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Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion on Food Sovereignty and Land Grab in Africa. The discussion was co-hosted by Institute for Policy Studies Foreign Policy in Focus (IPS’ FPF), Africa Africa, and Transafrica Forum. While food security has been an interest of mine for a while now, but I was unfamiliar with the concepts of food sovereignty and land grab. Luckily for me, there was a fabulous panel to elucidate.

In a nutshell, food sovereignty goes beyond food security in that while food security focuses on the certainty that everyone will have access to enough food to eat every day, food sovereignty holds that it’s just as important to consider where that food comes from and how it is produced.  Food sovereignty supports small farmers and collectively owned areas of production (farms, fisheries, etc) instead of large-scale industrial production.

The panel was moderated by Emira Woods, the Co-Director of IPS’ Foreign Policy in Focus. Also speaking on the panel was Mamadou Goita, the Director of a Food Security Program in Bamako, Mali, Rachel Smolker, from Biofuelwatch, and Matt Kavanagh, from Health Gap. The aim of the panel was to tackle the competing interests of land use, specifically the growing trend in Africa to use scarce land to grow fuel for cars in developed countries in place of growing food for local communities.

Each of the speakers brought something new and different to the conversation, and made me realize how truly immense and interdisciplinary the issues of food sovereignty and land grab are.

Smolker discussed the impacts and possible dangers of growing biofuel in place of food (a struggle she termed “food versus fuel”). She argued that in about 75% of the cause of the rise of food prices that lead to riots in 2008 was from the diversion of croplands from food production to biofuel production.  She also cautioned audience members that people must keep the motivations of those investing in African land for biofuel production in mind; is there a code of conduct for investment? What are investors really concerned about, the welfare of the people or profit?

Kavanagh argued that health has an impact on food sovereignty and food security and vice versa. Kavanagh pointed out the example of HIV/AIDS and food sovereignty. He noted that the majority of those infected by HIV/AIDS in Africa are between twenty and forty years old, those in their economic prime for production. However, sick people are less production and households headed by sick people are also less productive. These less productive households can have issues feeding themselves, which can lead to the heartbreaking choice of choosing to spend money on HIV/AIDS medication or food. Sadly, most HIV/AIDS medications require that food be eaten alongside it to be effective. He also warned that putting the health and welfare of the people into the hands of a few corporations doesn’t always end well.

For me, the most interesting speaker of the day was Goita, who focused the most of the connection between land grab and food sovereignty. He defined land grab as land acquisition or purchase from foreign investment. He argued that this investment threatens food sovereignty, or each nation’s right to decide how they produce food and how they trade this product with others. Without domestic access to land, nations cannot produce local food—a key tenant of food sovereignty. Goita warmed that foreign investment in land results in land being used to feed other nations (he specifically pointed to Saudi Arabia as an example of a nation buying land in Africa to grow crops for its people) or land being used to produce fuel for other nations. He also pointed out that working the land is not just a economic, but cultural as well—and with large plots of land being sold to foreign nations, it was threatening traditional culture within African states.

Overall, I thought the panel discussion was informative and eye opening. As someone with an interest in climate change and alternative transportation, understanding the effects of a policy aimed at increasing alternative transportation (such as increased American biofuel usage to reduce carbon dioxide emissions) on Africa is necessary. If we cannot increase biofuel usage among developed nations without causing food riots or threatening the ability of a nation to determine how its land will be used, then is it really a good alternative to oil?


In a recent CNN article, Derrick McElheron asks “Why is Food Security Sparking Unrest?” The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food security as having adequate food supply or availability; having a stable supply of food, without fluctuations or shortages from season to season or year to year; and having quality and safety of food. Food security has been linked to development efforts, as many believe that poverty alleviation, hunger, and food security must be addressed simultaneously to make real strides in improving standards of living around the globe.

In his article, McElheron writes about the current volatile market—not the craziness of the NASDAQ or the Dow, but rather the increasing volatility of wheat and corn prices. Russia canceled all exports of its wheat due to forest fires and a massive heat wave, and Pakistani floods have also contributed to growing instability has centered on access to affordable wheat. Some have argued that the rising cost of wheat has triggered riots, the riot in Maputo, Mozambique occurred after bread prices in Mozambique rose 30 percent and killed between 13 and 18 civilians. The FAO will be holding a meeting in Rome tomorrow to discuss the issue, a fitting location as the UN’s involvement in the global food security crisis was codified there with the UN FAO Rome Declaration on World Food Security in 1996.

The riots in Manputo bring to mind the deadly riots of 2007-2008 that occurred across the globe as rice prices rose more than 200 percent, and wheat and corn prices doubled. The article quotes an interview with Hafez Ghanem, the FAO’s assistant-general for economic and social development, who said:

“(I)n the years ahead we’ll probably be seeing more of the turbulence we’re experiencing now because markets are set to become more volatile in the medium term for at least three reasons: a) the growing importance as a cereal producer of the Black Sea region, where yields fluctuate greatly from one season to the next; b) the expected increase of extreme weather events linked to climate change; and c) the growing importance of non-commercial actors in commodities markets…”

McElheron then quotes Julian Cribb, a scientist and author of “The Coming Famine”, who argues that the “most urgent issue confronting humanity in the next 50 years is not climate change or the financial crisis, it is whether we can achieve and sustain such a harvest.”

Personally, I wonder if Cribb is artificially separating the current food crisis and climate change. Climate change will give rise to more frequent severe weather events, such as droughts and forest fires—and agriculture is highly sensitive to climate variability. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report argues that,

“Recent studies indicate that increased frequency of heat stress, droughts and floods negatively affect crop yields and livestock beyond the impacts of mean climate change, creating the possibility for surprises, with impacts that are larger, and occurring earlier, than predicted using changes in mean variables alone. This is especially the case for subsistence sectors at low latitudes. Climate variability and change also modify the risks of fires, pest and pathogen outbreak, negatively affecting food, fiber and forestry.”

Though maybe I’m trying to draw too many connections. After all, the United Nations specifically divides food and agriculture issues (FAO) and climate change issues (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). Do you think an inter-disciplinary approach might work best with food security? That making the argument that climate change will negatively impact many nations not only through rising temperatures, but will also place their populations at risk due to an increasing inability to access adequate food supply? Or do you think creating an inter-disciplinary approach will divert funds from ensuring food security by using them for climate change activities?

Photo Credit: World Food Programme distribution site in Afghanistan, courtesy Flickr user USAID Afghanistan. Some Rights Reserved.

Slide Show Credit: Food– A Slideshow, copyright the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

Doing some research on food security today.  Stumbled across a post from Food First, reflecting on the latest conversations around the President’s strategy to “Feed the Future”.

On May 21st, I posted on “Feed the Future”, after attending the Chicago Council on Global Affairs food symposium.  The Chicago Council audience applauded the initiative, without much criticism.  While that experience–listening to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and top government officials from Mali and Banladesh–was interesting, I had this hunch that certain parts of the conversation were being skipped.

Congress Discusses Ways to “Feed the Future”
Posted July 21st, 2010 by admin

By Scott Lensing

Yesterday, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs heard from a panel of seven experts on the State Department’s new program to fight global hunger, the “Feed the Future” initiative. Originally released in May of this year, the Feed the Future Guide presents plans for bringing greater food security to countries in the Global South, with $3.5 billion dollars in funding over the next three years. Despite a number of laudable goals, several congressional representatives and panelists voiced concerns about misguided focus.

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Hello fellow AIDemocracy followers! I’m AIDemocracy’s new Global Development Intern, Noor Khalidi. I’m very excited to be on board this summer, to be learning more about social justice advocacy, and to be delivering you interesting news and reflections within the field of global development.

A little about myself—I am a junior at Virginia Tech studying Economics and International Studies. I began my college career very devoted to environmental issues, primarily due to a class I took my freshman year which exposed the frightening impact of modern human civilization on our Earth and its resources.

While my passion for environmental issues still burns, I have slowly begun to gravitate towards issues of global development and poverty alleviation. Earlier this summer, I traveled to Nicaragua as part of a Virginia Tech field study to learn more about approaches to sustainable development in poor rural communities–communities without running water and electricity, for example.

During my time in Nicaragua, I lived in two villages with very generous host families in modest adobe mud homes, filled with many chickens and a pig or two if lucky.  Through the international organization Green Empowerment and their local partner AsoFenix, I learned about low-impact sustainable development projects such as greywater filters and solar water pumps.

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Earlier this week, I was among an audience of around 100 or so Congressional staffers and non-profit professionals who attended the event “Ending World Hunger: What Can the U.S. Do?” as part of the Wilson Center’s On the Hill panel series. Presented by John Sewell of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the panelists were Ann Tutwiler, coordinator of the USDA’s Feed the Future initiative, Jay Branegan, senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Julie A. Howard, Executive Director of the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa.

The eradication of world hunger has been the dream of students, politicians, peasants, and beauty queens alike since the inception of global conscience. No surprise then, I was excited to attend an event that would substantively discuss and challenge how the US was approaching sustainability and food in the developing world.

At the end of the panel, however, I wasn’t quite satisfied.

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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.

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It’s no secret that people in the Global South are those most vulnerable to global warming. They face more day-to-day exposure to its impacts, and their governments generally lack the economic and technological capacity to deal with dramatic changes in climate patterns. Rising sea levels are just the tip of the melting iceberg.

Climate change is causing more frequent and prolonged droughts, more severe storms, and the rapid spread of tropical diseases, threatening the homes, farms, and livelihoods of the world’s poorest citizens. Oxfam has estimated that somewhere around 375 million people will be affected by humanitarian disasters related to climate change by 2015—a 50% rise over past years—and the UN Development Program has projected that adaptation efforts to deal with this crisis will require investments of $86 billion per year. Without pairing adaptation strategies with mitigation efforts, we cannot hope to improve global living standards, combat poverty and disease, or halt conflicts over resources.

As a lifelong environmentalist, I’m overjoyed to see Congress taking historic (albeit small) steps to grow green industry and lower greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. As a global citizen and social justice advocate, however, I’m disappointed to see so little attention devoted to dealing with climate change where it’s causing hardship already: the developing world.

EAC rally 6/26The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) bill squeaked through the House late last month and will move to the Senate sometime in the coming months. The current bill establishes an International Climate Change Adaptation Program within the US Agency for International Development and offers up an initial 1% of emission allowances to international adaptation initiatives, rising to 4% by 2027. While these allowances will help developing countries prepare for and address the consequences of global warming—some of the first federal dollars dedicated to this cause—this is not a fair pledge from the world’s largest contributor to global warming. The developing world needs more.

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Today was Day 1 of CARE’s National Conference and Celebration.  Each year, roughly 400 500 CARE supporters from around the country gather in Washington, DC to hear the latest news from the field, learn more about pending legislation, celebrate together and take to the Hill to exercise our civil rights and let Congress know that eradicating global poverty is important to American citizens.

Tomorrow we tackle three issues:

  1. Fighting global hunger and modernizing our approach to food security
  2. Tackling climate change and reducing its impact on the world’s poor
  3. Protecting and empowering girls by preventing child marriage.

Believe it or not, all three issues are interrelated.  At climate change increases water scarcity and descreases agricultural productivity in places like Africa, food security becomes a serious issue for poor families.  Fathers faced with difficult economic decisions are more likely to marry their daughters at a young age to reduce household economic strain or repay a debt.

So, we are asking the US government to do four things:

  1. Make deep, immediate, mandatory cuts in US gas emissions.
  2. Provide substantial new funding to help developing countries adapt and keep those least responsible for climate change from suffering its harshest effects.
  3. Implement a comprehensive plan to combat global hunger–one that tackles its root causes by increasing funding for locally purchased food, in-country agricultural production and quicker emergency response.
  4. Develop a multi-year strategy to prevent child marriage in developing countries, requiring the Department of State to address child marriage in its annual Human Rights Report, integrate child marriage prevention strategies throughout US foreign policy, and scale up successful approaches to prevent child marriage.

If you are not in DC, but would like to support our efforts tomorrow, you can contact your respresentatives using CARE online advocacy tools at

I also had the pleasure of interviewing singer/songwriter/social activist, Michael Franti, of Michael Franti & Spearhead this morning about his travels, his politicized lyrics, and his recent decision to join CARE as a CARE ambassador.  Stay tuned to the AIDemocracy website for that video coming soon!

The Washington Post has the best article I’ve read yet about the global food crisis, and it’s pretty scary, to put it mildly.

The food price shock now roiling world markets is destabilizing
governments, igniting street riots and threatening to send a new wave
of hunger rippling through the world’s poorest nations.
It is outpacing
even the Soviet grain emergency of 1972-75, when world food prices rose
78 percent. By comparison, from the beginning of 2005 to early 2008,
prices leapt 80 percent, according to the United NationsFood and Agriculture Organization.
Much of the increase is being absorbed by middle men — distributors,
processors, even governments — but consumers worldwide are still
feeling the pinch.

The convergence of events has thrown world food supply and demand
out of whack and snowballed into civil turmoil. After hungry mobs and
violent riots beset Port-au-Prince, Haitian Prime Minister
Jacques-Édouard Alexis was forced to step down this month. At least 14
countries have been racked by food-related violence.
In Malaysia, Prime
Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
is struggling for political survival after a March rebuke from voters
furious over food prices. In Bangladesh, more than 20,000 factory
workers protesting food prices rampaged through the streets two weeks
ago, injuring at least 50 people.

To quell unrest, countries including Indonesia are digging deep to boost food subsidies. The U.N. World Food Program has warned of an alarming surge in hunger in areas as far-flung as North Korea
and West Africa. The crisis, it fears, will plunge more than 100
million of the world’s poorest people deeper into poverty
, forced to
spend more and more of their income on skyrocketing food bills.

As I do not have an econ background (beyond undergrad macro classes that were not analysis-heavy enough for this), my analysis is going to be pretty non-existent on the food crisis. I wish I knew what to write here, but I just don’t.

Ethanol: The word sends shivers of pure pleasure for the international relations specialist part of me.  So many solutions to so many problems. A break from dependence on oil from unstable regions, renewable fuel source, support for the American farmer, and while ethanol packs more of a punch than normal petroleum, it is not digging up more carbon dioxide and introducing it into the atmosphere.

However, as with anything, every action has a reaction.  With ethanol comes a massively increased demand for corn, as is very apparent to me as I drive through the endless cornfields of Indiana on my way to work every morning. Since corn is such an important crop that is tied to other food sources, such as chickens, who eat corn, those prices will rise as well. This is driving up American food prices. The result? According to an article in The New York Times on September 29th the amount of food being purchased by the US government for foreign hunger aid is at a record low.

Who suffers? Obviously the thousands of people in third world countries, especially civil-war torn African countries, who were already going hungry due to insufficient food will go hungrier, but that isn’t all.  Also, as more farms are
being converted to corn, the supply of other diverse food stuffs will decrease and those prices for individual Americans will also rise.  This means not only will the poor of the world feel the burn of ethanol, so too will many poor in our very own United States of America.

Ethanol was hailed as something that would help the poor small farmer both at home and abroad. With more uses for corn, it would in theory drive up prices of corn, making it more profitable for farmers to grow.  Unfortunately, because it is a staple crop, corn is mostly grown by large agribusiness farms.  Additionally, abroad farms will still suffer American price competition due to higher efficiency on American farms and the fact that so many farms have switched over to corn.  A poor farmer from Angola simply cannot compete even if there is more of a demand.

For many reasons, most importantly our current dependence on Middle Eastern oil, I do support ethanol use in American cars.  We simply must be aware that this is not a cure-all. In the end if you can afford it, a hybrid is your most environmentally-friendly, globally conscious choice, and we must push for more research into sustainable fuels.


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