Bush calls for millions in food aid

May 1, 2008 4:34:01 PM PDT
President Bush urged Congress Thursday to approve $770 million to help alleviate dramatically escalating food prices that threaten widespread hunger and increasing social unrest around the world. In a surprise midafternoon appearance at the White House, Bush announced he is asking lawmakers to approve the additional funds for global food aid and development programs. The money - to be directed primarily at needy African nations - is being included in a broader $70 billion Iraq war funding measure for 2009 that the White House sent to Capitol Hill on Thursday.

"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 American people are generous people and they're a compassionate people. We believe in the timeless truth `to whom much is given, much is expected."'

The new money comes on top of $200 million Bush ordered released two weeks ago for emergency food aid. It also is in addition to a pending $350 million request for emergengy food aid funds. Because the new funds are part of a 2009 budget, they wouldn't be available for distribution until the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, even if they are approved sooner.

Even so, Bush called it "just the beginning" of the U.S. effort to help. He said the United States would spend a total of $5 billion this year and next on food aid and related programs.

"America's in the lead, we'll stay in the lead and we expect others to participate along with us," he said.

The new funds are aimed at meeting immediate needs with direct shipments of food aid, and the White House said they would allow for millions more people to get help. Emergency aid accounts for $620 million of the request, said Steve McMillin, deputy director of the president's Office of Management and Budget.

The funds also have long-term aims, with $150 million aimed at boosting U.S. programs to help farmers in developing countries increase productivity and make cash purchases of local crops, so communities are less in need of emergency help in the first place.

The issue has become more urgent recently because of food shortages and rising prices that, combined with high gas costs and rising home foreclosures, are putting a huge squeeze on families at home and abroad. What has been termed the first global food crisis since World War II has resulted in cries for help from United Nations officials and raised questions about how Bush will respond.

Some have blamed the food crisis in part on Bush-backed policies that push food-based biofuels such as ethanol as alternative energy sources. Bush says diverting corn and soybeans into fuel is still a smart approach, though he favors increasing funding for research into eventually using wood chips or switchgrass rather than food crops.

Bush's top economic adviser, Edward Lazear, said ethanol made from corn is responsible for just 2-3 percent of the overall increase in global food prices, which are 43 percent up this year over last year.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, an active farmer and a longtime defender of ethanol, acknowledged that the corn-based fuel is "being clobbered right now" but argued that it was a "myth" to blame farmers - or ethanol - for the soaring food prices. The main factors include energy costs and trade policies to hoarding and a drought in Australia, he said.

Bush's announcement drew praise from several quarters.

"Millions of people around the world may be saved from starvation if we can quickly move forward with the president's request," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "Global aid is not only the right thing to do; it's the smart and safe thing to do. I commend the president for his leadership."

The United States is the world's largest provider of food aid, delivering more than $2.1 billion to 78 developing countries last year.


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