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Food for oil: U.S. wheat shipments to Iraq now loading

The Bush administration hasauthorized the provision of urgent humanitarian food supplies for the people of Iraq, including wheat shipments that started loading this month for immediate shipment.

The Farm Services Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture acted quickly after the announcement, arranging a “grain swap” so the government could obtain wheat inventory at tidewater locations for quick shipment. To meet the humanitarian crisis, the ships were scheduled to reach Iraq within 30 days, about the same time that household flour supplies are anticipated to be exhausted.

The current shipment is for 56,500 metric tons, but Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios earlier announced the immediate release of 200,000 MT of wheat from the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust, with another 400,000 tons to be made available as needed.

The uncertainty comes from not knowing when the UN's oil-for-food program will resume. Recent news reportsy indicate the UN Security Council agreed on a draft resolution to revive the program, but reportedly with the provision that “the occupying power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population.”

U.S. Wheat Associates chairman Jim McDonald applauded the Bush administration's humanitarian actions, informing USDA officials that “we take special pride, on behalf of American wheat farmers, in seeing plans for substantial amounts of wheat going into Iraq…”

Until the first Gulf war, Iraq was a regular customer of U.S. wheat, importing nearly a million tons a year. Since then, some U.S. wheat entered the country under the oil-for-food program, but there hasn't been a U.S. shipment since 1998 when Iraq received 309 thousand metric tons of U.S. hard red winter wheat.

While most of the wheat that is drawn from the Emerson Trust will go to Iraq, the administration will exchange a portion of it for rice, despite USW's oft-voiced opposition to selling Emerson wheat in the U.S. domestic market.

“Surely the Bush administration can avoid disrupting domestic markets while donating rice by simply using the 416(b) program, or other CCC funds,” McDonald told the officials‥ “Another way to purchase the necessary food supplies is through the president's supplemental appropriations for operations in Iraq.”

President Bush formally has sent Congress a request for $74.7 billion in supplemental appropriations to begin paying for the war with Iraq and other counterterrorism costs. Included in the request is $543 million for humanitarian assistance “related to the situation in Iraq.”

Additionally, he is asking specifically for “up to $200 million” to be “available to reimburse accounts drawn down to provide emergency food stocks for the Iraqi people.”

U.S. Wheat Associates has urged the Administration to replenish the Emerson Trust, as there will always be a need for humanitarian wheat shipments, whether to Iraq or elsewhere. Reportedly, Reps. George Nethercutt and Jo Ann Emerson are planning to introduce an amendment to the supplemental appropriations, providing for replenishment.

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