Report: hunger affects millions in Latin America, Caribbean

U.N.’s FAO recommends returning to ancestral eating habits

November 29, 2011

QUITO, Ecuador

Despite being one of the largest food producers in the world, the Latin American and Caribbean region has 209 million people living in poverty — 35 percent of its 595 million inhabitants — of which 81 million suffer from hunger and undernourishment.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, in the coming years the food crisis, fueled by inflation and a drop in production, will hit even harder.

“Inflation negatively impacts the nutrition rate, primarily for the poorest [people], not only because it decreases access to food but also because it means a change in diet, in which cheaper food replaces quality,” FAO regional representative Alan Bojanic explained in the organization’s recent newsletter.

For that reason, he demanded urgent government support for the most vulnerable sectors to reinforce social safety nets, food programs in schools, and the pension system.

In the report, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011,” the FAO and two other U.N. organizations, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Program (WFP), said that the present crisis “is hindering efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals to reduce by half the number of people suffering from hunger in the world by 2015.”

The three organizations suggest reducing the food wasted in developed country as well as food losses in developing countries. They also warn that without taking necessary actions the crisis will lead to decreased food intake that may diminish the essential nutrients children ingest during their first 1,000 days of life.

Experts say that the greatest problem the region faces is its dependency on imported food and the volatility of prices for those imported products. They cite Venezuela and Peru as examples, and as a solution to that dependency, they point to the importance of restructuring food production.

To this end, the FAO is promoting a return to “ancestral eating habits,” which is in line with the idea of “living well” in indigenous communities.

Local production

Bolivia took the lead in the struggle for “food security with sovereignty,” as described by President Evo Morales, with the Law of Productive, Communal and Agricultural Revolution enacted in late June. It includes lending and crop insurance for farmers, and aims to increase production, supply the domestic market and generate higher export volumes.

In that context, and under the motto “Eat our own [products], healthy and sovereign,” Bolivia pushed for the consumption of food made by small-scale producers, “natural foods high in nutritional value, good for the land and free from chemicals and transgenics.” The initiative urges the practice of a traditional farming system based on equality and reciprocity using shared seeds, which are “common heritage, the support for agriculture and food sovereignty.”

In Argentina, which can supply food for up to three times its population, there are some efforts headed in that direction. A meeting on Food Sovereignty and Biodiversity took place Sept. 14-16, in the central city of Rosario, organized by social organizations that reject “the production paradigm of industrial farming that is based on the extraction of natural resources and monoculture of the soybean, and is favored by the use of transgenic seeds, large amounts of pesticides and expansion of the agricultural frontier through deforestation and the destruction of native forests.”

Days before, in the northern city of Resistencia, capital of Chaco province, the Native Seed Fair saw the same tendencies. Under the slogan “the seed in the ground is life, and in the hands of the families that sow it, freedom,” it set forth to “benefit families and the defense of land and water from the perspective of food sovereignty.”

According to the World Bank, the increase in food prices in 2010-2011 sent 70 million people around the world into extreme poverty. It does not indicate how many of those people are in Latin America and the Caribbean, but said “the region is growing, reaping the fruits of the boom in raw materials prices.” The organization added: “In contrast, non-exporting economies face the dual threat of a food crisis and rising prices.”

Action to eradicate malnutrition

According to the WFP, Latin America and the Caribbean have the basic infrastructure, the political will and the social capital to combat hunger and extreme poverty. The WFP leaves the manner of doing so up to each country, and in exchange offers technical and economic assistance.

WFP said that the region is the world’s most unequal one, “despite the political and economic progress that has created an incredible prosperity for some sectors of the [region’s] 33 countries,” yet 35 percent of its inhabitants still live in poverty.

According to WFP, “though the region produces food to meet 30 percent above the needs of its own population, in many areas access to them is difficult and is threatened by the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters.”

WFP cites the production of biofuels (such as turning edible corn into ethanol) as another threat to food security. Producing biofuels requires large quantities of grains and seeds that had, until now, been used exclusively to feed humans and animals.

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