USTR Portman Backs Congress in Rejecting EU Call to Turn Food Aid Into Cash Transfers

Original Publication Date: 
21 September, 2005

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman on Sept. 21 rejected calls being made by the European Union to agree in the ongoing Doha Round of World Trade Organization talks to convert U.S. food aid into cash payments, saying that he would fight to maintain the current system.

"There's not enough food aid out there right now," Portman said. "We need to oppose the European position strongly."

Portman, testifying before the Senate Agriculture Committee, rejected the EU argument--made by European Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel during a visit to Washington, D.C., the week of Sept.12--that the U.S. policy of using agricultural surpluses to assist poorer countries displaces commercial sales.

He also said that there is "plenty of evidence" that cash provided to poor countries gets "siphoned off" to illegitimate purposes.

Portman and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns came under heavy pressure from members of Congress during a series of meetings on Capitol Hill Sept. 21 to reject EU demands to convert food aid into cash.

Both U.S. officials are expected to address the issue in meetings with their counterparts from the EU, India, and Brazil in Paris Sept. 22-23.The meetings are designed to help set the stage for progress in the Doha Round of WTO negotiations ahead of the next WTO ministerial conference, set to be held in Hong Kong Dec. 13-18.

Portman said that it is not only the EU but also other major agriculture-exporting countries such as Australia and Switzerland that oppose the U.S. policy of using food surpluses to assist poorer nations, and he vowed to "counter" their opposition with what he called a "coalition of our own."

Farm State Lawmakers Speak Out

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that he had raised the issue in a meeting with Fischer Boel the week of Sept. 12.

"I believe we need to strongly resist EU proposals in the WTO to convert all U.S. food aid to cash, except in emergency situations," Harkin said.

"The U.S. government has helped more than 3.4 billion people with its food aid programs over the last half century, and part of the success of U.S. food aid programs stems from the broad support they enjoy here in the United States. While I agree that there may be some room for disciplines on food aid, the EU's proposal is unnecessarily draconian.We do not want to harm people in developing countries in the name of trade policy reform."

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a member of the agriculture committee and chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, also rejected EU claims that the U.S. food aid program was a "dumping ground" for surplus agricultural products.

"This is not the case," Roberts said at the agriculture committee hearing Sept. 21. "We are not going down that road [of converting food aid to cash payments]."

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, told reporters after meeting Portman and Johanns Sept. 21, along with other members of the committee, that he and other House members also support current U.S. policy.

"We think that [food aid] is a good thing," Goodlatte said. "We're certainly not prepared to give it up in trade negotiations."

Members of Congress Sept. 21 also called on Portman and other members of the Bush administration to resist demands by other WTO members to drastically cut domestic farm support. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that, while President Bush, in fact, had called for an end to all tariffs, subsidies, and other barriers to trade in goods and services in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 14, "we must be careful to do so while also providing a stable and secure safety net for America's farmers and ranchers." "I believe it is possible to promote trade liberalization and reform of our domestic support programs at the same time, but we must do so very carefully while being mindful of what future programs will replace the ones we are eliminating," Chambliss said. "The administration must make sure farmers and ranchers at the grass roots support its agenda."