Crisis alimentaria en LA?

Will Latin America face a food crisis in the future?


To learn more, download our free publication Food Security in Latin America and the Caribbean.


It’s often said that Latin America is the world's breadbasket. Brazil is the world’s leading producer and exporter of coffee, Uruguay has more cattle than citizens, while Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico are major growers of all types of grains. Not to mention Chilean fruit, Peruvian anchovy or Ecuadorian bananas, which topped 6 million tons in 2017.

However, there are still 42.5 million undernourished people in Latin America and the Caribbean. Moreover, malnutrition hovers above 10% in countries like Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela. This is paradoxical, given that Latin America and the Caribbean was the only region in the world to reduce hunger by half between 1990 and 2015, exceeding that specific UN Millennium Development Goal.

But one thing is to reduce hunger, another is how and with what foods. On average, Latin American consumers pay 11% more than they should for agricultural food products; and while caloric intake has increased by 27% since the 1960s, it has not always translated into nutritional improvements.

Why does this happen? Basically because food security is not considered  as a multidimensional issue that must be addressed not only from the amount of food produced but also in terms of access, quality and food stability over time.

"It is true that in the region the picture has improved a lot, compared to other parts of the world," says Lina Salazar, a senior specialist with the IDB Environment, Rural Development and Disaster Risk Management Division and co-author of Food Security in Latin America, a study published in July 2019. “However, if we look at each of the dimensions of food security, that's where we begin to see differences. In addition, there’s stark contrasts between countries, as well as within each country.”.

In the report, the concept of food security is defined by four dimensions. First is availability, which refers to the supply of food locally or internationally. Next comes access, which explores the amount of resources households have to acquire an appropriate amount of food. Third is use, which refers to the quality of food required to have adequate nutrition. Finally, stability, defined as the ability to have constant access to quality food sources. These four dimensions encompass not only the supply of food but also the demand and quality.

Availability: more than enough

Fortunately, Latin America and the Caribbean has advantages in this area. Food availability  is more than sufficient  to ensure an adequate amount of calories for the population, with a self-sufficiency rate of 117%. The only country in the region with a rate below 100% is Haiti, with 95%.

The increase in agricultural output, as well as trade between countries in the region, has made it possible to sustain food availability, especially in relation to grains, meats, fruits and vegetables. However, some challenges remain, such as promoting agricultural practices that do not deplete natural resources, reducing food losses, and revisiting the high import barriers that could affect food availability, especially for the most vulnerable populations.


Access: the income problem

If Latin Americans pay 11% more for their food than the average global citizen, what happens when poverty rates increase in the region? Access to food ends up being even more difficult.

Rising poverty rates could be affecting how we access food: between 2014 and 2016 more than 9 million Latin Americans fell into poverty, which means more people now have fewer resources to buy and access food. This is worrisome, since people in this region spend between 20% and 59% of their income on food — a very high proportion compared to consumers in the United States and Canada, who spend less than 10% of their budget on food.

Access to food is therefore an important problem in a region where food  availability is not the main obstacle to food security. Today, Latin America and the Caribbean has a deficit of 78 kilocalories per capita per day even though it is a world leader in food production.


How well are we feeding ourselves?

Malnutrition, deficits of micronutrients such as vitamin C, iron or zinc, and a high rate of obesity are the biggest challenge facing the region in terms of  food. Besides adding to the burden of chronic diseases and healthcare costs, this triad reflects that the foods we eat are not always the best.

Child malnutrition remains an obstacle to the cognitive and physical development of children and adolescents. This is an especially severe problem in parts of Mesoamerica and the Andean countries, notably in Guatemala (46.5%), Ecuador (25%), Honduras (22.7%) and Haiti (22%).

At one end of the scales is the increase in obesity. In fact, more than 50% of the region’s population is overweight (approximately 360 million people). Some of the most alarming cases are the Bahamas (69%), Mexico (64%), and Chile (63%).

“Obesity is not an exclusive issue of high-income countries; we also see the same problem in low-income nations,” says Lina Salazar. “For example, food labeling laws are an effective mechanism against this problem. And it is not only effective, but it is also a necessary intervention from a moral point of view because the population has a right to know what they are consuming.”

To reverse this trend, it is very important that governments encourage the diversification of agricultural production, promote nutrition education among children and adolescents, establish food labeling laws, and design agricultural interventions that have nutrition as a focus, beyond simply seeking to boost productivity.


Stability: the threats of climate change

We know that there is enough food in Latin America and the Caribbean. But is it sustainable over time? It is essential that we ensure a stable flow of food production for everyone, but always in a sustainable manner. However, the twin threats of climate change and natural disasters show that, in a not-so-distant future, we could see our food security affected through a decrease in soil yield, changes in crop patterns due to temperature variations, increased presence of pests, and disruptions in trade and food transport, among other negative factors.

These threats tend to mainly affect the most vulnerable populations, who do not have the means to deal with unexpected shocks, and are therefore more likely to fall into a situation of food insecurity. That is why we must invest in climate-smart agriculture interventions, promote the adoption of technologies that allow adaptation to climate change, and improve agricultural research to develop varieties resistant to climate change, among other actions.

"With this publication we are trying to change the paradigm that food security is always produce, produce, produce," says Salazar. “We also have to focus on demand and go beyond supply, beyond food availability. Not just to focus on producing by producing, but also producing quality food that is affordable for the population and respectful of the environment.”

To learn more, download our free publication Food Security in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Improving Lives