpluses anymore, but Iowa still has two senators, and American shipping interests have effective lobbyists, and all those special interests—they basically outvote the argument that in some circumstances we could feed more people for less by giving them cash.
RILEY: The way that the European Parliaments operate is quite different from ours and this makes more sense to them, that you do the cheapest, best, and quickest way. We have been very reluctant to do it. It’s only in the past year or two that there has been legislation that allows us to do that—not with our food aid budget sadly, but with our regular foreign aid budget which is in dollars.
GRABER: Unsurprisingly, it’s not a lot of dollars. But so okay, we primarily give food, but then the question is—are we at least giving the right food? What is the right food for the right situation?
WEBB: I was on the ground in Aceh and then the the Haiti earthquake. The immediate response may actually include bottles of water and very often includes either what are called humanitarian daily rations, which are packets of everything you need for a day to survive. The Haiti earthquake, in the first couple of weeks, military rations were one of the first things delivered partly because it was so close to the U.S. and partly because they are stockpiled in very large numbers and easy to distribute. I lived through literally multiple weeks just on MREs. Which has its pros and cons. But very quickly you have to transition to foods that people are familiar with.
TWILLEY: This is the moment when cash could come in, so that people could buy the grains they like and know how to cook, and at the same time support local growers and the local economy.
GRABER: But cash might not be the best option during or after a serious famine, like what happened in Ethiopia.
WEBB: What we’re seeing is when you have large numbers of severely malnourished children, giving them cash isn’t going to do the trick when in fact what they have to recover is a minimum number of grams of weight per kilogram of body mass per day. It’s actually delivery of very specific nutrient-enhanced foods that is the only way you’re going to achieve that.
GRABER: And this is exactly what Patrick and Bea have been working on.
TWILLEY: A few years ago, Patrick and Bea were tasked by the U.S. government with performing a thorough food aid quality review. They went through all the scientific literature on what worked the best for treating malnutrition. Then they compared those findings—the current state of nutritional knowledge—with the products the U.S. gives out.
GRABER: First up, corn-soy blend.
ROGERS: It’s delivered with oil. It’s prepared in a porridge and it’s fed to the child as a supplement to the normal diet. And it’s just like feeding your child a bowl of oatmeal or Wheatina or something like that.
GRABER: This porridge and oil combo is meant to help children under the age of two recover basically from almost being starving. The U.S. has been giving it out for years. But Bea and Patrick discovered that there were ways to improve it.
TWILLEY: For example, the corn-soy blend is fortified with iron. But some forms of iron turn out to be more easily absorbed by the body than others, and the corn-soy blend was using the wrong kind.
GRABER: The corn-soy blend has protein in it, but Patrick and Bea found that it really needed another kind of protein—milk protein from dried whey. They found a lot of research showing that milk improves cognitive function and recovery from severe malnutrition. It seems to be totally critical, though Patrick says no one quite understands why.
TWILLEY: Their literature review couldn’t provide all the answers—they had to get out into the field and run some experiments too.
GRABER: For example, the World Food Program gives the package with the oil already mixed into the flour. The U.S. provides a separate bottle of oil.
ROGERS: And so one of the things we were looking at was whether giving the oil separately and lots of support for mixing it correctly, which of course has a cost of it its own, would end up being as cost effective or more cost effective than adding the oil.
TWILLEY: And Bea and Patrick found that in this case, the American way of doing things—where the oil comes in a separate bottle—is actually better than the World Food Programme version, where the oil is pre-mixed into the flour. It’s cheaper to supply, and people end up eating more of the oil, so they get more nutrition too.
GRABER: And the recommendations Patrick and Bea made to the U.S. government? The government accepted them all.
Patrick: They brought essentially all these two to three dozen products into the 21st century, having made very few changes since the 1960s.
GRABER: Bea and Patrick aren’t resting on their laurels—they’re still studying these products in the field to make sure they’re working as intended, and that children are getting the best nutrition to help them recover.
TWILLEY: Patrick told us that he wants to see food aid become scientific. What combination of food should be provided for how long, with what kind of programming support, to be the most effective in each particular situation?
GRABER: Bea and Patrick also want aid groups and policy makers to move beyond: How much weight did the child gain? To questions like: How healthy is the child? Can they pay attention, and learn, and be active? It’s just not about weight.
TWILLEY: So this is really important progress. If we’re going to deliver food, let’s make it the right food. And in fact, under the Obama administration, the US prioritized this kind of micro-nutrient rich aid. It also managed to finagle some work-arounds to give cash instead of food, where that was most appropriate.
GRABER: All of these tweaks to American food aid—Barry says they’ve added up.
RILEY: On the relief side, I think the relief effort has gotten amazingly better, more efficient. And I ascribe high marks to the World Food Programme for that. They are so good in the field. They are so good in their own headquarters, with a relatively small staff. So on relief through World Food Programme: doggoned good effort, except they need about 35 to 50 percent more funding than they’re getting right now.
TWILLEY: Underfunding is nothing new. But there’s another, bigger shift.
WEBB: Today there’s much less food aid in the world and it’s mostly focused on emergency response, so that’s one major change.
GRABER: Kennedy was all about using food as a tool to help a country make the social and economic and infrastructural investments that would mean that it could feed itself in the future.
TWILLEY: For the most part, we don’t do that anymore. We feed the starving—some of the starving—and then we go home.
GRABER: A large part of the problem is that our government has the attention span of a flea. And development takes a fricking long time.
RILEY: And our Congress and the American people tend to be a little anxious. They want to see a three year result—in and out. Why are we still there five years later? And the answer to that question is it takes that long to do it right. And if we go in and do short-term things, we’re not going to do it right. It’s going to fail and then everybody’s going to argue well foreign aid is no good, it’s always failing.
TWILLEY: Barry’s point is, if we don’t invest resources over the long term, we don’t ever learn what works and what doesn’t. We barely even learn what’s causing the problem in the first place.
RILEY: Is it a lack of assets on their side, a lack of knowledge? Is it that the infrastructure is not good enough for them to grow the food but they can’t get it out because the roads are bad?
GRABER: Bea and Patrick say that even our short-term aid, like a six-month supply of fortified porridge and oil, that has to be done with an eye to the long-term, too.
ROGERS: I think one of the things that’s worth talking about is if you do in fact succeed in producing a healthier generation of kids, little kids who grow better and develop cognitively better and so on and so forth are kids who are going to develop into more productive adults and complete school and get better jobs and so on and so forth.
TWILLEY: All the experts agree: the investment needs to be long term. Because the problem is certainly long term.
RILEY: I think the future is fraught with peril.
GRABER: Barry says climate change has the potential to make a lot of people a lot more hungry. Yields are going down in the tropics, and even in more temperate countries yields of corn might come down as much as 20 to 30 percent.
TWILLEY: Drought and severe weather are going to become more common thanks to climate change. The oceans are increasingly empty. And all of this is only going to increase internal displacement and conflict and all kinds of human problems that make hunger worse.
RILEY: If the world in 2050 or 2100 is going to be facing enormous new problems in terms of the ability to produce food, particularly in the tropics, there are a whole host of things that need to be underway now in terms of adapting ourselves and adapting our ideas and our programs to confront the food problems that are likely to occur in the future. And it’s just hard to get Congress and the American public to realize we’re in this for the long haul. So I am worried. I am worried about the future.
GRABER: But really, we did not want to leave you all with such a depressing thought. Solving world hunger is a huge challenge, and, like we said at the start, this episode, we’re just focusing on aid. So we started talking about what could make a difference. And one of the things we both agree is that Americans are actually in general quite generous people.
TWILLEY: This is something I really noticed, as someone who didn’t grow up here. There’s a culture of individual giving in America that we don’t have, for example, in my home country of England. There are lots of reasons for that.
GRABER: Part of it is that our American government doesn’t do as much for us as I think it should, to help even Americans in need or in terms of our overall healthcare for example, but the end result is that we are actually quite generous.
TWILLEY: But, as Barry pointed out, Americans then end up doing a horrible job of giving a lot of the time, because they think short term, and because special interests win out over evidence, and because they want to attach all sorts of strings to their gifts.
GRABER: But one of the important things that both Nicky and I learned from this episode is that public opinion really does matter. It can change what the government does in terms of foreign aid and assistance and how that aid works.
TWILLEY: And so it’s important that we care about this and we pay attention to it. Because that’s the only way to make a difference.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Barry Riley. His new genuinely fascinating book is The Political History of Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence, and we have links to it on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to Patrick Webb and Bea Rogers at the Tufts University School of Nutrition. Links and more details about their research are at gastropod dot com, where you can also sign up to support us—if you give $5 an episode or $9 a month, you’ll get our special supporters newsletter where we’ll share all the juicy nuggets we had to cut from this episode for time.
GRABER: And thanks to our awesome volunteer, Ari Lebowitz. We’ve got a sneak peek from a special double episode about a topic lots of you have asked about coming up next, but first, a couple final words from our sponsors.