The accord, agreed in London in April, required ratification of at least five signatories by the end of November to enter into force from the start of 2013. Besides the EU, Japan, the United States, Switzerland and Denmark have also adopted it.
Its predecessor, the Food Aid Convention, was first negotiated in 1967 and updated regularly. The convention defines global rules for food assistance by major donors, and requires members to provide a minimum amount of food assistance, among other things.
The significance of the new Food Assistance Convention is that it marks a shift away from traditional food aid – sacks transported from overseas and handed out on the ground by relief workers.
"I very much appreciate that the Convention signatories agree to distribute food only when strictly necessary to meet the immediate nutritional needs of the most vulnerable people. Otherwise, aid should come in the form of money so that affected people can buy food locally," Kristalina Georgieva, the EU aid commissioner, said in a statement this week.
"This upholds their dignity and helps promote local markets, benefiting local farming and food supply systems," she added.
The EU focuses on providing cash and vouchers to the most vulnerable people rather than imported food. "This helps communities rebuild their self-reliance more quickly after a disaster and creates conditions for reducing aid dependency in the future," Georgieva said.
The new convention – negotiated by the EU and 35 countries (the EU states plus Argentina, Australia, Canada, Croatia, Japan, Norway, Switzerland and the United States) – also underlines the importance of linking short- and longer-term food assistance efforts, to enable people to become better prepared for future disasters or high food prices.
But aid groups say it falls short in other ways. One criticism is that it does not include a concrete collective commitment on the amount of food aid its members will provide.
The previous convention listed how much food aid countries would give each year by tonnage, stipulating a minimum of 20,000 tonnes per country. The new agreement does not contain guaranteed figures, but says members must notify the secretariat of their minimum annual commitment within six months of its entry into force.
According to Oxfam America, this means less certainty about the amount of food aid that will be provided at a time when high food prices and climate shocks are making food security in poor countries more precarious.
The other main complaint is that the convention lacks strong enforcement mechanisms, meaning it cannot sanction member governments if they fail to comply.
Aid groups say the United States – which provides around $2 billion in food aid reaching 65 million people each year, about half the world total of food aid– lags behind in adopting some of the innovative approaches recommended in the convention, particularly the move away from in-kind aid.
U.S. SLOW TO CHANGE
"The name change to 'Food Assistance Convention' reflects that the new treaty allows for more kinds of assistance beyond just food and seeds," said Timothy Lavelle of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) back in June.
Most major donors and food aid agencies have in fact been moving in this direction for some years now. But the United States is often accused of dragging its feet and sticking to the old – and expensive – model of shipping home-grown food to far-off crisis zones.
Under its longstanding system of "tied" food aid, large amounts of cereals, pulses and vegetable oil are purchased from big American corporations. The food is then transported overseas on U.S.-flagged ships, taking from three to six months to arrive. This unwieldy process soaks up 53 percent of U.S. money spent on food aid provision, and applies to some three-quarters of U.S. food assistance, according to a March report from aid groups.
Even after reaching its destination, the food aid isn't all handed out to hungry people. Some has traditionally been sold by aid agencies on local markets, generating cash to fund their development programmes on the ground in a process called "monetisation".
Critics say these practices waste precious time and money, while disrupting local economies. Some of the largest U.S. aid groups have been pressing Washington to expand a pilot project to buy food aid locally in the places where it's needed, and to cut back on monetisation.
They managed to secure some progress in legislation that passed the Senate earlier this year, including an annual $40 million commitment to the local purchasing programme.
This was subsequently watered down in the version of the Farm Bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee, but which was not voted on by the House of Representatives. The bill expired at the end of September, meaning neither version has yet become law.
"Real reforms... could allow the U.S. to reach 17 million more people with life-saving aid at no extra cost to taxpayers," said Eric Munoz, senior policy advisor for Oxfam America. "If the U.S. is serious about spending tax dollars wisely and tackling hunger, reform of its food aid programme must be a priority in the Farm Bill."
While the new Food Assistance Convention also demands a shift in approach, political realities suggest it is unlikely to bring about a major transformation in U.S. aid policy any time soon.