One of the problems in approaching the debate, says Caponiti, is the lack of black-and-white answers to many of the posed questions. “There isn’t much ‘if you do X it will absolutely result in Y.’ We just don’t want to see us go away from a very transparent program that uses U.S.-sourced food. You know when a shipment of U.S. grain has reached a foreign port. Cash, vouchers and local and regional purchases get into an area that’s less transparent. This isn’t the time to make these changes.

“Again, the people proposing these new initiatives have good intentions. I want that to be very clear on that. This is just a difference of opinion.”

Then, there is the issue of U.S. flagged ships’ roles in national security.

“It’s important to know that the shipping industry is important to national security,” says Caponiti. “You can’t go to war without ships.

“And even though some of the ships involved in (international aid programs) aren’t militarily useful – and we readily concede that – all the merchant mariners employed on the ships, are. To our thinking, you can’t have a mariner pool that’s large enough because when we go to war, commerce continues.”

The demand on ships accrues “when we’re supporting the military during war,” continues Caponiti. “We need a large enough merchant marine to sustain commerce but also to sustain military movements. That’s true for both commercial ships and government-owned ships. The government-owned ships, when activated, the merchant mariners drive those ships over to the war. Most people don’t know that.”

Asked about the opponents to aid reform, Munoz says he’s often heard the arguments about “very, very large implications for U.S. jobs. Given the overall size of the shipping industry and U.S. food aid programs, we felt those probably aren’t an accurate reflection of the true impact of reform on jobs.

“Having said that, it’s very important to have a real conversation about what the impact potentially could be. We need to figure out what reforms or assistance can be provided to the U.S. shipping industry to offset any losses they would face.”

As OXFAM employees are not experts in maritime economics or the shipping industry, “we can’t come up with those solutions for them although we’re sensitive to the need to help. Up to now, however, the conversation hasn’t been to collectively find good solutions that meet the multiple interests at stake. Instead, the conversation has been to keep from enacting reforms because of some of the implications. That puts us in a place preventing a constructive dialogue with Congress. In fact, it’s been a conversation about them wanting to stop reform in any form.”

If the reforms had been enacted prior to the recent typhoon in the Philippines, aid organizations would theoretically be able to go to India or China or somewhere closer to get aid to victims much quicker?

“Yes,” says Munoz. “I’m not sure where the direct source of aid would come from. There may be places in the Philippines where grain remains available. Indonesia is close, as well.

“I don’t know what the response under such reforms would look like. But it is feasible that with greater flexibility the aid response would be improved.”

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The next couple of weeks will be very important in the debate.

“The ongoing situation in Syria and what we now face in the Philippines underscores the need for a more flexible response by USAID for its food security and food aid programming,” says Munoz. “I think that will become part of the discussion among farm bill conferees.”

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