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WORLD FOOD DAY-LATAM: Learning Lessons

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 15 2008 (IPS) - “We can’t wait for crises to happen to start guaranteeing the right to food. We have to act before a crisis hits,” José Graziano da Silva, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS.

“Reacting to a crisis is not enough,” da Silva declared on Tuesday Oct. 14 during a press conference with foreign correspondents at FAO headquarters in the Chilean capital.

“Today, for example, we need to prevent the impacts of food supply shortages, climate change and biofuel production on food security,” said the U.N. agency’s regional representative.

World Food Day will be celebrated on Thursday Oct. 16, but the region has little to celebrate in terms of hunger eradication, says the FAO.

From 1990 to 2005, the number of malnourished people in Latin America and the Caribbean had dropped from 53 million to 45 million; but the rise in food prices over the last two years brought that number back up to 51 million in 2007.

Several measures, including substitution of food imports and support for family agriculture through soft loans and technical assistance, were applied immediately at the national level, but have failed to reverse the upward trend.

The development of social protection networks, with conditioned income transfer mechanisms and day care and school meal programmes, were also insufficient to stem the swelling number of hunger-stricken people. Some countries even returned to growing traditional food crops, such as cassava in the case of Brazil and Ecuador.

“I don’t think we will succeed in lowering the current number of undernourished people in 2008,” Graziano da Silva said.

“We were hoping that with the good harvests of 2008 we would be able to get back on track in reducing the number of hungry people, but the uncertainty triggered by the unfolding financial crisis means that that is not going to happen anytime soon,” he explained.

According to FAO’s Crop Prospects and Food Situation report, world production is forecast to increase 4.9 percent this year with respect to 2007, reaching a record 2.2 billion tonnes.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, harvests are expected to yield 176.5 million tonnes, up 5.7 percent from last year’s levels.

South America alone will account for 135.9 million of those tonnes, while Central America and the Caribbean will provide the other 40.6 million tonnes.

“Today, good harvests won’t necessarily put us back on the path towards reducing the number of malnourished people, because there is a very high risk of an economic recession, especially in view of the region’s drop in exports. It will be very difficult to make any forecasts until we overcome the financial crisis,” da Silva added.

In da Silva’s view, the present crisis has had such an impact because of its extreme “volatility” and “enormous scale.”

“The countries were not used to such huge fluctuations, especially as we had been experiencing monetary and financial stability since the 1980s, with abundant and cheap credit,” he said.

In this sense, he said he “hopes the crisis won’t affect credit facilities for international trade, because these are essential for agricultural growth, particularly in Latin America. This region’s domestic growth is heavily dependant on the export sector.”

According to FAO, international commodity prices have already started to drop. Projections, however, indicate that in the next 10 years they will remain 10 to 60 percent higher than in the previous decade.

“Countries must guarantee food security. How? With laws, institutions and programmes that will implement what we already know how to do,” da Silva told IPS.

“We know how to grow food, we know how to improve child nutrition, we know how to make a good school meal, we know how to consume local products and we know how to organise free fairs that will guarantee easy access to good quality products,” he said.

“We’re not talking about manufacturing a high-end computer or an automobile powered by god knows what. We’re talking about very simple things, things that every country is capable of making,” he added.

“This is the lesson we can learn from these difficult times,” da Silva said.

“Sometimes we need to have a fire to realise how important it is to have firefighters and prevention systems. That’s where we are now,” he said.

The theme of this year’s World Food Day is: “World Food Security: The Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy”.

The FAO Regional Office will hold a high-level roundtable Thursday at its Santiago headquarters, with the participation of members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and will launch the Chefs Against Hunger recipe books.

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