WASHINGTON – Days before the U.S. Senate passed a contentious Farm Bill in early 2002, Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi inserted a 27-word amendment that symbolizes the ease with which the American food aid program can fall prey to special interests.

His proposal: airlift live lambs to Afghanistan as food aid. Not because Afghans were itching for lamb kabobs, but because he wanted to find new markets for the ranchers in his home state.

Enzi, a Republican, took to the floor on February 12, 2002, and spoke of how he got the idea when considering the great obstacles that prevented trucks from delivering food aid to the heartland of Afghanistan given the post 9/11 war there.

“If we couldn’t move the food, why couldn’t the food move itself?” Enzi told his colleagues. “Live lamb was the natural answer.”

“Sheep are well known,” he added, “for their agility and ability to adapt to mountainous regions.”

The only thing more unusual than Enzi’s proposal was the fact that it was passed into law. If it hadn’t been for a skeptical staffer who wrote in the need for a feasibility study, Wyoming’s lambs would have been set for a date with the skies.

Lambs aren’t the only example. Over the past decade, according to a Medill-USA Today investigation: Pakistan got several shipments of rendered beef fat. Raisins were sent to war-torn Iraq in 2003 because there was a surplus in California. And canned salmon is still sent to several countries in Africa and East Asia under the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, thanks to the political clout of a former Alaskan senator.

The quantity of these items may be small in comparison to the total volume of U.S. food aid shipped every year. But they suggest that when it comes to food aid, U.S. agricultural—and political — interests can carry more weight than humanitarian need.

“Food aid never really got any public attention. You could put in a little special provision and no one would notice,” says Stephanie Mercier, a former economist for the Senate Agriculture committee.

Mercier, the staffer who questioned the live lamb proposal, says Enzi thought he was helping his constituents. “The ranchers in his state were facing a lot of heat from cheaper lamb imported from Australia and New Zealand,” she said in a recent interview. “This was his way of demonstrating concern.”

Enzi was facing reelection, and food aid was a lucrative new market for his constituents. The idea was nixed quietly after the study found it would be too hard and expensive to accomplish. Enzi was not available for comment.

Critics aren’t surprised, noting that today’s U.S. food aid system – dominated by the flagship Food for Peace program – was created back in 1954 primarily to dump U.S agricultural surplus and to open up new commercial markets for American goods.

Supply-driven system

“It’s a problem with a system that is supply driven rather than demand driven,” says Rob Bailey, a food policy researcher at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “You’re quite often going to end up potentially sending food to people that don’t want to eat (it), or don’t know how to cook it, or have no real use for it.”

In the early years of the Food for Peace program, tobacco and cotton were staples on the list of approved commodities sent as food aid. Washington sent more than $1 billion worth of tobacco as food aid in the 1950s and 1960s before the U.S. government concluded that tobacco didn’t qualify as either food or aid and dropped it from the list, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Services bureau.

The need for an approved list arose in the 1950s when USDA needed to keep track of what agricultural commodities were in surplus, which could then be diverted into the foreign aid programs. Over the years, the U.S. government stopped buying commodities from farmers and storing them in huge depots. But the approved list still exists, and suppliers can’t sell their products for use in food aid without being on it.

With such high stakes, industry groups fund studies touting their own products, lobby Congress members and hire nutritionists to make the case for a spot on the list. Technically, there are several different lists, one for each of the six or seven aid programs run by USAID, which oversees the food aid programs, and USDA, which buys the food. Some commodities get into the USDA list first and then make their way into the much larger USAID programs.

The curious case of salmon

Canned salmon got on one of the food aid lists in 2005 after sustained lobbying by one man, Bruce Schactler.

“In 2002, pink salmon was eight cents a pound,” says Schactler, a longtime commercial fisherman. “I think dirt [was] more expensive.”

The next year, Schactler approached then-Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski with the idea of introducing canned salmon into the food aid market. The state immediately put him to work with its Department of Agriculture, and it wasn’t long before the U.S. government was buying salmon and sending it as a high-protein – and relatively expensive – form of food aid through Food For Progress. That USDA program provides donated U.S. agricultural commodities to developing countries committed to introducing and expanding free enterprise in the agricultural sector.

Alaska’s salmon fishermen and processors were thrilled. “Every market, every outlet, every possibility is more than welcomed by the industry,” Schactler says proudly. “The food aid market helps us to move our canned goods.”

In recent years, Schactler, who still fishes commercially, has worked for the Alaska Department of Commerce and its Alaska Fisheries Institute. But he has also acted as a state liaison to USDA for food aid. So essentially, he’s worked for the government to lobby for his own product to be used by a government program.

Canned salmon recently was selling for 42 cents a pound, a five-fold increase from 2002 prices, according to Schactler. But should salmon be sent as food aid to countries like Uganda, Laos, Cambodia and Guatemala just because there is a surplus in Alaska?

For Schactler, the answer is clear. “Sending salmon makes all the sense in the world,” he says. “A man cannot live on bread alone.”

Not everyone agrees. “If the goal is to provide nutritional rations to people in need, then there are cheaper ways of providing protein to someone than canned salmon,” says Mercier, the former Senate economist. “It’s not the best use of our [taxpayer] resources.”

Canned salmon, for instance, cost 14 times more than wheat and eight times more than rice last year, according to U.S. data. Mercier says the only reason it’s on the list is because Murkowski, a Republican, was chairman of the Senate Agriculture committee for several years before becoming Alaska governor, and is very protective of the salmon industry.

“It’s not uncommon to see salmon in legislation that you normally wouldn’t think of seeing,” besides food aid, Mercier says. “That was really due to Murkowski’s ability to leverage his influence.”

The soybean lobby

If Alaska has a stake in salmon, the Midwest has soybeans. Soy is extensively used in food aid as it is one of the few available sources of plant-based protein. Corn soy blend has been a staple in food aid programs for decades.

In 2000, soy farmers and processors wanted to expand their slice of the food aid market, and created the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, or WISHH. “In the early years, 2001 to 2005, one of our stated goals was getting soy products into the food aid basket,” said Jim Hershey, WISHH executive director. “We introduced soy flour and textured soy protein into the aid market.”

WISHH pushed especially hard to get enhanced soy products for use in food aid; besides being more nutritious, they were a lot more expensive – and lucrative, particularly when being sent for famines and other emergencies.

From a base of almost zero in the late 1990s, the amount of such value-added soy products being sent as food aid shot up to 3,500 metric tons by 2004. The industry earned $2 million just from these newly introduced value-added products that year. The soy industry’s overall earnings in 2004: $115 million.

But the story didn’t end there. Soy flour is now one of the main commercial products exported to several food-insecure countries in Africa and Central America. “Our goal was to gain an entry through food aid, with the potential that it would be incorporated into the local market,” Hershey said.

Such special interest agendas are the reason why many experts like Mercier and Bailey talk about untying at least a portion of food aid, or dropping congressional requirements that it come from U.S. suppliers and be sent via U.S. shippers. The reason: Studies have shown that buying food closer to where it is delivered is not only faster, but usually much cheaper.

Mercier predicted that the effort to politically influence the selection of food aid commodities will continue as long as Congress keeps those requirements in place.

“The question is are we doing food aid to help people in developing countries or are we doing food aid to support U.S. farmers and the U.S. maritime industry” that ships the products, Mercier asked.

Earlier this year, Schactler was busy readying a shipment of 70,000 cans of herring to Liberia. “It’s not on the food aid grocery list yet, but we’ll get it in soon,” he said. “We are following the same strategy we adopted for salmon.”