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Food Security: A Challenge for the Americas.

Food security in Latin America and the Caribbean is built on four fundamental pillars: the availability of food, access to it, its quality (safe products with good nutritional content), and stability (the ability to obtain food all the time).

In terms of the first pillar, the region has great potential and does not have large limiting factors. It has a vast supply of natural resources, formidable human talent, and available land for expanding its agricultural frontier. These are clearly comparative benefits that agriculture can take advantage of.

In the other areas, however, the panorama is less clear and there is more work to do. Access to food is a concern for millions of people, a problem that has to do with inequitable income distribution. The situation is particularly critical in rural areas, where agriculture is a way of life that employs most of the 121 million rural inhabitants, about 21 percent of the total population of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The quality of food also merits attention. Farmers need to change some of their production practices, and governments have a role to play to in educating people about the importance of good nutrition.

Work on these issues is already mandatory because of rapid population growth and a demand that is outpacing supply, but climate change has made it even more urgent as it destabilizes agricultural production, aggravates difficulties in rural areas, and endangers the population's food security now and in the future.

This is just one part of the context in which the 42nd General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) will be held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, June 3-5 this year, under the central theme "Food Security with Sovereignty."

The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) believes that the answer to the challenges mentioned above can come from a sector that is often neglected: family agriculture and small to medium-scale farming. This sector has a great deal to offer in the effort to increase production and access to quality foods in Latin America and the Caribbean. To fully engage producers at this level, however, countries must promote changes that start at a micro level providing technical and commercial incentives to producer groups like rural women and youth. Those changes must be complemented with larger reforms like the design of short and long-term macroeconomic and sectoral policies.

The importance of supporting these producers is even clearer when we look at the total number of people that must be fed. More than 573 million people live in Latin America and the Caribbean today, and by 2050 that number will reach 720 million. Given this reality, there is no alternative but to act now.

Smart Producers, Enormous Contribution

Latin American and Caribbean nations differ profoundly from country to country, and disparities within each nation are reflected in income distribution and in levels of education and employment (with poverty and inequality more evident in rural areas than in urban areas).

Another big difference between nations is that the Southern Cone is a net exporter of food (primarily oil seeds, cereals, and meat) while Central America, the Andean region, and the Caribbean are net importers (with cereals and vegetable oils among the leading imports).

One element ties the region together, however, and that is the tireless work of the small and medium-scale producers, including those dedicated to family agriculture. The IICA believes that support to these producers should be a high priority because they supply a large percentage of the foods sold in the national marketplace, and because they are an income-multiplying factor in rural areas. They are helping to ensure the availability of food today and they should continue to do so in the future.

The Institute is not the only one that sees this group as having a leading role in the agricultural sector. Other international forums also see it that way, for example, the G-20--whose ministers of agriculture in 2011 called for increased investment in agriculture and measures to strengthen markets and improve the coordination of international policies aimed at the agricultural sector.

Allow me to emphasize again that those who work day after day in their plots of land, farms, and small rural industries deserve our attention. They need investments for innovation and access to new technologies so they can be more productive and competitive. They are also in urgent need of a new kind of extension program that can help them to practice a more sustainable and inclusive agriculture.

This kind of progress will allow them more and better participation in agricultural markets, an inclusion that governments should promote through concrete policies. If we facilitate the integration of millions of small and medium-scale producers into more transparent value chains and trading systems, we will contribute towards increasing their income and helping them have better access to high-quality nutrition for themselves and their families. We will also be working to reduce rural poverty.

Advancing towards National Strategies

A general political awareness exists about the need to reduce vulnerability in agriculture and strengthen food security in the face of climate change and economic uncertainty, but many countries have yet to make strategic decisions in this area.

One of the critical factors we must resolve is the dismantling of public and private institutions. This is not benefitting research or the transfer of knowledge to producers, and instead pushes them further away from spaces of innovation. There is also little support available to help farmers form associations or improve services and instruments for trade, factors which make it very difficult for family and small-scale agriculture to link to markets.

At the IICA, we believe that these limitations can be overcome with the formulation and implementation of national food security strategies. In addition to meeting the needs mentioned above, these strategies can: open a space for free international trade in foodstuffs, educate the population about food security and nutrition, and prepare countries for risks and catastrophes through programs that create reserves, agricultural insurance, and early warning systems.

The Institute, which is currently celebrating its 70th anniversary, has a large network of specialists who participate in food security related projects in the region, with outstanding examples in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Central America, and the Andean countries. They are constantly participating in various teams, increasing their working capacity, and updating their knowledge on the issue.

These technical experts are in direct contact with ministers of agriculture and colleagues from other international agencies like the FAO and ECLAC, and they work hand in hand with them to create policies and concrete initiatives to strengthen agriculture and achieve food security in Latin America and the Caribbean. That is the objective that traces the road that we travel in our work. Cochabamba is the next stop, and we hope to have more allies come aboard.

Victor M. Villalobos is Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). ----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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Author:Villolobos, Victor M.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:May 1, 2012
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