Who is USAID Really Helping?

As hearings begin for the 2012 Farm Bill, Washington is being urged to re-think its foreign food aid policies, procedures, and spending.

Currently, food aid coming from the USA makes up about 1/2 of the world wide total. Of this large amount of cereals, pulses, and vegetable oil 40% comes from just three large firms. As it stands today, the Farm Bill (with its $2 billion budget) is set to benefit these three companies more than the world’s hungary.

At the moment, food is purchased by USAID (US Aid for International Development) in the USA and shipped to where it is needed. This transportation accounts for 60% of the total cost of aid and takes 3-6 months to arrive at its destination. Once it has been delivered, a portion of the food is sold by aid agencies at local markets to fund their development projects in the area–this is called “monetisation”. This has cyclical consequences: not all the food goes to the hungry–> local markets are flooded with American products, which are preferred by consumers–> local growers can’t sell their produce at a fair price–> local growers become impoverished and become part of the hungry. In this way, more than 1/3 of every dollar spent on foreign food aid is wasted and benefits large corporations instead of the world’s hungry.

If the world’s hunger is to be reduced, it is essential that there is a re-evaluation of budgeting and goals. Analysis of a pilot project to buy US food aid in the country it is needed showed that purchasing some grains and pulses locally would result in a +50% cost savings and would allow the products to get to their destinations 60% (14 weeks) faster than if they were shipped from the USA. This is particularly imperative with the soon expected food emergencies, such as in Sudan where the traditional model of food aid would not be able to bring enough supplies quickly enough for the 400,000+ people already displaced by clashes. Furthermore, this would create positive cyclical consequences: locally purchased foods–> local farmers benefit by selling to US aid and being able to sell their products at a fair price at local markets–> local farmers don’t go hungry–> less food aid is needed–> greater savings in USAID dollars over time. As well, this would help decrease the USA’s giant biological footprint.

Furthermore, NGOs are pushing for more “untied” USAID dollars for more sustainable and creative ways of fighting world hunger than just providing handouts. However, strong agriculture lobbying groups will prove this to be a challenge as they have in the past. For example, a push by the Bush administration in 2005 for Congress to let USAID purchase 1/4 of the food donated locally failed.

Luckily, there has been a recent international trend which is shifting towards cash-based aid and buying from producers in developing countries. Perhaps now the times will be more favourable for a long needed paradigm shift when it comes to foreign aid.


Asma Lateef, director of the Bread for the World Institute, says USAID should also aim to meet key nutritional goals, especially for pregnant women and children under the age of two. This comes as the negative and permanent ramifications of inadequate nutrition within the first 1,000 days of a child’s existence are becoming widely recognized.

“At a minimum, we should begin to include goals on nutrition as a measure of the impact of U.S. food aid,” says Lateef. “It’s really important to have a discussion on how food aid can be better aligned with broader development goals.”

Information derived from:

Stunting- An Ignored Global Crisis

Picture this: sentencing an infant to death or a life shorter than their peers, with poorer cognitive capacity, increased risk for disease, and a reduced ability to learn at school and earn as an adult.  This is what over 180 million children under the age of 5 are being subjected to; a life with persistent challenges.  These children’s bodies and minds are being limited by stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition.

In comparison to their non-stunted peers, a stunted child will be subjected to various developmental challenges that threaten their life outcomes. Beyond the fact that they will be shorter than their non-stunted peers, stunted children will be 5X more likely to die from diarrhea due to the physiological changes in a stunted body. These children will suffer from impaired brain development with fewer interconnections and smaller brain cells, resulting in impaired function, which leads to significantly reduced learning abilities.

These developmental implications on growth have received far too little attention for far too long.  When the critical stages of development occur (utero to 2 years) without the right type and amount of nutrients, the physical and cognitive damage is PERMANENT.  The bright side of this is that IT CAN BE PREVENTED– and at a relatively low cost.

This problem can be addressed by providing expectant mothers, newborns, and very young children nutrients including proteins, fat, vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, iron and zinc.  This approach has been ranked as the most effective way to advance global welfare. Thanks to the leadership of many governments, economic growth in some countries, and the Scaling Up Nutrition movement, there has been progress: prevalence of stunting in the developing world had decreased from 40% in 1990 to 29% in 2008. (http://www.unscn.org/en/scaling_up_nutrition_sun/)

Countries are investing more into national strategies to reduce stunting, but there is more that must be done to correct the poor health outcomes of children who have poor nutritional intakes. Food Aid programs must work at multiple levels to improve the state of family and community food security.  After all, if families are food insecure and hunger is an issue, the additional food aid will be shared to provide some food for all family members.  Without addressing this fact, there will be no improvement to children’s nutritional status and stunting will still be a nutritional global crisis for millions.

The ideas were originally from an article in TIME-Ideas The Global Crisis You’ve Never Heard Of: Stunting


The Toxic Truth About Sugar

Last September, for the first time in human history, the UN declared chronic non-communicable diseases as a greater health burden worldwide than infectious diseases.  This is a worldwide issue, with trends indicating that countries who have adopted Westernized diets (low cost, highly processed foods) are suffering from higher rates of obesity and related diseases.

Although obesity often is thought of as the root cause of the increase of non-communicable diseases, stats indicate that there are other culprits.  Since 20% of obese people have normal metabolism and will have a normal lifespan while 40% of normal-weight people will develop the diseases that constitute the metabolic syndrome indicating that obesity is not the main culpritObesity is not a cause, but a marker for metabolic dysfunction.  The announcement from the UN targets tobacco, alcohol and diet as the central risk for non-communicable diseases, yet governments are only regulating 2 (tobacco, and alcohol) to protect public health. The regulation of tobacco and alcohol, being that they are non-essential consumables, is easier than regulating food; a required human need.  What needs to be questioned is which aspect of the Western diet should be the focus of intervention?

The consumption of sugar has tripled worldwide in the past 50 years. Countries are relying on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and sucrose- equal parts glucose and fructose mixtures. Sugar is not just “empty calories”. Scientific evidence has showing that fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and other chronic diseases.  International bodies must consider limiting fructose, HFCS, and sucrose as they pose a major threat to individuals and society as a whole.  Our whole food system is saturated with sugar laden foods.  As discussed in an earlier post corporate giants are saturating the global food market with toxic levels of glucose.

If one applies the same criteria that are widely accepted by the public-health community to justify the regulation of tobacco and alcohol, sugar consumption warrants some form of social intervention.  There are 4 criteria:

1) Unavoidable (pervasiveness in society)

Sugar was only available to our ancestors for a couple of months per year at harvest time or as honey. Now, sugar is just about added to all processed food.  On average we are consuming 500 calories of added sugar per day.

2) Toxicity

Epidemiological evidence suggests that excessive sugar impacts ones health more than just adding excessive calories but also induces all of the diseases associated with metabolic syndrome- hypertension, high triglycerides, insulin resistance, diabetes, aging. It can also be argued that fructose exerts toxic effects on the liver that are similar to those of alcohol.  This is no surprise since alcohol is derived from the fermentation of sugar.  Some early studies have also linked sugar consumption to human cancer and cognitive decline.

3) Potential for abuse

Like alcohol and tobacco, sugars act on the brain to encourage increased intake.  Sugar consumption suppresses the hormone ghrelin (signals hunger in the brain) and interferes with the normal signals of leptin (feeling of satiety).

4) Negative impact on society

Just as dunk driving and second hand smoking are reasons for alcohol and tobacco control, high sugar consumption has a long term economic, healthcare, and human cost of metabolic syndrome lending to reasons for higher levels of government control.   In the US, 75% of healthcare dollars are being spent on treating metabolic diseases and their resultant disabilities.


Sugar is a naturally occurring nutrient, but in excess it can become toxic.  When looking at successful tobacco and alcohol control strategies,there have been propositions to add taxes to processed foods (sugar-sweetened beverages, sugared cereals).  Already, Canada and European countries have imposed small additional taxes on some sweetened foods.  Another strategy is to limit hours of distribution through retailors and who can legally purchase the products.  With sugar, a parallel approach to this would mean tightening licensing requirements on vending machines and snack bars that sell sugary products in schools and workplaces.  But the question still exists as to the efficacy of this approach.


Government-imposed regulations on the marketing of alcohol to young people have been quite effective, but there is no attempt to follow suite with sugar.  A limit, or ideally a ban, on television commercials for products with added sugars could further protect children’s health.  Reduced fructose consumption could also be fostered through changes in subsidization towards more wholefoods instead of processed foods.

Ultimately, it comes down to a need for food producers and distributors to commit to reducing the amount of sugar added to foods.  Large government food agencies (ex:FDA, Health Canada) must commit to adjusting regulations and consider removing fructose from the Generally Regarded as Safe List (GRAS) that allows manufacturers to add an unlimited amounts of sugar to any food.  This larger industry change must be initiated through regulations because sugar is cheap, sugar tastes good, and sugar sells, so companies have little incentive to change unless required by policies.

Reducing sugar will not be easy, especially within the emerging markets of developing countries where soft drinks are often cheaper than potable water or milk.  For change to happen, all stakeholders must become actively engaged.   Population wide alterations to sugar consumption can occur just as bans on smoking in public spaces and the use of designated drivers has become the norm. With enough clamor for change, major adjustments with policy becomes possible.  It is critical for attention to be put towards sugar and its consumption in order to improve the state of public health and well being of populations .

Information from this post comes from an article in Nature titled The toxic truth about sugar.