Andrew Natsios and Norman Borlaug write that changes in food aid are needed to avert disaster in Africa: in short, buy locally.

The Bush administration has urged, rightly, that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) be allowed to buy food locally, particularly in Africa, instead of only American-grown food.

The U.S. government currently buys grain and other foodstuffs from American farmers for free distribution in poor countries where a disaster has occurred, or sells it in food-deficit nations to generate funds for food-security development programs. Under the law, the food must be shipped almost exclusively on American vessels.

Ocean shipping costs are 20%-30% of the food-aid budget; and it takes on average over four months to order, buy, ship, offload and transport food by ground. In a famine, people can die waiting for the food to arrive.

Other problems arise. One food shipment sunk in a storm off the coast of Asia in 1996. In 2006, two food shipments were hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Hurricane Katrina nearly shut down much of the foreign food-aid delivery system in the Mississippi Delta.

Purchasing food locally simplifies the process, cuts down the time delay in delivery, reduces the logistical risks, and saves transport costs. These savings can be used to buy more food. At the same time, higher prices will probably reduce the purchasing power of USAID’s food-aid programs by at least $200 million this year. While President George W. Bush has released food aid from a reserve fund, it is not sufficient.

Direct food purchases in local countries could also help improve their agriculture. In Africa, for example, two-thirds of the 200 million people who suffer hunger are small-scale farmers, primarily engaged in subsistence production because they find too few buyers for any larger harvest.

In Ethiopia in 2003, for example, widespread drought occurred in the low-lying areas of the country and the very dry northern highlands. Some 12 million to 15 million people were at risk of hunger and starvation. But in the central and southern highlands of Ethiopia, farmers were producing a bumper crop of corn and other cereals. Yet with no market for the locally produced grains, prices collapsed.

If USAID could have purchased and helped distribute some of this excess, up to 500,000 small farmers would have benefited, as well as the millions at risk of starvation. But its only option was to import surplus food grain from the U.S.