Written by on February 28, 2018

Rising hunger and out-of-control obesity. Degradation of natural resources. Persistent rural poverty and inequality. And climate change. These are the main enemies of food security in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Just a couple of years ago, the region was celebrating a historical achievement. In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recognized it as the only developing region to reach the hunger target of the Millennium Development Goals.

With twenty million people having overcome hunger in little over two decades, the region became a shining global example, the concrete proof that zero hunger was indeed possible.

But things have changed, quite dramatically, since then.

In 2017, FAO warned that hunger was once more on the rise in Latin America and the Caribbean. Between 2015 and 2016, hunger grew by almost two and a half million people to reach 42.5 million. It has not been that high since 2008.

By itself, this would be cause for great alarm. But, strange as it may seem, hunger is now coupled with an obesity epidemic affecting all countries and social sectors. If we also take into account the slowdown in rural poverty reduction and the undeniable impacts of climate change on agricultural systems and rural livelihoods, we are facing a perfect storm of food insecurity, a time of nutritional crisis for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The children of this region are the most overweight in the world; almost 4 million of them are overweight.  The situation for adults is even worse: a whopping 96 million people suffer obesity. That exceeds the total population of Colombia, Argentina and Costa Rica. Combined.

            With 20 % of rural inhabitants unable to buy a basic food basket, thousands of people are migrating to escape from poverty, armed conflict, organized crime or the consequences of extreme weather. Others migrate from land that can no longer produce food. In many Caribbean countries, they really have no place to go, as the whole area is being hit by devastating hurricanes of increasing intensity.

But while the challenges are many, Latin America and the Caribbean also has many unique traits. The region is extremely fertile and biodiverse, has more water than just about any other corner of the planet, and its vibrant agricultural sector is key to feeding the world. The region also has the policies and political agreements that were the backbone of the impressive social advances of the past two decades.

Those policies were not just efficient, they were inspiring. The programs and policies that supported the development of family farming, helped women become a key part of the rural workforce, fed millions of children through school feeding programs and improved access to nutrition for the most vulnerable were not mere hand-outs to the poor. On the contrary, they were at the heart of sustainable economic and social development, even before the 2030 Agenda.

Because if there is one thing that is unquestionable, is that we cannot move ahead while millions suffer hunger and poverty. Feeding them requires transforming our agri-food systems profoundly, to make them more efficient and competitive, more environmentally friendly and truly inclusive.

That is why FAO is calling on all countries to step up the fight against hunger, malnutrition, rural poverty and climate change in FAO’s Regional Conference, to be held in Jamaica from the 5th to the 8th of March.

This will be my last Regional Conference as FAO’s Director General. As such, I have a simple message for all who care about nutrition: the dream of a hunger-free Latin America and the Caribbean remains as important and true today as it was when I joined FAO, over a decade ago.

Even if the current outlook is dire, we must not despair, because it is only in times of crisis when societies and individuals show their true worth. Colombia brokering peace after decades of conflict. Brazil lifting millions from hunger and poverty. Costa Rica greening its whole economy. Mexico exporting its products to the most demanding markets. Barbados closing its ports to illegal fishing. These are but a few of the examples of what our societies have achieved.

FAO’s Conference is a unique opportunity for the region to push back against the rising tide of malnutrition. Our goal is zero hunger. And we will not take a single step back.

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