Return to the Countryside

October 16th is World Food Day and this year the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is emphasizing that the Sustainable Development Goals cannot be reached without achieving “Zero Hunger.”

By: Panorama of the Americas Editorial
Photos: Javier Pinzón

Three hours east of Panama City lies the indigenous community of Arimae, where inhabitants are investing in the cultivation of three traditional dietary staples: yams, bananas, and taro. 

The initiative is part of the Plan for the Integral Development of Indigenous Peoples created by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Under this plan, the Panamanian Ministry of Government consults with families on how to improve crops by using simple techniques that ensure healthier plants and greater production. The program, in which the Ministry of Agricultural Development also participates, is part of FAO’s strategy to ensure food security in places where studies indicate there is more poverty and, undoubtedly, more hunger: rural and indigenous communities, particularly among women and children. 

Tito Díaz, FAO’s sub-regional coordinator for Mesoamerica and its representative in Panama, says that food insecurity in Latin America is due not to poor production, but rather to limited availability and access: “When we look at Latin America as a whole, we see that many more foods are produced than would be needed to meet the population’s needs,” and yet there are 42 million undernourished people.

Why does this happen?

The issue of food security has four dimensions: availability, access, stability or permanent access, and the way nutrients are used. There are still 42 million people in Latin America who lack the income needed to acquire the minimum daily 2,600 calories. This explains why access to food is so closely related to poverty, and why unemployment is a critical issue; an unemployed person has no means of generating income and the first thing affected is diet.

Another key factor is food availability, which is affected by events such as droughts, floods, and violence. And, finally, some people consume enough food, but live in conditions where diseases develop and are therefore unable to take advantage of the nutrients. We’re also seeing that there may be hidden hunger, because certain micro vitamins or minerals are not ingested. There is an additional increase in the phenomenon of obesity and excess weight among poor populations, because it’s easier and cheaper to access foods rich in carbohydrates and sugars than higher quality foods. Once again, there is a relationship between income and food quality and nutrition, but also consumption and lifestyle.

Which countries in the region produce more food and which have higher levels of poverty and malnutrition?

No country is completely self-sufficient. There will always be a need to import. Most Latin American countries import the basic grains consumed by their population, as well as oils and meat products. 

Chronic child malnutrition is very high in countries such as Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, where malnutrition rates exceed 40%. And food insecurity and poverty indicators are higher in certain territories, especially in rural areas, and affect women, children, and indigenous peoples in particular. One FAO recommendation, therefore, is to strengthen public policies for rural and territorial development, and to take a new look at the countryside. These policies take into account family farming, which is very different from subsistence agriculture. The policies include technical assistance, extension services, and access to markets. 

Women are an extremely important factor in public policy issues in rural areas. Today in Latin America, women manage more than 50% of rural properties and many of them have no access to land titles or loans. Differentiated policies aimed at women have a very strong impact on food security, because mothers can greatly influence the consumption habits of children.

It is a bit contradictory to promote public policies for a return to the countryside while encouraging importation; this choice is framed by globalization and the idea that markets are self-regulating. How can we fight poverty and hunger in the countryside if the system makes decisions based on different foundations?

Panama is a high-middle-income country in which food insecurity should not be an issue, given its strong economy. But this strong economy has been due mainly to a very strong service sector, which includes the logistics and finance industries. 

We should perhaps give a higher priority to the agricultural sector and our natural resources, including soil-based production, water availability, and public policies that guide internal and external markets; we could use a policy of incentives for national production, and a policy that regulates, to some degree, the entry or import of food, to maintain a balance. It’s a matter of development planning and public policy because, as I said, no country is self-sufficient.

Do you think that countries in the region are creating public policies to this end?

We’ve seen how, in most of the countries with strong agricultural planning units that carry out prospective analyses –Colombia and Chile, for example– the risks of food insecurity are decreasing.

With regard to rural development and communities, what kind of projects is FAO supporting and what results are being achieved?

Panama has a food insecurity index of 9.5%; 400,000 people suffer from hunger. 

A large majority are indigenous peoples and rural communities, which is why we recommend a public policy specifically for these populations. Panama could quickly, before 2030, be free of hunger. 

Which technical assistance and support programs have had the greatest impact on this issue? 

There is a very strong emphasis on indigenous peoples because the indigenous communities and the government worked together to guide the framework of the Plan for the Integral Development of Indigenous Peoples. Certain components have to do with infrastructure, basic services, food security, and economic development. We are supporting the latter by restoring production systems. The production levels of indigenous peoples’ crops are very low, and this has to do with access to technology and certain practices.

We’re creating field schools where, with help from technical assistants, indigenous people are discovering for themselves the things that can help them improve production: access to seeds, sustainable practices, and nutritional information, so that they start to consume better quality food. Taro, for example, has a high nutritional value, and could benefit not only indigenous people but the rest of the population as well. 

All of this must be accompanied by education, because if the same indigenous communities achieve higher incomes but use it to buy soft drinks or processed foods, malnutrition and obesity will continue to exist. Education is a fundamental part of learning to acquire healthier foods.