Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

What World Food Day Means for the Americas

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Since 1979, World Food Day has been held every October 16, the day that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was founded in 1945. Around the world, events and conferences this week will seek to draw international attention to ways that agricultural development can ease world hunger and malnutrition.

Approximately 1 billion people worldwide do not have enough to eat, in part because the price of staple foods has continued to surge since 2005. According to the World Bank study High Food Prices: Latin America and the Caribbean Responses to the New Normal, food prices have increased more than 43 percent since June 2010. Numerous factors—including drought, high energy and transport costs, speculation in commodity markets, and decisions to replace food crops with biofuels—have driven the surge in food prices.

Many countries in Latin America are major food producers (and exporters), and are thus better positioned to mitigate the rising prices that impact their own populations, as well as those in other regions of the world. However, Latin America’s status as a net food exporter does not mean that access to safe and nutritious food is readily available for all, due to vast disparities in wealth and access to land and water. Recently, the growth of large-scale agribusiness in Latin America has come into violent conflict with policies of environmental sustainability and issues of local and national sovereignty, and the political fallout has been tremendous.

The murder of 11 farm workers and six police officers in a land dispute in Paraguay this June led to the eventual impeachment of former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, with consequences that have reverberated throughout the hemisphere. Meanwhile, the land conflict has not gone away—the war brewing between landless carperos (“tent people”) and wealthy Brazilian landowners living in eastern Paraguay, as well as local Indigenous tribes like the Ache Guayaki Indians, suggests that more violence looms on the horizon.

In Honduras, over 60 people have been killed in land disputes over the past three years in the Bajo Aguán Valley, where landless peasant activists have clashed with private landowners over rights to the property on which small-scale farmers once lived. Now, small-scale farmers are banding together and forming cooperatives on former palm plantations, and planning to slowly purchase the land back from the government.

In light of the growing tension in the hemisphere over land rights—and by extension, food security— it seems particularly timely that the FAO has declared 2012 “International Year of Cooperatives” and has established agricultural cooperatives as the theme for this year’s World Food Day. According to the FAO, cooperatives allow small farmers to work together to navigate price fluctuations and other crises and take advantage of market opportunities.

“It has been said repeatedly that we have the means to eliminate hunger and malnutrition,” writes José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the FAO, in his message for World Food Day 2012. “What is needed is the establishment of an enabling environment that allows small producers to take full advantage of available opportunities. Strong cooperatives and producer organizations are an essential part of that enabling environment.”

Rather than simply treating hunger eradication as a scientific solution transported into the developing world from wealthy nations, government, global aid organizations and NGOs are now emphasizing the importance of forming partnerships with civil society to eradicate global hunger—and the underlying importance of listening to what they need.

Late last month, InterAction, an alliance of 198 U.S.-based NGOs, pledged to spend over $1 billion in private funds on agriculture, food and nutrition programs over the next three years. InterAction’s announcement came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promoted the work of Feed the Future, a $3.5 billion U.S. government initiative launched in 2009 to increase agricultural productivity, connect farmers to markets, update farming technologies, and promote nutrition in collaboration with partner governments, civil society organizations and the private sector.

Seated next to Clinton at the Feed the Future event, President of Malawi Joyce Banda proffered advice to an audience full of NGO employees when asked what Americans could learn from African civil society.

“Listen,” she answered, to the audience’s applause. “I’ve always said that we know exactly what we want to do.”

Tags: FAO, Food and Agriculture Organization, Food Security
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