According to the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), over the past three years, global food prices have risen 83%, with an increase of 45% just between June 2007 and June 2008. In March of 2008, the average world price of wheat, soy, rice and maize were 130%, 87%, 74%, and 31% higher than the year earlier, respectively. With such high increases come food riots and mass starvation. In 2008, protests about rising food costs occurred in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, Somalia and Zimbabwe; the results of these protests were often extreme police interventions that caused injuries or even death in some cases for the protestors. The food crisis is expected to turn back many human development gains made in the past few years and 100 million more people in the Global South have sunk intodeeper poverty. The poor spend between 50% and 80% of their incomes on food alone. Worldwide, 840 million people are chronically hungy and 25,000 people die of hunger every day; Americans throw away 96 billion pounds of food every year, which is about 320 pounds per person. The prices of both locally grown and imported food items are restrictively high for most in the developing world.
What is most appalling is the fact that there is not a food shortage in the world. On the contrary, there was record cereal production in developed countries in 2008, as output was increased by 10%; on the other hand, developing countries barely registered a 1% increase. The prices of fertilizer have doubled and even tripled, making it too expensive for local farmers to grow high-yielding crops. As Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen observed, "starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food."
The current global food crisis has been variously attributed to natural disasters in major wheat-producing countries, food speculators, low grain reserves, high oil prices, more consumption in developing countries per capita, unfair trade barriers for developing countries, the high price of oil and the diversion of food items (such as corn or other cereals) to agro-fuel production.
While many factors have contributed to the most recent and visible episodes of mass hunger, at a global level, the situation represents a failure of the international economic system to allow Africa countries to achieve food sovereignty. According to the Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, food sovereignty is the "right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems." Instead of allowing markets and corporations to determine food prices and access, food sovereignty puts local producers, consumers and distributors at the center of food policies and systems. Food sovereignty means that a country's citizens ensure that they have enough food and surplus to feed their nation based on their own efforts.
Food sovereignty operates under the premise that access to food is a basic human right and that there is no justification to be starving in the world today. Food sovereignty also has positive environmental implications as it steers production from large-scale industrial farming to smaller, more sustainable methods. This approach emphasizes the empowerment of women, local markets and the community.
It is important to note that food sovereignty is not synonymous with food security. Food security is an element of food sovereignty, but means only having physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet dietary needs. While a country can be "food secure" through imports, this dependency on foreign foods can lead to a vulnerability to price and supply risks, which many African nations currently face.
In the 1960s, Africa was a net exporter of food. Today, nearly all African countries are net importers. Global commodity markets have replaced local agricultural systems. While this has yielded tremendous profit for some multinational corporations and investors in agribusiness, it has yet to see much benefit for the majority of the African people.
Under the auspice of liberalization and free market policy, the IMF and World Bank reduced the state's role in agricultural planning, weakening small farmers and encouraging commercial export commodity agriculture in Africa. Although it goes against World Bank and IMF policy prescriptions, some African nations have taken an interest in preserving food sovereignty by offering their farmers subsidies. Malawi is a strong example. Its government realized that farmers would be able to produce more crops that were less vulnerable to environmental conditions if they could afford expensive fertilizers. With the subsidized fertilizer, in just two years, Malawian farmers were able to more than double their yields of corn, leaving them with a surplus.
Despite such obviously positive results, donors and financial institutions discourage African nations from subsidizing their farmers as it goes against the free market policy theme. The term "free" trade is evidently subjective, as both the European Union and the U.S. have heavily subsidized industries (around $1 billion per day in subsidies) and "dump" cheap food and other agricultural exports on African markets, pushing local farmers out of business. The World Bank estimates that American subsidies on cotton reduce West Africa's exports of the same crop by $250 million a year. The following 1986 statement by then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture John Block is telling. "The idea that developing countries should feed themselves is an anachronism from a bygone era. They could better ensure their food security by relying on U.S. agricultural products, which are available, in most cases at lower cost."
In 2002, a group of wealthy nations, including the United States, made a commitment to devote 0.7% of their national incomes to international aid; on average, these countries only provide 0.45%, and the United States on 0.16% of its income. However, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has also passed the Food Security Act in 2009, which addresses food insecurity with new aid, new tactics and a renewed investment in developing countries' agriculture.
In 2005, a coalition of major foundations and international experts launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to overcome the continent's food crisis. There is no doubt a role for technology in food production. However, AGRA's reliance on scaling up the use of external inputs that have yielded dubious results in other poor countries at the expense of tackling the more critical systemic causes of hunger in Africa is problematic. The use of genetically modified crops and a heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers can decrease biodiversity and destroy soils. Reliance on imported seeds, fertilizers and machinery reduce the control farmers have over their land and the means they wish to employ to grow their crops.
African food producers should be integrated into the global economy on fair terms that prioritize food sovereignty principles of local empowerment and sustainable farming methods. International financial institutions and donors must understand that liberalization and free trade policies undermine food sovereignty, and therefore food security in African nations. Food sovereignty is a critical framework not just for approaching the current food crisis, but for achieving people-driven development and fighting poverty across Africa.