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In the U.S.-flag maritime industry, we occasionally refer to the figurative three-legged stool that keeps Old Glory flying on the high seas and along the coasts. Those components are the Jones Act, the Maritime Security Program, and cargo preference laws.

When it comes to publicity, cargo preference often seems to run a distant third. But these statutes remain absolutely vital not only to the maritime industry but also to America’s national, economic and homeland security.

Cargo preference requires shippers to use U.S.-flag vessels to transport certain government-impelled, ocean-borne cargoes. Most of the time when we talk about cargo preference, we mean the 1954 Food for Peace initiative, specifically governing the shipment of domestically grown agricultural goods and government aid programs. However, it also includes the Cargo Preference Act of 1904, which dictates that 100 percent of military cargoes be shipped under the Stars and Stripes. And, it includes Public Resolution 17 (enacted in 1934), which requires all cargo generated by the U.S. Export-Import Bank be moved via U.S.-flag vessels unless granted a waiver by the U.S. Maritime Administration.

Food for Peace (also known as PL-480) was front and center earlier this year during a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee, chaired by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas). The hearing was called to address “the future of international food aid and agricultural development as a continuation of the committee’s series to examine all aspects of the next farm bill.”

Some of the comments from that hearing are quite instructive. For example, Conaway noted, “Americans are big-hearted people and eliminating food aid programs goes against our country’s longstanding philanthropic commitment. For the past 60 years, U.S. foreign assistance has benefitted millions around the world in the form of rice, wheat, and other U.S.-grown commodities. Unlike cash-based assistance, sending commodities overseas through international food aid programs not only benefits recipients, but also contributes to jobs in the U.S. agricultural, manufacturing and maritime sectors, underscoring the role these programs play in an ‘America-first’ approach to helping others. I continue to believe there is an important place for these programs.”

USA Maritime, a coalition of U.S.-flag vessel owners and operators, trade associations and unions (including MTD affiliates), submitted testimony pointing out that the administration’s emphasis on American jobs “resonated deeply for those of us in America’s maritime industry…. America’s merchant mariners … have always answered our nation’s call to bring supplies to our soldiers, commerce to our partners, and food to hungry people.”

The USA Maritime statement continued, “America’s humanitarian aid programs have always put America first. From the beginning, these programs represented the best ideals America had to offer. American food, grown in American soil and harvested by American farmers, is shipped through American ports on vessels crewed by American mariners to feed millions, all through the generosity of the American taxpayer. This partnership has kept these programs strong for over 60 years.”

However, so-called “food aid reformers” have tried (among other misguided tactics) to turn the programs into cash giveaways. This would hurt the U.S. work force and almost certainly harm the intended recipients of the food. As noted during the MTD convention four years ago, one legislator declared during a 2013 hearing that he was far more confident that a 50-pound bag of food would reach those in need than a 50-pound sack of money.

Moreover, as USA Maritime told the committee, “[We] can’t put it any plainer than this: food aid is essential to the American Merchant Marine. It is one of the largest sources of cargo for our fleet today. We’ve seen what happens when we lose that cargo. In 2012, Congress reduced the percentage of food aid reserved for American flag ships from 75 percent to 50 percent. At the same time, USAID (Agency for International Development) has been diverting money away from the purchase and shipment of U.S. commodities. The direct result was the loss of 25 ships – almost a quarter of the fleet – since 2011.

“More important than the ships, which are easily replaceable, is the loss of jobs,” the statement continued. “These losses represent the equivalent of over 2,400 seafaring jobs. America depends on its merchant marine to support our warfighters overseas, and without a merchant marine, we would be held hostage to foreign interests in any future conflict. The same can be said for our foreign commerce. Our merchant mariners are a vital national and economic security asset and food aid and cargo preference help keep those mariners working in peace time so that they are available in war time. Without them, we can’t defend America. It’s that simple.”

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the MTD, its affiliates and its Port Maritime Councils will continue to fight for cargo preference laws, which have numerous benefits for Americans and for men, women and children overseas who are in need; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the MTD, its affiliates and its Port Maritime Councils will work with government officials and legislators to strengthen the nation’s cargo preference laws while vehemently opposing any further cuts to these measures.

Passed 2017 MTD Convention