After letting U.S. Farm Bill expire, will Congress act now on world hunger?

On America’s Election Day, Nov. 6, nearly 1 billion people around the world went hungry. By the end of December, nearly 11 million children in the developing world will have died this year from causes related to malnutrition. Hunger is the world’s number one health risk, killing more people every year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

Yet, the world’s farmers produce enough food to feed every person on the planet. Global hunger is not just a problem of scarcity but a problem of access and distribution.

The U.S. Farm Bill that was up for renewal in September in the House of Representatives could have included policies to support farmers in developing countries in their efforts to grow enough food to feed the local population.

But in an unprecedented course of events, Congress allowed the Farm Bill to expire on Sept. 30. The Senate passed a renewal bill, containing many sound policies that would help people in the developing world grow their own food and feed their communities. But the leadership of the House of Representatives refused to bring the bill for a vote.

If Congress does not act quickly to pass a new Farm Bill, the money that exists for emergency food aid will run out in 2013. This could put up to 30 million hungry people at risk in the event of a crisis.

The failure to renew and reform the Farm Bill would also mean a missed opportunity to help end global hunger in the long term through sustainable solutions.

To understand the realities of world hunger, consider the situation in Haiti. Long before the earthquake there three years ago, 1.9 million Haitians faced hunger. After the earthquake, hunger became even more severe.

Trying to do the right thing and following the standard aid policies currently in place, the U.S. government sent food to Haiti, mostly rice grown in the United States. In the short term, this rice helped feed thousands of earthquake survivors who had lost everything.

However, this food aid had an unintended — and devastating — long-term consequence for local farmers in Haiti. The influx of rice drove the price of Haitian rice so low that farmers there couldn’t compete. Since they couldn’t sell the rice they had grown that season, they were unable to purchase seeds for next year’s rice, leaving them without crops, income or food.

The current U.S. food aid system not only undermines local farmers in developing countries, but it is also wasteful. Fifty-three cents of every food-aid dollar that buys grain goes not for food but for shipping, mark-up and overhead. Taking Ethiopia as an example, the dollars that our aid programs are now paying to provide U.S. wheat to Ethiopia could provide two and half times more tonnage, if the wheat were bought in or near Ethiopia.

In all, the United States could be providing food aid to at least 17 million more people each year for the same money if, like the aid programs of nearly all other developed countries, our Farm Bill provided for local purchasing of food in the developing world. We would also reach hungry people faster, since buying food locally in developing countries saves weeks or even months currently lost to transportation time.

But most importantly, local purchasing helps support the farmers in developing countries who are the backbone of a sustainable food system. Organizations such as American Jewish World Service are supporting grassroots organizations in Haiti and in other countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and Asia that strengthen the ability of local farmers to produce. But as long as farmers in developing countries are forced into unfair competition with food from the United States, they will be fighting an uphill battle.

Over the past 12 months, Jewish communities across the United States have taken part in AJWS’s “Reverse Hunger” campaign that includes a call upon Congress to pass a different kind of Farm Bill.

More than 18,000 American Jews and 20 Jewish organizations signed The Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill, and more than 200 American Jews met with policy makers on Capitol Hill and in their home communities.

On the weekend of Nov. 2-3, nearly 200 Jewish communities around the country observed the third annual Global Hunger Shabbat — a weekend of nationwide solidarity, learning and reflection to end the global food crisis.

Why is ending global hunger a Jewish concern? It is an effort that hearkens back to one of the most frequently cited Biblical commandments: Remember the stranger, the orphan and other vulnerable people because we, too, were once strangers in the Land of Egypt.

Our sages wrote that “without sustenance, there is no Torah (no learning), and without Torah there is no sustenance.”

As we move beyond Election Day, let us all put partisan politics aside and ensure that farmers in Haiti, migrant workers in Cambodia, children in Kenya, and all of our fellow Americans can experience the blessings of sustenance and learning that so many of us enjoy.

A good place to start would be for Congress to reform the Farm Bill and pass it without delay.

Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service. This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.