New U.S. Agricultural Research Institute Launched; Global Food Aid Examined

The Obama administration recently launched the National Institute of Food (NIFA), “a new agricultural research institute … but farm lobbyists and others warned that its success depends on whether Congress agrees to substantially increase funding for farm research,” Government Executive reports. Slumping agricultural research led Congress to create the institute “in the 2008 farm bill in hopes of giving a farm agency the same stature as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation,” the publication writes.

Observers note that NIFA could get tangled up in a “decades-old battles over formula funds for land grant universities, competitive grants favored by elite schools and congressional earmarks.” At an event, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack – who said the institute would focus on “global food security and hunger, climate change, sustainable energy, childhood obesity and food safety” – announced that NIFA will be headed by Roger Beachy, a plant scientist. “Vilsack and his undersecretary for research, education and economics, Rajiv Shah, noted that President Obama has proposed spending 3 percent of GDP on all science, but neither Vilsack nor Shah mentioned the size of the USDA research request in the fiscal 2011 budget,” Government Executive reports.

The article includes information on the 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill passed last week and reaction to Beachy’s appointment and the vision for the institute (Hagstrom, 10/9).

In a written statement appearing in a USDA press release, Vilsack said, “USDA science will support our ability to keep American agriculture competitive while ending world hunger. At a time when disruptive climate change threatens production of some of the world’s staple foods, some of the biggest gains we can make in ending world hunger will involve development of stress-resistant crops” (10/8).

In related news, several articles covered aspects of food aid around the world:

  • During a parliament session in Ethiopia recently, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi critiqued and questioned the intent of food aid agencies, the Daily Nation reports (Ashine, 10/11). Meles “had harsh words for what he called the ‘food aid industry,'” saying that “industry actors” were “deliberately inflating the number of Ethiopians in need of aid, and suggested their motive is more about profit than about saving lives,” VOA News reports. 

The government estimates 6.2-million people will need emergency food aid within the next few months. Another 7.5-million chronically food-insecure Ethiopians receive assistance through a largely U.S.-funded program known as the Productive Safety Net. Some observers have lumped the figures together to say 13.7-million people, or nearly one in six Ethiopians is in need of food aid. But Ethiopia has objected, saying safety net beneficiaries are not emergency cases,” VOA News writes. 

The article includes excerpts of Meles’ translated remarks and details about U.S. aid to the country (Heinlein, 10/11).

  • “Tens of millions of the world’s poor will have their food rations cut or canceled in the next few weeks because rich countries have slashed aid funding,” the Observer reports in an article examining aid contributions to the World Food Programme (WFP). “Food riots in more than 20 countries last year persuaded rich countries to give a record $5bn to the WFP to help avert a global food crisis brought on by record oil prices and the growth of biofuel crops. But new data seen … show that food aid is now at its lowest in 20 years. Countries have offered only $2.7bn in the first 10 months of 2009,” the newspaper writes. So far this year, the U.S., which is “by far the world’s biggest” food aid contributor, has pledged $800 million less than last year, according to the Observer.

Josette Sheeran, head of the WFP, said, “Many of our funders do not feel that they need to give on the level of last year. They think the world food crisis is over, but in 80 percent of countries food prices are actually higher than one year ago” (Vidal, 10/11).

  • The Observer examines hunger worldwide. “The world is now officially going backwards on food supplies, with more people malnourished than ever before in history,” writes the Observer, noting that “real, long-term, gnawing hunger … is officially on the march from sub-Saharan Africa to Asia. Only in Latin America have absolute numbers reduced in the past 30 years.”

According to the newspaper, “Just 15 years ago, the U.N., western charities, governments and some food companies all thought that world hunger could be more or less eradicated … What no one foresaw was that oil prices would peak in 2007, and then all grain and fertiliser prices would double. No one expected, either, the credit crunch or the recession.” The article also explores the use of Plumpy’nut, which is the “equivalent of royal jelly, acai berries and chocolate all wrapped into one for malnourished children” (Vidal, 10/11).

  • Inter Press Service examines the arguments for why developed countries should assist countries with problems related to food insecurity. “There are many reasons why people not directly affected by food insecurity should consider it a problem, even taking moral considerations about social justice out of the equation,” IPS writes. NGOs “engaged in the war on hunger” focus on different reasons and the article outlines some of these (Virgo, 10/12).  

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