Latin America and global food security: Helping the whole world learn to fish

Agricultural - Natural Resource Economics
Environmental Economics


In the global debate about food security, two key issues concerning Latin America are often overlooked: first, the continued vulnerability of some parts of the region to food and nutrition insecurity and, second, the enormous potential of the region as a whole to provide global solutions.

Now, two organizations that are especially well placed to expound on these issues have done so – comprehensively and compellingly – in a new publication titled The Next Global Breadbasket: How Latin America Can Feed the World, which was prepared by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in partnership with the Global Harvest Initiative.

CIAT is happy to have participated in the publication’s steering and technical committees, and is delighted with the end result. We also feelproud to have helped create many of the scientific innovations that are putting this region’s farming on a clear path to sustainable development and climate resilience. We endorse the publication’s recommendations, particularly the first set dealing with public and private sector investment in agricultural science.

If investors in research for development heed this excellent advice, I have no doubt that in the coming years Latin America will realize its destiny “as the world’s breadbasket” – the vision that IDB president Luis Alberto Moreno describes in the report’s opening message and for which subsequent sections provide a detailed blueprint.

But I also believe in a broader vision of this region’s contribution to global food security, which is perhaps best captured by the old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Yes, Latin America can help feed the world by expanding its food exports. At the same time, though, it can help the world learn to feed itself by accelerating technological exchange with other regions for mutual benefit. This is the vision to which the CIAT, has devoted much of its effort over nearly 5 decades, generating significant improvement in rural livelihoods across the tropics. 

Improved beans developed in Latin America, for example – in addition to being grown on 50% of this region’s total bean area – have contributed vitally to the development of new varieties for sub-Saharan Africa, where they have been taken up by more than 5 million rural households, greatly strengthening local food security. In Rwanda alone, according to a recent study, the improved beans have banished chronic hunger from the lives of a half million people.

Similarly, improved cassava from Latin America has helped create a cassava boom in Southeast Asia, which has transformed the root from a secondary food crop into a preferred raw material for the starch industry. Smallholder production of the new varieties, in the words of a new study, has had “substantial impact on poverty alleviation.” Latin America’s own cassava sector as well as Africa’s are learning from the Asian model of cassava development.

This and many other examples demonstrate the value of South-South technology exchange and underline the important facilitating role that international centers play through training and collaborative research across continents. In the face of expanding global challenges, such as rapidly increasing food demand and climate change, it is urgent that we intensify such exchanges. The potential to reap further gains is enormous, and many of the best opportunities to do so are mentioned in The Next Global Food Basket.

Take, for example, the task of “closing yield gaps,” described on page 13. CIAT’s experience suggests that in this respect Latin America has much to offer and much to gain from other regions. In southern Brazil, an innovative agricultural extension approach for improving rice crop management narrowed the yield gap statewide in Rio Grande do Sul by 1 ton per hectare in just 4 years. At previous rates of growth, it would have taken 40 years to achieve an increase of this magnitude.

Meanwhile, several countries of eastern and southern Africa have moved to the forefront of research aimed at improving soil and crop management through site-specific recommendations developed with the aid of digital soil maps and associated databases. Through a CIAT-coordinated initiative, researchers in Latin America are now using such knowledge to create a state-of-the-art soil information system for their region.

The new CGIAR research programs provide a strong framework for sharing lessons learned from experiences like these across regions. The program on Water, Landscapes and Ecosystems (WLE), for example, facilitates joint learning about new schemes aimed at providing rural people with stronger incentives to enhance vital ecosystem services.

Latin America is a major global provider of such services, and they have a direct bearing on food security, rural livelihoods, and economic development. Within the framework of WLE, CIAT researchers are supporting the development of innovative schemes to preserve water flows in the Andean Region as well as eastern and southern Africa.

Similarly, the Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), which CIAT leads, organized an exchange visit to Senegal in 2013 for a delegation from Latin America interested in the country’s pioneering experience with the dissemination of climate forecasts to farmers. Recently, a delegation of about 20 research and political leaders from Senegal visited Colombia to learn about what this country is doing to make its crops, value chains, and production systems climate smart.

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