WASHINGTON -- Responding to strong domestic pressure to cut foreign assistance, the Clinton administration has cut nearly in half the nation's annual pledge of overseas food aid, which had remained unchanged for two decades.
Noting that the developing world's food demands are rising every year, the 15-nation European Union has criticized the U.S. move, suggesting that the United States is breaking its international commitments.
Administration officials confirmed last week that the United States had outlined plans to reduce its aid levels at a March 13 meeting of the Food Aid Convention, an organization of about 20 donor nations that includes Japan and the European Union.
The United States said it would cut its promise of yearly food aid to 2.5 million metric tons from 4.47 million metric tons.
Administration officials said the move, which was partly a response to Republican pressure to cut foreign aid, would save the federal government more than $300 million a year.
Another reason for the cut, officials said, is that the government's stocks of surplus grain are nearly exhausted as a result of reductions in farm subsidies.
Aid experts said the move would leave aid agencies far short of their goal of promising the developing world at least 10 million tons of food aid a year. U.S. food aid goes to Rwanda, Burundi, countries of the former Yugoslavia and more than a dozen other nations in the form of wheat, corn and other grains.
The U.S. announcement surprised and irritated other nations because U.S. officials had indicated at the aid group's December meeting -- where final commitments were negotiated for a new, three-year treaty among donor nations -- that Washington would maintain its previous pledge of 4.47 million metric tons. A metric ton is about 2,200 pounds.
In a statement, the executive commission of the European Union said it "regrets that the U.S. decision has been taken at such a late stage."
"The size of the reduction is not appropriate at a time when food aid needs do not seem to be decreasing, and particularly in light of efforts to fight poverty," the Europeans added.
But Mary Chambliss, deputy administrator for export credits at the Department of Agriculture, defended the U.S. decision Friday.
"The United States will continue to be the world's major donor of food aid," she said. "It is a role we have always played. Our friends in the 15-nation European Union, even collectively, are still making a pledge that is below our pledge."
The European Union has pledged 1.755 million tons. Ella Krucoff, a spokesman for the European Union, said Friday that the Europeans did not plan to reduce that pledge.
Over the past seven years, U.S. food aid has averaged more than 6 million tons a year, well above its pledge of 4.47 million tons.