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Mercosur’s agri-food systems are strong, but in need of transformation to be sustainable

The Minister of Foreign Relations, Felipe Solá, formerly the Secretary of Agriculture believes the two most pressing global debates today are how to eradicate poverty and hunger, which are also the top Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the United Nations. According to Solá however, these issues are really more a question of demand rather than food supply.

Buenos Aires, 19 March 2021 (IICA) The Covid-19 pandemic has proven the strength of Mercosur’s agri-food systems, but the systems will nevertheless undergo a series of transformations to guarantee their sustainability and resilience going forward. This is one of the items for which there was consensus on the closing day of the seminar “Sustainable Agri-food Systems”, organized to mark the 30th anniversary of the South American trade bloc currently chaired by Argentina.

The virtual meeting served as a space for the countries in attendance—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Peru and Mexico— to exchange ideas and share experiences, and was organized by the ministries of Social Development, Foreign Relations, International Trade and Culture, and Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries of Argentina, in collaboration with the Mercosur Social Institute and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).

“Though we are not problem-free, our region has a lot to offer in the way of experience, technologies and the development of secure, sustainable food systems. We make every effort to ensure that our agricultural practices translate into increased value-added products with high market value”, said Argentina’s Foreign Affairs minister, Felipe Solá.   

The Minister of Foreign Relations, formerly the Secretary of Agriculture, believes the two most pressing global debates today are how to eradicate poverty and hunger, which are also the top Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by the United Nations. According to Solá however, these issues are really more a question of demand rather than food supply.

“During the pandemic, consumers retreated socially while agricultural, livestock and fishery activities maintained the same levels of production,” the minister said. “We already had too many poor people prior to the pandemic, but today we have even more. The main problem at hand is the ability to sustain people more so than agricultural or fishery systems. We do need to be more sustainable in our agricultural practices but doing so does not guarantee the food will reach the people who need to receive it at a reasonable price”.

Vanesa Wainstein, special advisor for International Affairs at Argentina’s Ministry of Social Development, warned that “the pandemic has had strong repercussions throughout Latin America and Mercosur in particular. We need to create new agendas and revisit the frameworks for regional cooperation and integration. There is consensus among the region’s countries that we need to push for sustainable social policies that can guarantee food security and sovereignty”. 

Caio Rocha, IICA Representative in Argentina, pointed out that when speaking of sustainable agri-food systems, it refers not only to agricultural production processes, but also to the factors that enable healthy products to reach the hands of consumers, such as distribution, transportation, storage and trade.

According to Rocha, “Post-Covid economic recovery will afford us an opportunity to change agri-food systems in order to eradicate hunger and transform our planet into a more sustainable one. To achieve this, we cannot approach food systems without first thinking about agricultural producers. Agriculture is part of the solution, not part of the problem, but it must be based on the fundamental ingredients for creating public policy, which are science and technology”.  

Country experiences

Laura Alonso, Secretary for Inclusion at Argentina’s Ministry of Social Development, believes “the food sovereignty and food security agenda is integral to each of our countries’ development agenda.  It has to do with the ability to reverse the models of exclusion and concentration of wealth that have been exposed by the pandemic’s tragic occurrence and these issues must be brought to the table for discussion. In Argentina and other regional countries, the face of poverty is reflected in our women and youth”.

Viviane Dutra, Director of the Department for the Structuring of Public Facilities at the Ministry of Citizenship, described Brazil’s domestic food and nutrition policy.

“The aim is to minimize situations of social vulnerability. One of the most pertinent programs we have is access to potable water for human consumption and production. We provide low-income rural families affected by drought or lack of regular access to water with rainwater catchment in the form of low-cost tanks. The challenges are ongoing because hunger and poverty are structural problems requiring long-term measures”, explained Dutra.

Nuri Gras Rebolledo recounted the work of the Chilean Agency for Food Safety and Quality and spoke of the importance of the country’s food labeling laws geared toward protecting citizens’ health: “Five out of every ten children in Chile are overweight. The labeling law passed in 2012 includes several aspects related to this issue, since it prohibits advertisers from targeting children under 14, and the sale of unhealthy food in schools”.

Teresa García Plata gave a detailed account of Mexico Food Bank’s work. “Food banks,” she said, “have existed around the world for some 50 years. Why? Because even though there is sufficient food for everyone, food insecurity still poses a problem. One third of the world’s food is wasted while 800 million people suffer from hunger or malnutrition”. 

According to García Plata, in addition to socio-economic consequences, food waste also impacts the environment, causing the greenhouse gas effect; food waste generates a water footprint and also results in a change in land use. To combat this, civil society organizations in the form of food banks recover surplus from the food industry for the purpose of distribution to people suffering from food insecurity.

García Plata acknowledged IICA’s valuable support to the Mexico Food Bank through a project targeting the Quintana Roo state: “We were able to deliver over 30,000 kilos of nutritious food to approximately 29,600 people. It serves as an excellent example for organizations thinking of partnering with food banks”.  

Antoliano Cohene, Director of the Paraguay Tekoporá Food Security Program, shared how this program targets poor, vulnerable families. According to Cohene, “One of our main goals is to provide families with a variety of nutritious food, and we do this by working through soup kitchens”. Furthermore, he said the State transfers money directly to beneficiaries, in addition to providing family outreach. “Agriculture brings hope, and the harvest of that hope is the future”, he summarized.

Fredy Hinojosa described Peru’s “Qali Warma” Social School-Feeding Program. “Children cannot study when they’re hungry. Wherever there’s a school in Peru, the State is present to supplement education with nutrition”, Hinojosa said. According to this official, civil society collaborates closely with the program and local government to ensure each child gets the appropriate proteins, nutrients and energy for his age.

In the last example, Ignacio Elgue del Campo, Director of Uruguay’s National Food Institute, explained the country approved a legal framework in 2014 that provides preferential treatment to family farmers and traditional anglers in government purchases. In his opinion, “This strengthens the sustainable development agenda and encourages short-circuit production”. María Rosa Curutchet, an official at the Institute, added that, “the law facilitates producer access to the government market, and this is particularly important under the current circumstances of the pandemic since the arrangement makes it possible to provide the population with healthy, fresh, minimally processed food”.

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Institutional Communication Division