LATIN AMERICA and the Caribbean face significant food security challenges. The economic slowdown, the climate crisis, the covid19 pandemic and the recent conflict in Ukraine have had profound effects on agrifood systems and food security.
In 2022, the highest levels of international food prices were recorded and the world is currently facing a price inflationary cycle that mainly affects the most vulnerable populations who spend a higher proportion of their income on food.
The Overview of Food Security and Nutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2022, published by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and other UN agencies last week, sheds light on an additional issue linked to the lack of access to food for millions of families in the world and in our region in particular. This issue relates to the cost of a healthy diet.
Studies have shown that our region has a higher cost for a healthy diet than other regions of the world, with populations in some of our countries spending more than 50 per cent of their daily income on food. This situation has rolled back decades of advancement made in food and nutrition security and increases income inequality in our region.
The high cost of a healthy diet reaches US$3.89 per day per person in the region, while the world average is US$3.54. Most of the people affected by hunger in the Caribbean are in Haiti. In the period between 2019 and 2021, nearly half its population (47.2 per cent) – around 5.4 million people – were undernourished. By comparison, the prevalence of undernourishment on the other end of the spectrum was around seven per cent in Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The report shows how rising international food prices and inflation affect economic access to nutritious food, especially for the poorest. This is because they spend a higher proportion of their income on food compared to those with more resources, deteriorating food security. In addition, the report concludes that there is a link between the lack of economic access or affordability of a healthy diet with the levels of poverty, income inequality and economic growth of the countries, as well as with the levels of hunger and other forms of malnutrition.
The Caribbean was the subregion most affected by food insecurity during 2019-2021. In Haiti, the majority of the population (82.5 per cent) suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2019-2021 (three-year averaged estimate). Over the same period in Jamaica, half the population was affected (50.3 per cent), and in TT 43.3 per cent. In St Vincent and the Grenadines and Barbados, more than 30 per cent of the population experienced moderate or severe food insecurity. St Kitts and Nevis and Grenada showed a prevalence higher than 20 per cent.
Stunting, the condition of having a low height for one’s age, is a marker for several impacts of undernutrition and is caused by a combination of nutritional and other factors that simultaneously undermine the physical and cognitive development of children and increases their risk of dying from common infections. Stunting and other forms of undernutrition early in life may also predispose children to become overweight and to develop non-communicable diseases (NCDs) later in life.
The countries where the prevalence of stunting increased between 2000 and 2020 are TT (+47 per cent), Costa Rica (+15 per cent), and Jamaica (+12 per cent).
Child wasting is a life-threatening condition caused by insufficient energy and nutrient intake, poor energy and nutrient absorption, and/or frequent or prolonged illness. Wasting is one of the most critical forms of malnutrition in early childhood, as it is associated with a high risk of mortality if cases are not identified and treated properly in a timely fashion. The countries with wasting levels above three per cent are Barbados (6.8 per cent), TT (6.4 per cent), Guyana (6.4 per cent), Suriname (5.5 per cent), Venezuela (4.1 per cent) and Ecuador (3.7 per cent).
Child overweight is defined as high weight for height in children under five years of age. Obesity is the severe form of overweight. Overweight and obesity face both immediate and potentially long-term health impacts. Immediate impacts include respiratory difficulties, increased risk of fractures, hypertension, early markers of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and psychological effects. Argentina, Barbados, Cuba, Panama, TT and Uruguay show the highest prevalence in the region (over ten per cent).
The UN report proposes co-ordinated actions starting from the production of healthy food to marketing, to support for healthy food consumption, including fruits and vegetables. Other actions include strengthening information on products, market prices and trade to increase the supply of nutritious foods and enhance their marketing, and reinforce the delivery of food or transfer programmes (in cash or in kind) with food and nutrition education.
As such, in TT the FAO has partnered with the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries to introduce several programmes aimed at increasing yields, helping farmers tackle the challenges associated with climate change, and embracing new technologies in their farming systems.
These programmes include the resilient school feeding programme and the resilient aquaculture programme, in partnership with the government of Mexico and Caricom, which is encouraging farmers and students to grow their own food, and providing them with the latest technologies and technical know-how to do so. The introduction of innovation and technology in vegetable production under bamboo shadehouses and banana commercialisation in Tobago with financing from CAF – development bank of Latin America – are some of the agri-food system transformation initiatives that are ongoing.
Farmers have also benefitted from workshops in minimising post-harvest loss and the value of data collection in their field. Farmers have already started adopting this new knowledge in order to meet challenges such as soil and water quality and a changing climate.
These efforts are expected to bring down the cost of a healthy diet.
The higher cost levels of a healthy diet depend on a series of causes associated with agrifood systems. One of the determinants could be related to the subregional and national production levels of the foods that make up this type of diet. For example, subregions or countries with higher fruit and vegetable production levels tend to have lower local prices for these foods.
The covid19 pandemic has highlighted how disruptions in value chains can drive up food prices in import-dependent countries, increasing the cost of a healthy diet and further reducing the percentage of the population that can afford this cost.
In this regard, work began in the Caribbean countries on a project to understand these structures and support countries in implementing policies to reduce the cost of a healthy diet in line with the goal of Caricom countries to reduce imports by 25 per cent by 2025 based on the three years 2018-2020.
Reuben Robertson is the FAO Representative in Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname