The world food crisis—more serious than ever, in light of the global economic crisis—has activists in the development community clamoring for solutions. Nearly 1 billion people worldwide are now classified as “hungry,” and numbers are expected to rise as flows of foreign aid, government assistance, NGO resources, and remittances dry up or are allocated elsewhere. As Secretary Clinton embarks on a 7-nation tour of Africa next week, one can hope that world hunger and food security will be at the forefront of her mind, and long-term, sustainable, and people-centered development at the forefront of her policy agenda.

Africa’s reliance on humanitarian assistance and emergency food aid is growing alongside regional and world hunger. As commodity prices and export revenues fall, cereal imports to sub-Saharan Africa have risen above 20%. The region now accepts more than half of global food aid, reported the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Services in the 2008-9 Food Security Assessment.

A food sovereignty approach may provide an alternative, in this time of global economic crisis and beyond.

Traditional food aid has failed utterly to counter world hunger, much less ease poverty. At the recent G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, leaders announced their intention to shift the focus of hunger alleviation efforts from short-term humanitarian aid to long-term agricultural development. This statement was a particularly positive step for the US, which has dumped subsidized agricultural goods into developing nations under the guise of humanitarian aid (and free trade) for decades. But it remains unclear just how much impact the declaration will have, particularly as G8 leaders have taken few steps to consult farmers and communities on the ground for their perspectives on establishing strong agricultural systems that meet local needs.

Recent Congressional legislation appears to reflect this change in priorities. Earlier this year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Global Food Security Act (SB 384, or the Casey-Lugar bill). Laudably, the Act places a strong focus on long-term agricultural development and allows for some local production of food used for aid. Unfortunately, however, the bill mandates $7.7 billion to biotech corporations developing genetically engineered seeds.

This genetically engineered (GE) crop development mandate—an initiative which claims to boost global food security—has raised many eyebrows. The Union of Concerned Scientists has offered up ample evidence that expensive GE products have not, in fact, improved crop yields. Additionally, a study by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) condemned industrial agriculture and short-term fixes like GE crops for their failure to curb dependency or address long-term social and environmental concerns.

Here’s where it gets political. The controversial technology is currently permitted in only three African countries, one Central American nation, and two Southeast Asian states.  That said, in order to be eligible to receive U.S. food aid under the Global Food Security Act, these countries may be forced to open their markets to GE crops—something that they have rejected up until this point.

For this reason, raised eyebrows have developed into into indignation, sparking chatter about a modern Green Revolution designed to advance biotechnology industry interests by using US food aid to open GE crop markets in the developing world.

It is in this context that food sovereignty holds real appeal.  Food sovereignty is a term coined by the Via Campesina movement to refer to a policy framework by which people have the “right” to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, rather than leave such a critical element of human life and survival subject to international market forces.

As a globally interdependent society, we need legislation and initiatives that empower communities and farmers in the Global South to reclaim control of their own food production and consumption. We don’t need a “Global Food Security Act” that funnels $7.7 billion into corporations developing ineffective technologies that the developing world can’t afford. If nothing else, the world food crisis has taught us that greater control of food resources by multinational corporations translates into skyrocketing food prices, rapidly increasing hunger, and riots by populations fed up with forced dependency on an unstable global financial market.

The IAASTD study found that agroecological techniques and more democratic control of the global food system are the most reliable and effective routes to long-term food security. Similarly, aid initiatives that contribute to local agricultural and human resource development rather than exogenous assistance are growing in popularity. Woker-owned and consumer cooperatives, often working in conjunction with fair trade groups, are becoming more common across the globe, promoting sustainable development, food security and food sovereignty simultaneously. You can read more about food sovereignty as an alternative to emergency food aid and humanitarian assistance at the links below:

Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy

–  Why the Global Food Security Act Will Fail to Curb World Hunger

North American Conference on Latin America May/June 2009 Report on the Americas: Food Crisis in the Americas

Global Food Security Act – Foreign Policy In Focus