The role of the Americas in tackling the global food crisis

Manuel Otero, Director General of the IICA (Photo via IICA)

Manuel Otero, Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA)

The world is in a state of unrest amidst a headlong collision of monumental crises, with no end in sight.

There has been a convergence of the worst factors possible: a pandemic, the disintegration of logistics chains, extreme droughts, overall climate vulnerability and a war between two leading players in agrifood and energy production and trade, thereby disrupting markets and destroying production infrastructure.

This situation may potentially cause other “black swans” of various types and levels of disruptiveness to go undetected and is creating uncertainty in the agrifood systems of the Americas – a region that is the world’s major net food exporter, cornerstone of global environmental sustainability and biodiversity, as well as a leading energy and mineral supplier at the global level.

The mounting tensions are destabilising the fragile balance of the planet’s food, nutritional and environmental security, undermining its foundation. Meanwhile, countries’ ongoing concern about another sensitive equation is also intensifying – how to supply their people with food at affordable prices, while also ensuring farmers a minimal level of profitability.

Latin America and the Caribbean is the major net food-exporting region of the world. If one includes North America, almost one third of the food produced and consumed on the planet originates in the Americas.

However, this birds’ eye view fails to reveal the contrasting realities of a heterogeneous region in which large exporters (primarily the MERCOSUR countries) co-exist with net food importers. The region has a relatively low value-added export basket and a low level of intra-regional trade (14%), in comparison to trade within North America (46%) and the European Union (65%).

Socially, the pandemic has set us back almost two decades. Poverty and extreme poverty have mushroomed, along with food insecurity, whereas projections of slow economic expansion are cause for concern, as we may possibly be facing another lost decade in terms of development.

The war is creating further pressure and is hitting specific exports from countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay, which have a significant amount of trade with the Russian market in items such as banana, beef and dairy products. The rise in the price of food commodities will be a hard blow for countries where malnutrition is prevalent, such as Haiti, the countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle, as well as Grenada, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and St. Lucia.

Rising energy prices are also having a multiplier effect on the costs of inputs, products and services throughout agrifood chains. Meanwhile, Russia and Belarus—traditional leading suppliers of nitrogen-, phosphorus- and potassium-based fertilisers—have now been hit by trade sanctions.

The concurrence of these crises will compel the region—as a mainstay of the planet’s food and nutritional security and a pillar of environmental sustainability and diversity—to focus efforts on vulnerable populations and to facilitate ongoing intraregional and international trade, as a matter of urgency, fostering a true partnership that promotes agricultural trade in Latin America and the Caribbean.

As such, countries will need to join forces and to strengthen sectoral policy coordination bodies, prioritising collective action for the benefit of all.

At the same time, to strategically address short- and medium-term needs, it is imperative that there be a major coordinated effort between science, technology and innovation, coupled with the corresponding public policy and investment framework, while setting ambitious and structured goals. Namely, our agrifood systems must make the most efficient use of natural resources, creating decent and socially inclusive employment and facilitating diets that are healthy and sustainable, from an environmental perspective.

The war has merely reaffirmed the fact that food security is one of the planet’s chief concerns and that the American region should reinforce its relevance and leading role as the guarantor of a healthy and abundant global food supply.

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