While a handful of issues – chief among them nutrition program funding, regional crop support differences, and dairy policy – are proving difficult to find middle ground on, the ongoing farm bill conference must also deal with international food aid reform. With the humanitarian crises in Syria and the Philippines looming large, everyone in the debate remain keen to feed the world’s hungry but how the United States will do that in the future is in the balance.

Those opposed to the Senate farm bill’s major revisions of the U.S. food aid model – used in the Food for Peace and Food for Progress – say U.S. jobs and military readiness would be affected if proposed changes are included in the new farm bill. Among those against the Senate’s reforms are trade unions and a broad swath of agriculture advocacy groups.

Read a letter from many of the opponents here.

Meanwhile, proponents of change point out the savings would mean reaching at least 4 million additional hungry people annually – and would do it quicker than is currently possible. The reason for that is cash and vouchers would be distributed directly to the needy, allowing them to make purchases from local markets.

The idea is to move funds to different accounts – including the International Disaster Assistance Account and the Development Assistance Account -- under the control of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Doing so would allow USAID additional flexibility to make choices depending on the situation.

The Obama administration is pushing for the reforms, as did the Bush administration before it. If adopted, the U.S. flag vessel requirement (where 50 to 75 percent of food aid has to be shipped on U.S. vessels) will be dropped. Currently, only 20 percent of overall U.S. food aid can be in the form of cash vouchers or local purchases.

Proponents of the plan say the requirement has served as a long-time subsidy for the U.S. Merchant Marines.

James Caponiti, executive director of American Maritime Congress, offers an entirely different interpretation. “The merchant marine coalition, it’s fair to say, are generally behind the House (farm) bill in terms of how it treats international food aid. The Senate provisions trouble us.

“We do understand the desire to feed more people. We believe there are things that can be done to improve the efficiency with management of the program. But we also think it’s probably the wrong time to be exporting jobs.

“If we get away from U.S. sourcing in the aid program, it would mean jobs lost – perhaps a permanent loss of jobs. It will have a negative impact on jobs, for sure.

“There are already some emergency programs in place that would allow the flexibility that the Senate (farm) bill is attempting to accomplish. We don’t see the need to permanently change the program from the way it’s currently designed where we use U.S. grain, process it in the United States, send it through our ports and ship it on U.S. flagged ships.”

On the other side of the debate is Eric Munoz, Oxfam America Senior Policy Advisor for Agriculture and Food Security. Asked where the international food aid proposals stand in conference, Munoz says specifics are hard to come by. “The discussions around this issue, as with most others on the farm bill, are being tightly held among a few people.

“There are a few promising signs, though. One is that we’ve heard informally that there’s support (for changes) within the conference.”

In part that’s because California Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, along with New York Rep. Eliot Engle, ranking member, are both farm bill conferees. Earlier this year, the pair was behind the Royce/Engle amendment that would have allowed up to 45 percent of U.S. food aid dollars to be spent on local sources.

While the amendment did not pass on a narrow vote, Munoz says the duo have been “very supportive of food aid reform over the last couple of months. Having them at the table is an important indicator that all the conferees will hear about the reasons for making changes.”

Read an earlier interview with Munoz here.