The U.S. rice industry and its supporters in Congress are calling on President Bush to require USDA to add 500,000 metric tons of rice to the allocation for food aid shipments and to move that rice by Dec. 31.
Citing a crisis in the rice industry, 16 members of Congress from Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas sent letters to the president asking for immediate help in the form of P.L. 480 Food for Peace and other overseas government assistance programs.
The letters noted that, in the last six months, one-fifth of the nation's rice mills have closed, been sold or declared bankruptcy. The latest was Liberty Rice Mill of Kaplan, La., which is under the temporary receivership of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
“The delay in food aid allocations has gone on too long,” said Michael Rue, a California rice producer and chairman of the USA Rice Federation's International Policy Committee. “Additional measures are needed immediately to increase U.S. rice exports through food.”
A USDA spokesman said the lag in shipments is more a problem of demand than inactivity in the department.
“We have received fewer requests for rice in food aid, and that's what drives this program,” said Mary Chambliss of USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service. “The two biggest factors are Indonesia and Russia, which have not requested any food aid this year.
“The last time Indonesia had a monetary crisis, they also had a poor rice harvest, and that does not seem to be the case this time. Russia is not in the program this year.”
The congressional letters explained that food aid programs account for 20 percent of total U.S. rice exports or about 500,000 metric tons of rice per year over the last two fiscal years. However, only 200,000 metric tons of rice have been programmed for U.S. food aid for the current fiscal year.
“This would represent 4 percent of the total tonnage of all commodities programmed for food aid, compared to 8 percent in some years,” a USA Rice Federation spokesman said, adding that the delays are harming the economies of the rice-producing states.
Slowdown for mills
“This is a serious situation, and we're pleased that legislators from all six of the rice-growing states have recognized that by calling on President Bush to take immediate action in issuing a rice food aid initiative,” said Gary Sebree, chairman of the U.S. Rice Producers Group, which represents the producer segment of the federation.
“The sharp decline in rice food aid allocations has had a devastating impact on the rice industry,” said John Denison, an Iowa, La., rice producer. “Many mills, especially in south Louisiana, are running at just 20 to 30 percent of capacity.”
Texas mills are facing similar problems, said Lee Adams of American Rice Inc., in Houston, Texas. “Many of our mills are shut down with no rice to mill,” he noted. “Food aid accounts for a large percentage of millings in South Texas. Without that business, the financial loss for rice-growing communities — producers and millers alike — is tremendous.”
Rice Millers Association Chairman Thomas Ferrara of Greenville, Miss., gave Sen. Thad Cochran of his state credit for beginning the initiative.
“Our thanks go to Sen. Cochran for his leadership,” he said. “Meaningful and immediate increases in food aid now could mean the difference between survival and financial disaster for rice mills in this region.”
Besides Cochran, other members of Congress signing the letters were:
Sens. Tim Hutchinson and Blanche Lincoln and Reps. Marion Berry and Mike Ross of Arkansas; Sen. Barbara Boxer and Reps. Cal Dooley, Doug Ose and Mike Thompson of California; Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu and Reps. Chris John and John Cooksey of Louisiana; Sens. Kit Bond and Jean Carnahan of Missouri; and Nick Lampson of Texas.
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Farm bill change sought for food aid programs
The U.S. Rice Producers Association is asking Congress to include food aid reform in the new farm bill that could be passed later this year or early in 2002.
In a letter to Rep. Larry Combest, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, the USRPA urged Congress to incorporate into the farm bill a comprehensive set of recommendations for improvement and reform of US food assistance programs.
The Association, which represents farmers in all six rice-producing states, joined the Agri-PVO Food Aid Working Group, a coalition of producer and international relief organizations, in developing the framework to improve the effectiveness of food assistance programs.
“USRPA was pleased to work with a ‘who's who’ of other commodity and international relief agencies over the past six months to develop the International Food Security Act,” said Nolen Canon, chairman of the U.S. Rice Producers Association and a farmer from Tunica, Miss. “We are especially pleased that we could work cooperatively with the Rice Millers Association and the U.S. Rice Producers Group on these legislative recommendations that, if enacted, will serve the best interests of rice producers, rice millers, and the entire rice industry.”
Major elements of act
The essential elements of the International Food Security Act include:
Providing a reliable supply of food aid, including bulk, processed and value-added, that can be integrated into well-planned, multi-year initiatives.
Each fiscal year at least 5.6 million metric tons of a mix of commodities should be made available for food aid, valued at approximately $2.85 billion.
Food aid should not be supply driven, but rather should be a sustainable, long-term commitment based on needs and best uses for humanitarian and development assistance.
Program procedures should be overhauled to make them transparent, flexible and user friendly, and to enhance the programs' public-private partnership.
The coalition identified two general problems that currently create inefficiencies in U.S food assistance programs: (1) assistance levels remain inconsistent, with tonnages fluctuating from 3 million metric tons to 9 million metric tons per year over the past decade, and (2) administrative procedures create difficulty in the program development and approval processes.
A copy of the coalition letter to Chairman Combest and materials explaining the provisions of the proposed legislation can be found on the USRPA web site, www.usriceproducers.com.