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Demand for emergency shipments of food keeps increasing around the world. Just last month Ethiopia asked for 60,000 tons of donated grain. The United States is by far the world's biggest food donor. But the Bush administration now says it would like to start buying some of that food abroad, as close as possible to where it's needed.

The proposal threatens to split a political alliance that has long backed the American food aid program.

Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES: American farmers like to say they feed the world, and it's easy to see why in places like this rice mill in Mermentau, Louisiana. One truck after another rolls up. Each one dumps 25 tons of unmilled rice. The U.S. government will buy some of this grain, then pay to ship it to countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

There, humanitarian organizations will distribute it to people who need it. The government spends about a billion dollars on this program called Food for Peace each year. But if people halfway around the world need food right now, this rice won't get there in time.

Daniel Maxwell, who used to work for CARE in eastern Africa, says it takes on average almost half a year from an emergency request for food until shipments arrive.

Professor DANIEL MAXWELL (Food Security and Complex Emergencies, Tufts University): I don't want to be misinterpreted as accusing the ops of Food for Peace of acting slowly. They actually act as quickly as they can within the confines of current legislation. But current legislation is that those commodities have to be bought in the United States and shipped for the most part on U.S. flag-carrying ships.

CHARLES: Maxwell, who now teaches at Tufts University, says there's often plenty of food for sale much closer to where it's needed. If the U.S. could buy that instead, it would save time and money and lives.

Two years ago, Andrew Natsios, who was then the administration of the U.S. Agency for International Development, took this argument to a conference on food aid in Kansas City.

Mr. ANDREW NATSIOS (Former Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development): Ethiopia is developing into a famine, unfortunately right now as we speak. It was something we had not anticipated in terms of the severity of the crisis. If we had the authority to use some of that money - not all of the money, some of the money - to purchase food locally, we could stop the famine in its tracks right now in Ethiopia. But we do not have that authority.

CHARLES: And think about what happened in Afghanistan, Natsios said. The year after U.S.-backed forces removed the Taliban from power, Afghani farmers grew a bumper crop of wheat. So much wheat that the price collapsed and farmers didn't even bother harvesting some of their fields. The next year, many of those farmers switched to poppies for heroin production.

Meanwhile, Natsios said, shipments of American wheat kept arriving in Afghanistan and other countries nearby.

Mr. NATSIOS: If we had purchased that in local markets instead of importing it, that particular year the price wouldn't have collapsed to the degree it did and the incentive to move to poppy, in my view, would not have been there.

CHARLES: Natsios' speech did not go over well. American grain millers and shippers were furious. They stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business and the humanitarian organizations that distribute U.S. food aid were split.

Despite evidence that buying food locally could make aid dollars go further and sometimes save lives, many are worried about the political reaction in Washington. Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw, with Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, says if American agribusiness abandons the food aid program, Congress might too.

Ms. LISA KUENNEN-ASFAW (Director of Public Resources, Catholic Relief Services, Baltimore): We need to be increasing overall worldwide resources that are addressing in food and security, not decreasing them. So we don't want to undermine the constituency here that supports a robust food aid program.

CHARLES: You need the millers and the shippers and farmers in order to keep this thing going?

Ms. KUENNEN-ASFAW: Yes, we do.

CHARLES: A few aid organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, have decided to support using some food aid money for local purchases. Other humanitarian groups such as World Vision are against any substantial change in the program.

The Bush administration is trying again this year. It's asking Congress for permission to use up to a quarter of the Food for Peace budget to buy food from foreign farmers.

Representative COLLIN PETERSON (Democrat, Minnesota): It's pretty unlikely, pretty unlikely.

CHARLES: Collin Peterson, a Democrat from Minnesota is chairman of the Agriculture Committee in the House of Representatives.

Rep. PETERSON: We feel like this is just kind of taking money away from our producers and our system, you know. I don't see much support in the ag community or farm community to do this.

CHARLES: The way Peterson sees it, the point of Food for Peace is to send American food abroad, not American cash, and he intends to keep it that way.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles in Washington.

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