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Opinion: Food Security & Nutrition

Realizing Latin America’s Potential as a Global Breadbasket

Víctor Villalobos Víctor Villalobos

As our global population increases, so must our agricultural production: fast, significantly and sustainably. This increase needs to be achieved, primarily by increases in productivity, rather than an increase in cultivated areas, and it all needs to be done under increased pressure for natural resources and greater climate variability.  These challenges represent unique opportunities for human imagination, and offer Latin America a unique opportunity to step up as a “Global Food Basket”.

We believe the region is up to the challenge.

First, it is rich in natural resources, home to nearly 33 percent or world fresh water resources, 36 percent of all additional arable land available in the world and is the most biodiverse region of the world, which offer still untapped opportunities for the development of new products and services.

Latin America´s importance in global food markets has been on the rise during at least the last 30 years. The region (including the Caribbean countries) is currently responsible for almost 15 percent of total world food exports, and the region is the origin of 60 percent  of total world soybean exports, 44 percent  of beef, 42 percent  of poultry, 33 percent  of corn, 45 percent  of coffee, and close to 75 percent  of bananas. In addition, a very large proportion of fruits and vegetables consumed around the world also have their origin in Latin American countries.

The Region has been able to achieve this progress thanks to the richness of its human capital and the existence of strong democratic institutions. It is estimated that rural employment in the region represents close to 18% of total employment, with 70 to 80% of agriculture being classified as family farming. Women play a prominent role, up to 30% of production unit are headed by women. The development of agriculture in the region is supported by strong networks of public institutions that covers the entire spectrum, from research and innovation to food safety and risk management.

Despite this privileged position, Latin America, and its farmers, face important challenges that need to be addressed if the region is to meet its expected role in the future of global food security.

Total factor productivity for Latin America agriculture has slowed down in recent years; some countries have alarmingly low growth rates, putting them at risk of becoming food insecure in the near future.  The region is also experiencing one of the largest rates of deforestation in the world (estimated to be approximately 2.2 million hectares per year).  Climate change is, and will continue to be, a driving force of change. Agriculture is an important contributor to climate change, but also, is severely affected by the changes in weather, and rural populations will be among the most affected by changing climatic conditions.

Despite the important progress achieved in the eradication of poverty and malnutrition, recent evidence suggest that during the last two years there has been a reverse in this tendency with more people suffering hunger. At the same time, the region is also experiencing a true obesity epidemic, pointing out the need of comprehensive nutritional strategies.

Latin America’s food systems therefore need to be reengineered to address not only the pure production issues, but to include the more complex issues of sustainability and social inclusion.

Fortunately, there are examples of successful interventions that address these issues and provides hope for a better future.

Systems to intensify rice production (SRI), for example, are allowing for productivity increases in irrigated rice by changing the management of plants, water and soils. Young seedlings are “transported” to preserve growth potential, and spaced out widely. Soil is kept moist but not flooded and is frequently aerated. Smallholder farmers in the Dominican Republic and Colombia have seen promising results. The first cycle used manual transplanting methods, but high labour costs are a significant barrier to successful implementation of SRI in the region.  The project has thus obtained transplanters, automatic seeders and trays, and motorized weeders from Asia and will be testing them during the second cultivation cycle.

The use of agricultural insurance as part of risk management strategies is also showing promise. Agricultural insurance premiums have grown rapidly in recent years, expanding more than fivefold over the past decade to reach USD 1.6 billion in 2015. Public-private partnerships are a popular model to increase the insurance coverage in smallholders.

To realize Latin America’s potential in becoming a global bread basket, the agricultural sector must become truly sustainably productive, recognizing also that countries in the region will move at different speeds and will respond differently to the different needs and stimuli. Four areas of action are envisioned central for this purpose.

1. Innovation

Today´s needs mean research and technology must reach a larger and more diverse group of farmers and actors. Therefore, innovation processes need to be driven from demand, with more inclusive approaches that require participation from these actors. Strengthening the national innovation systems and promoting healthier and more active national and international networks of innovation will be the key for a sustainable increase in productivity across the region.

2. Investments

We must increase investments in, and for, agriculture, from private and public sources. Increasing investments requires governments to recognize and support the critical role of agriculture for the economic development and stability of their countries and the implementation of clear rules of engagement, providing the needed security to reduce the risk for private investment

3. Institutions

Thirdly, the region must continue to strengthen and modernize its democratic institutions. Creating a strong institutional framework for agriculture requires a comprehensive policy environment. A recent document published by IICA signals the general trends in agricultural policies that are been currently implemented in major producing countries, that represent an opportunity for countries in Latin America to learn from.

4. Cooperation

Finally, strengthening traditional Inter-American cooperation mechanisms within the region will be of vital importance. With each passing day, and due in part to its own success, the region is being distanced from these traditional assistance mechanisms. Promoting science based decision processes and further South-South Cooperation under new paradigms of cooperation, respect and sovereignty should not be overlooked.

At the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA), we will continue to remain relevant, to spread, train and promote collaboration among policymakers, research institutions and the private sector to increase agricultural productivity and promote rural wellbeing, and help Latin American realise its true agricultural potential.

Farming First is the official media partner for the World Food Prize Foundation’s Borlaug Dialogue 2017. For more content from speakers and participants at the event, follow @FarmingFirst and sign up for our Daily Digest here

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