“If we don’t find a way for farmers to link successfully to markets, to receive fair prices, to have secure transactions, then whatever we do to increase production is not going to really solve the problem.”
Though Latin America has some of the world’s major agricultural producers, it’s also a vulnerable region in terms of food security. How can technology, public-private partnerships, and small farmers change the ways countries produce and sell food? Dr. Miguel García Winder, the director of agribusiness and trade at the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), explained his views in an interview with AS/COA Online’s Rachel Glickhouse. IICA leads hemispheric initiatives on agricultural development and food security, and forms part of the Organization of American States’ Inter-American System. In his work, García focuses on agribusiness development for small and medium producers, as well as food security in rural areas.
Miguel García discussed the risks and possible solutions for improving food security in Latin America, but warned that because of vast differences within the region, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
Q&A with IICA’s Miguel García on food security
AS/COA Online: What is the top threat to food security in Latin America?
Miguel García: I think food security is a very complex subject. On one hand, we have to think about agricultural productivity. If we don’t do something to keep agricultural productivity going, then there’s a big risk that people won’t have enough food to eat.
But the other threat has to do with social inequalities. Our region is one of the most unequal regions in the world, so poverty is another big threat. If we are not able to close the gap between the richest and the poorest—and I don’t mean by giving things away, but through sound economic policies and social programs—I think food security for at least part of the population will never be achieved.
Nowadays everybody’s convinced that we are facing changes in the weather patterns. I think these changes are going to force us to find ways to produce new products. If we do not address the issue of climate change and how to adapt not only our agricultural but also our business activities, it will be a threat.
Finally, one important threat is the lack of natural resources and biodiversity. Biodiversity, the viability of water, and the amount of soil to produce foods are decreasing every day. So putting these factors together, we see problems with the environment, the socioeconomic structure of countries, and issues with agricultural productivity. I think we need to look at this problem in a very integral manner, where all of us have a small but very important role to play.
AS/COA Online: According to the Inter-American Development Bank, agricultural production in Latin America must grow by 80 percent by 2050 to meet increased demand in the region. What are some of the challenges to expanding agricultural production in the region?
Miguel García: I think the numbers vary from study to study, but the fact is that we probably need to increase agricultural production substantially. And we also need to increase agricultural productivity. That means that we need to increase the output per unit that we produce.
But in order to understand the region, I think we need to understand that Latin America is diverse and heterogeneous. For example, if we look at the southern region—Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia—those countries have huge potential to become major suppliers of food, not only for the region but for the world. They still have land expansion potential, but they have to address issues like quality and transportation. So these countries are facing some problems with natural resources, but they can grow.
When you look at medium-sized countries, like in Central America and some of the Andean countries, the problem is different. During the last 15 or 20 years, these economies have been producing high-value products for export, and to some extent they have not paid a lot of attention to staple production, which is done mainly by small farmers. So it’s a different challenge: How do we bring more farmers normally producing on a limited amount of land into the value chain? How do they improve productivity and get better prices for their products, which are normally corn, rice and beans?
Then you have a challenge that is particular to Mexico. Mexico is going to be one of the 10 economic powers in the next 20 years, but there is a high degree of poverty. The population has surpassed 110 million, and we have an imbalance between agriculture, social welfare and population growth. How do we manage to increase productivity? How do we transform some of the land into more productive areas, but reduce poverty levels?
Finally, you have the islands in the Caribbean. By definition, these are net-food-importer countries. There are problems with water, land and property rights. So I think it’s important that people recognize that Latin America cannot be solved like a square piece of paper; each country and policy is specific.