Food Security in Latin America and the Caribbean

18 April 2017

by Christiana Barreto 

In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) issued a report stating that Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) had accomplished targets of the World Food Summit (WFS) goal and of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by decreasing malnourishment in the region. According to the available data, in the last 20 years, an estimate of 30 million Latin-Americans have benefited from public policies aiming to alleviate undernourishment and hunger. For example, the Fome Zero program (“Zero Hunger”) was an initiative created by the Brazilian Federal Government in 2003, based on cooperation strategies between the private sector and civil society to reduce hunger across the country. As public policies like these gained popularity in the region, LAC was considered a pioneer in diminishing the precarious situation of its citizens and ensuring access to nutrition security for the most vulnerable. The approval of the Plan for Food Security, Nutrition and Hunger Eradication of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) further developed the ambition to fully eradicate hunger by the year of 2025, through policies aiming to help agricultural practices adapt to climate change, improving infrastructure and ending food waste.

However, even if LAC countries are world leaders in food production and export due to their enormous natural wealth, producing enough to theoretically satisfy the hunger of all of its inhabitants, social inequality and extreme poverty prevents vulnerable groups from accessing the appropriate quantity and quality of food. For instance, indigenous communities live in conditions of profound inequality, increasing their levels of exposure to hunger and poverty. As argued by the platform Indian Country Today, a combination of factors like market-pressure, conflicts involving the demarcation of lands and climate change contribute to putting these groups at risk of malnutrition in areas such as the northern region of Guatemala or La Guajira, in Colombia. The Latin American Representative for the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights, Carmen Rosa Villa, has emphasised the importance of researching the impact of large scale investment projects on indigenous people’s right to food and fishing. Similarly, rural women in the region struggle to have their work recognised and are often most vulnerable to extreme poverty situations. In 2012, a rural women’s rally was organised in El Salvador to discuss food security issues such as sustainable production of healthy food, climate change mitigation and obtaining recognition for rural women’s contribution to food security.

Furthermore, it is crucial to note that the beginning of 2017 in Latin America and the Caribbean has been marked by a series of major events presenting renewed challenges to the region. The combination of environmental tragedies and inadequate infrastructure have shed light on crucial challenges that need to be addressed in order to assess food security issues in an efficient and sustainable manner.

 Environmental cataclysms, agriculture and nutrition security

In Peru and Ecuador, the unexpected tragedy brought about by El Niño Costero (see IFGR’s analysis of the phenomenon here and here) has severely harmed agriculture in the region. The water deficit that devastated Northern Peru at the end of last year generated imbalances in the flowering of trees and plants, preventing natural regeneration and deeply affecting the local flora. The intense drought also had an extremely negative impact on croplands, since extreme dry weather is highly noxious to arable lands and food production, as determined by FAO’s Agricultural Stress Index (ASI).

At the beginning of this year, the heavy rains and avalanches that abruptly followed the initial drought resulted in landslides that blocked entire roads and, as of March 21st 2017, had damaged approximately 24,000 hectares of croplands. According to the Global Agricultural Information Network, although the total damages are still hard to assess, it is clear that Peruvian agricultural production is in jeopardy, with losses so far estimated at $120 million and at least 2,580 hectares of products such as rice, corn and mangoes being irreversibly ruined in the region of Piura. In the Tumbes region, approximately 1,200 hectares have been affected, involving mainly banana and rice, and in Lambayeque, 2,000 hectares of cropland – principally rice fields – have been damaged.

Moreover, the destruction of infrastructure and disruption of transportation have heavily weighed on the agricultural production of Northern Peru, therefore inflating the price of foodstuff. As of March 16th 2017, approximately 1,231 kilometers of road had been destroyed. Local railways also sustained critical damage and were unable to operate, blocking the transportation of a wide range of products. According to El Comercio, the prices of many food products in the metropolitan region of Lima have skyrocketed due to this disturbance of infrastructure, damaging of resources and commercial speculation from local suppliers. Because the government has declared a State of Emergency, now over 62,000 Peruvians, who were forced into homelessness, are struggling to obtain nutrition and are confronted with unaffordable food prices. On April 6th, as a response to those devastating effects and in an attempt to slow down speculation, the Peruvian Congress approved a bill to discourage producers, suppliers or merchants from selling basic goods or services at inflated prices in Emergency Areas.

An analogous environmental catastrophe in Colombia is likely to have similar consequences for nutrition in the short-term. Although the full damage has not yet been fully assessed, the torrential rains and mudslides that took place in the region of Mocoa, causing more than 300 deaths, are also expected to have a considerable impact on agriculture. The inhabitants of the Mocoa municipality make their livelihoods from the production of corn, banana, cassava and cane. Similarly to Peru and Ecuador, the intense destruction could lead to an increase of food prices and scarcity of resources. Higher food prices are harmful to family welfare, especially to disadvantaged families which, according to FAO, spend between 60 and 70 percent of their revenues on purchasing food.

In light of these events, it becomes clear that Latin America lacks the necessary infrastructure and preparation for extreme weather phenomena, which has impaired the access to basic goods in the affected countries. As the region is especially vulnerable to climate-related hazards, if local governments fail to adapt agricultural practices against extreme weather events, similar disasters are likely to become a recurring issue.

 Working towards a common goal: infrastructure, empowerment, sustainability

Scholars argue that the Latin America and the Caribbean region has a unique potential to offer global solutions to agricultural challenges due to being privileged in biodiversity and natural resources. According to the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), LAC countries represent the new “Global Breadbasket”, as they will play a key role in ensuring the nutrition of nine billion people by the year of 2050. Nonetheless, it is fundamental for long-term improvement to bolster agricultural productivity and continuously reassess the magnitude of emerging food security challenges, as none of the countries affected were up to task in response to this year’s environmental disasters. A similar incentive should be considered in terms of developing research aiming to comprehend and alleviate the effects that trade and speculation can have on price volatility, especially as it affects the purchasing power of underprivileged families.

However, current limits to food security involve not only exposure to extreme weather events and unaffordable prices, but failure of state governance and socioeconomic turmoil, as evidenced by Venezuela’s ongoing food deficit. Due to the profound scarcity that the country is facing, recent surveys establish that about 72.7 percent of respondents have lost an average of 19 pounds in the past year. The combination of the shortfall of basic goods and high inflation have led citizens to skip meals, engage in food riots and looting, and rely on substandard products. An example is the decreasing quality of the popular food known as cassava roots (or yuca), where reports for sales of unripe tubers – which contain high levels of hydrogen cyanide – have caused food poisoning and malnutrition amongst impoverished families. Agricultural practices have also been impaired as sugar fields fester due to the absence of fertilizers and the production of corn and rice has become largely insufficient. The Country Programming Framework (CPF) of the FAO has argued that priorities for Venezuela should include supporting sustainable agricultural development, risk management and preservation of the environment, promoting the Hunger-Free Latin America and the Caribbean Initiative (IALCSH) and supporting South-South Cooperation. Nonetheless, if the country’s severe political and economic instability continues to deteriorate, it is unlikely that the aforementioned strategies will suffice to ensure food security for Venezuelans.

From a regional perspective, even if many LAC countries have made significant advances in reducing extreme poverty, studies reiterate that women remain extremely vulnerable to hunger and undernourishment. In light of that fact, the equitable distribution of resources and the empowerment of rural women would certainly promote the region’s development as a whole. As argued by the World Bank (WB), female participation in the Latin American workforce has generated significant social improvement and economic growth in the last decades. If it weren’t for women’s contribution, it is estimated that extreme poverty would have been higher in the region by 30%.  Similarly, helping to alleviate the precarious situation of indigenous peoples would be extremely positive for sustainable development. According to studies analysing cases of ethnographic work with the Awajún, Dalit, Ingano, Gwich’in, Inuit, Karen, Pohnpei, Nuxalk and Ainu communities, the preservation of food biodiversity, seascape and landscape features can be largely attributed to indigenous’ cultural practices and traditional knowledge. FAO argues that no group has contributed to the domestication of the agrobiodiversity that feeds humanity today more than indigenous peoples across the globe.

Enforcing the implementation of regional initiatives aiming to prevent and manage disaster risks in agricultural sectors is thus a key principle to provide a concentrated effort against water crisis, food shortages and nutrition security threats. An example would be the creation of a platform that “allows the exchange of experiences regarding the Integrated Disaster Risk Management in Latin America and the Caribbean”, as was decided at the beginning of 2017 by FAO, in Santiago de Chile. In addition, the Inter-American Development Bank published in 2012 a Framework for Sustainable Food Security for Latin America and the Caribbean, aiming to guide policymakers and analysts to anticipate and mitigate potential food crisis phenomena.

Ultimately, if stakeholders were to recognise the importance of working with family farmers and indigenous groups, mitigate price volatility and multiply regional strategies to manage agricultural practices and environmental risk, innovative actions could be developed to ensure the reduction of inequalities, sustainable development and implement more organised and prompt responses to food crisis phenomena. It is noteworthy that if these issues are not addressed efficiently, the probability of their humanitarian, economic and political consequences having devastating effects escalates, as Latin America and the Caribbean’s role in international agricultural markets becomes increasingly vital for global food security and environmental sustainability.



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