Boston — It's one thing to believe Congress should establish an emergency grain reserve to rescue starving people abroad. Quite another to actually make it happen.
For nearly seven years a corps of dogged idealists have been waging a hurry-up-and-wait battle for that elusive prize. They tried, failed and tried again. Time after time congressional action was postponed.
But in mid-November -- after a cliffhanging, topsy-turvy political struggle in an emotional election year when no one expected government to take any new initiative -- their legislation passed.
Now the president of the United States will have 4 million tons of grain at hand for hunger trouble spots should normal US aid channels run dry. He can release 300,000 tons of it in any given year without bureaucratic delays, a minuteman provision that could literally mean life for thousands of hungry people.
This is not the be-all, end-all in the fight against hunger. But the new reserve takes its place as a significant -- some say critical -- component. and with United Nations officials predicting a sharp decline in world grain stocks in 1981, the new reserve is very welcome indeed.
The idealists who made it possible are a diverse group of anti-hunger activists, including a half dozen congressmen and senators and their staffs, the citizen hunger lobby group known as Bread for the World (BFW), and the Interreligious Task Force on US Food Policy (a coalition of religious organizations).
Though elated with their victory, they are now asking themselves why it was so difficult for the world's biggest producer of surplus grain to lay aside a tiny portion for international emergencies? Has the American political system become incapable of answering the calls of a changing, fragile world?
The effort needed to launch this modest reserve verged on the Herculean.
Emergency reserves have been a crying need since 1973. Sudden drought had triggered massive starvation in western Africa, and with most of its surplus wheat sold to the Soviet Union, the US couldn't help. The world must never again be caught in that position, the World Food Conference resolved in Rome in 1974.
The same year Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey opened hearings on the subject, titillating his listeners by reading the Joseph story from the Book of Genesis. By 1977 he had framed legislation for a government-held emergency grain reserve as part of sweeping foreign aid reforms. arising from the Republican landslide.
On the day of the big vote, Nov. 17, came a last-minute blow: a "Dear Colleague" letter from Rep. John J. Rhodes of Arizona urging House Republicans to oppose the bill. It was too expensive, he said, and besides the new president should set his own farm policy.
Private humanitarian groups sprang back into action Bread for the World challenged Representative Rhode's figures and a group of seminary students got on the phones to remind congressmen of farmer support fo the bill and to counter arguments that the reserve would cost too much. When the bill finally came to a vote, only two congressmen spoke against it, and it passed by voice vote.
After seven long years, the emergency reserve was a reality.
Amazingly enough, despite all the frustration the reserve advocates have not given up on the American political system.
Gene Moos, staff analyst for the House Agriculture Committee, explains:
"It's not that our political system itself is defective. You first have to understand the depth of sheer philosophical opposition we faced for this kind of bill. Foreign aid has been progressively losing popular support in recent years. Historically the wheat growers have been philosophically opposed to government-held reserves. The Republican leadership even more philosophically opposed. We're just gratified that all the puzzle pieces came together, that could find a home for the 4 million tons of grain and do it in such a way that grain prices are not depressed."
Despite its obvious drawbacks, reserve advocate Gary Bombardier, staffer for Representative McHugh, argues that the long fight was not without its benefits.
"In the Senate only one committee has control over food aid legislation, while in the House there are two -- Foreign Affairs and Agriculture. Thus we had to make compromises with farmers' interests represented on the Agriculture Committee. But this could mean the reserve will have a broader base of support in the long term."
"Other types of action may at first seem quicker," he says. "For example, you can quickly set up commissions to study a problem like hunger. But for all their effort, their reports tend to sit on a shelf gathering dust. Recommendations like those of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger often prove totally impractical -- like their suggestion of doubling US foreign aid over the next five years.
"But here in the emergency reserve you've got something really substantive. It took a lot longer to accomplish but its effects will be more lasting. And with the grain situation looking so tough next year, this reserve will come in mighty handy and have a positive impact on the poorer nations."
The American political system could, in fact, respond much more quickly if the public knew how urgent the problem was and what they could do about it politcally, argues Nick Mottern of Bread for the World.
"There simply isn't enough grass-roots support yet to move this kind of legislation quickly," he says.
Though the US now has an emergency grain reserve in addition to reserves held by farmers, the world is still insufficiently protected from sudden shortages or from gyrating grain prices, which can spell disaster for the poor countries. Hunger activists also worry that the next administration will be tempted to use the new emergency reserve for political purposes. They vow to monitor the situation.
But some hopw that the new US reserve will encourage other nations to follow suit. The Grains Policy Panel of the United Nations Association, for example, recently urged all grain exporting countries to set up reserves and coordinate their use.
Larry Minear of the Interreligious Task Force on US Food Policy labored to ensure that the reserve be used only for humanitarian purposes and that 300,000 tons of it be on instant call.
There is a legacy, he says:
"The new emergency food security reserve lights a horizon that has been darkening amid grim projections of declining world food stocks, growing malnutrition in Africa, and speculation that the new administration will seek to use food aid more and more for short-term political purposes. It will surely stand as a premier food policy accomplishment of the 96th Congress."