‘Food Assistance Convention’ functional

A new international treaty governing the international supply of food aid will enter into force on 1 January 2013. This is a decidedly important instrument for Africa as approximately 65% of all food aid provided globally is received by countries in Southern Africa.

The ‘Food Assistance Convention’ is a new incarnation of the traditional ‘Food Aid Convention’, both known by the acronym ‘FAC’. The new treaty will expand the focus of the old Food Aid Convention, which functioned from 1999 to 2012. The old Convention was narrowly focused on grains (wheat equivalents) and the new Convention has been expanded to a much wider range of foods that can qualify under the treaty as donations to improve access to food for countries in need. In essence the revised treaty modernizes the old treaty by incorporating the latest multilateral thinking on food security as set forth by the World Summit on Food Security in 2009. It is a well couched instrument and a pleasure to read from a legal drafting perspective.

The former Food Aid Conventions have held an important role in the multilateral trading system. The Food Aid Convention is specifically referred to in Article 10.4 of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture, where its function was to temper the manner in which food aid was provided with the aim of avoiding the misuse of food aid shipments to circumvent the Agreement on Agriculture’s strict limits on the use of export subsidies.

The FAC is also directly referenced in the WTO’s Ministerial ‘Decision on Measures Concerning the Possible Negative Effects of the Reform Programme on Least-Developed and Net Food Importing Developing Countries’. Under the Decision the WTO monitors food aid commitments under the FAC through the work of the Committee on Agriculture and Members are required to make annual notifications to the WTO in this regard. It is expected that the future relationship between the Food Assistance Convention and the WTO will be clarified by an exchange of letters between their respective Secretariats in 2013. It is notable that the FAC makes emphatic reference in it provisions that the WTO Agreements will take precedence over the FAC in the event of any conflict between the two treaties.

It is notable that African farmers have also recognized the value and role of the Food Aid Convention. The sub-continental federation of farmers unions, The Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU) states in their official food aid policy position that they:
‘Support the reform of the Food Aid Convention (FAC) under the auspices of the International Grains Agreement. In particular, SACAU would like to see the emergence of a mechanism for food aid recipient countries to make their voices heard at Food Aid Committee meetings under the FAC’.
While the new Food Assistance Convention does take steps towards improved transparency and accountability, its Achilles heel remains in that only food donor countries are eligible for membership of the Convention. African countries (and food aid recipient countries) will thus remain outside of the operation of the Convention. This is a pity indeed.

South Africa represents a small exception to this position. South Africa has been a modest but consistent food donor since 1995 and was thus granted observer status of the former FAC since 2004. It is expected that South Africa will continue in this observer role under the new FAC, and hopefully it will take up full membership of the Convention at some point. This would be possible as the Convention caters for future accession by any food assistance providing donor country, which includes countries that were not party to the 1999 Convention.

The countries that will initially join the Convention and make minimum food assistance commitments under the treaty will be:
Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, the EU, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The treaty requires 6 countries to ratify it in order for it to become functional. This has happened with Canada, Denmark, the EU, Japan, Switzerland and the United States having been the first six to have ratified the Convention. The Food Assistance Convention will thus officially enter into force on the 1st of January 2013 and the first meeting of its working Committee will follow in February 2013.