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Food aid in need of rescue

| Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Reviewers are raving about “Captain Phillips,” the new film that tells the real-life story of an American cargo-ship captain taken hostage by Somali pirates. This flick's got everything: suspense, high-seas adventure and brilliant acting by Tom Hanks.

Critics also praise “Captain Phillips” for evoking the common humanity of both its American hero and the Somali authors of his ordeal. Theirs is a clash of vastly different individuals and cultures — brought into collision by global commerce and the tremendous inequalities of wealth and power that it creates.

But if capitalism is at work in “Captain Phillips,” it's a cronyistic version, not the free-market kind. Thanks to the exertions of powerful lobbies, U.S. laws protect shipping and agribusiness at the expense of both American taxpayers and the world's hungry.

The largest U.S. food aid program must distribute only U.S.-produced commodities. And at least half of that food must travel on U.S.-flagged vessels. Who profits from these rules? The American farmers, food processors, maritime unions, ship-owning companies and ports that enjoy a guaranteed flow of government business.

When pirates seized the Maersk Alabama in April 2009, the ship — with Capt. Richard Phillips in charge — was carrying, according to a spokesman, 8,000 metric tons of American vegetable oil, bulgur wheat, corn-soya blend and dehydrated vegetables to the U.N. World Food Programme in Mombasa, Kenya.

If there were no buy-American rule for the food commodities, the United States could purchase from the cheapest, most convenient source — possibly in Africa. Instead of dumping our crops on their markets, Washington could provide an incentive for African farmers to invest and produce, improving self-sufficiency on that continent.

Under current law, at least 15 percent of U.S. food aid must be “monetized.” This means that once a U.S.-flagged vessel gets the commodities to Africa, they are resold on local markets by nongovernmental organizations, which use the cash to fund development projects.

In 2011, the Government Accountability Office found that, over a three-year period, the program resulted in $219 million being spent on commodities and shipping that otherwise would have been available for development projects.

President Obama proposed a wide-ranging reform of U.S. food aid programs in his 2014 budget, which was unveiled in April with bipartisan support. The plan would have eliminated “monetization,” permitted greater purchases of locally grown commodities and reduced the “preference” for shipping on U.S.-flagged vessels. The idea was to help an additional 2 million to 4 million people at about the same cost as the current programs.

Alas, reform legislation has been blocked by the farm and maritime lobbies and the lawmakers from rural and coastal states who do their bidding.

Supporters of the status quo certainly can't win the policy arguments. U.S. agriculture's case against reform is especially weak; that heavily subsidized sector is booming. The maritime industry says that the cargo preference for U.S.-flagged vessels preserves a merchant marine fleet for use in a military crisis. But the Defense Department does not consider most of the relevant ships militarily useful.

So see “Captain Phillips,” thrill to the action, ponder its message. And consider the wasteful folly of U.S. food-aid policy, without which this gutsy seafarer and his men might not have been plying the dangerous waters off East Africa.

Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post's editorial board.

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