LAC Food Systems: Contextualizing Recent COP26 Talks

I. Introduction

In late October at COP26, the government of Honduras and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) jointly agreed to pursue financing for climate-smart investments in the Honduran agricultural sector (for more information, see Grant Whittington’s article, “COP26 Results in a New Opportunity for Smallholder Farmers in Central America.”) This comes in the wake of another year of climate shocks throughout the Dry Corridor of Central America — i.e. Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador — which has resulted in widespread crop failure and increased migrant flows from the region to Mexico and the United States.

This development reinforces the substantial need for financial investment throughout the agricultural sectors of the Latin American and Caribbean region (LAC). However, the question of how to ensure that further climate financing reaches LAC in time to mitigate catastrophic climate impacts remains unanswered. Moreover, as Leslie Hook and Joanna S. Kao emphasized in a recent Financial Times article, potential donors have reached little agreement on where investments should go or how their effectiveness should be measured. In part, this comes from a lack of awareness regarding the current state of LAC food systems. With an overview of current challenges — particularly the impact of COVID-19 and heightened vulnerability of women and indigenous communities — this report aims to discuss the high-level, heavily bureaucratic COP26 talks in greater context.

II. LAC Food System Functionality/Limitations

LAC is the world’s largest net food exporter. Its food systems not only help to stabilize international food prices but also aim to support a fast-growing global population. As a result, disruptions to the agricultural sector can easily become global in impact. As noted by Michael Morris in Future Foodscapes: Reimagining Agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean, committed adherence to development objectives, distribution goals, and ecosystem preservation is challenged by systemic and environmental factors. Set against the scale of potential productivity, the region’s predicted population growth in the coming decades, and the threat of global food insecurity, this seriously impacts LAC’s performance and adaptability. Consequently, the future of LAC, the populations it supports, and agro-economy it sustains, is dependent on the ways in which its food systems adapt, evolve, and adopt resiliency measures in coming years. 

III. Impact of COVID-19

For the most part, food availability in the long-term remains uncertain for both urban and rural areas. Food systems in LAC increasingly operate through a reliance on shorter food networks and supply chains. COVID-19-induced restrictions on the movement of people and goods — including curfews, border closures, and lockdowns to contain virus transmission — severely affected food distribution,. This in turn, has created price distortions. Fruit and vegetable prices are rising, but the direct return to farmers is decreasing. While practical and policy adjustments have been made to adapt food production operations to current COVID-19 guidance and protocols, those in registered employment are the primary beneficiaries.

Those who work in the informal sectors of food systems, such as vendors in traditional markets and independent transportation workers, are more vulnerable, yet significantly less protected. Additionally, many small- and medium-scale farmers could not sell to big markets for the majority of the pandemic. They were reluctant to increase their exposure to COVID-19 through traveling from rural areas to the cities and back again. The gaps between formal and informal networks must be closed and protection systems adapted to meet the needs of informal producers and transportation workers. For rural women, who make up a significant majority of informal producers and whose care burdens have been amplified as access to social services and markets has decreased, this is particularly vital.

IV. Recommendations Post-COVID-19:

A. Identifying Trends and Drivers to Structure Food System Transformation

A report on LAC’s food systems co-authored by Michael Morris, Ashwini Rekha Sebastian, and Viviana Maria Eugenia Perego of the World Bank identifies a series of drivers that have the potential to affect the future of food systems in the region. Trends – one of the two categories of drivers – include long-term forces like population growth, income growth, and urbanization. Disruptors, the other of the two categories, include sudden forces like extreme weather events, global disease pandemics like COVID-19, technological developments, and destabilizing political, social, or economic events. By studying trends and associated patterns, policymakers, farmers, economists, and scientists can structure food system trajectories that enable the greatest degree of meaningful transformation. Of course, as COVID-19 has shown, disruptors are almost impossible to predict, but strategic reactive measures must be planned to increase resiliency in the future, especially amidst a worsening climate crisis.

B. Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge

Indigenous communities have long lived in harmony with the environments they inhabit. They do not view themselves as separate from nature but intrinsically and instinctively connected to it. This understanding, and the resulting attitude of respect, has enabled a profound ability to conserve land, resources, and biodiversity. It also enables a recognition that the environment represents a kind of future for their descendants and other living beings and nonhuman entities. Such has resulted in a view of food as a process rather than a product, which underpins the function of food systems.

Given limited market access resulting, regional and national LAC food systems have started looking “inward” to discern which foods might be more readily available and reliable than cash crops. A renewed commitment to utilizing local foods and the traditional knowledge associated with production, preparation, and consumption has been observed by Stef de Haan, an Agri-food Systems Senior Scientist at the International Potato Center (CIP) headquarters in Lima, Peru, and Israel Navarrete, a junior research assistant based in Quito, Ecuador. In an interview with CIP, de Haan advised that focus on strengthening seed systems and providing quality materials for farmers should be prioritized in the long term in LAC. Immediate relief provisions like food and cash assistance will not remain a sustainable measure to strengthen food systems.

C. Empowering Women

Though the disruptions and losses it has caused have been vast, COVID-19 also presents a unique opportunity for transforming gender dynamics. The role of gender as an accelerator or inhibitor of food system innovations is undeniable. One strategy to bolster the potential of food systems on a going forward basis is to invest in rural women and permit them the space to empower themselves and their families on their own terms. 

This can be achieved through gender analysis, a framework which first examines gender-based differences with a specific focus on underlying causes and resulting social and economic inequalities. Then, this understanding is applied to development project policy and implementation. Undertaking this analysis improves a particular project’s potential for success, aims to increase gender equity, and treats food systems, diets, and nutrition as interrelated issues. To ensure women’s interests are sincerely represented in food systems, it is vital to identify region-specific gender relations and gender-based constraints, assess their consequences, and act to remove these consequences through coordinated empowerment efforts. This can be sought through improved literacy and market-specific education for women.

Projects that take into consideration barriers like time usage, weaker control over earnings, and patterns of isolation while also providing increased access to social services will prove particularly valuable. For a project to reach its full potential, women of the community must participate in project design and be included in the project’s comprehensive needs assessment. It is important to maintain awareness that gender analysis is sometimes conducted to a limited extent. These limitations occur because those analyzing the issues in a particular area and seeking to implement certain kinds of change are often outsiders who lack a complex understanding of present social and cultural dynamics. However, gender analysis will prove key in coordinating programs and other opportunities for women as LAC begins the transition to a post-pandemic reality.

V. Conclusion

If nothing else, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 demonstrate the interconnectedness of this planet, an ecological reality often overlooked in favor of a view of humanity and nature as separate. Yet, LAC possesses significant endowments of unexploited arable land that has the potential to be sustainably developed and, in the process, disrupt this viewpoint. The existence of these resources, and the future they could create, carries a great responsibility. Further expansion into the agricultural frontier must be led by coordinated, informed action to create lasting and sustainable food systems that reap indiscriminate benefits for not only the populations of LAC but also the environment and all it supports.

In the post-COVID-19 transition, people, systems, policies, and institutions will need to acknowledge the past and present of food production functionality in order to reframe and effectively create more inclusive and equitable food systems. While this process takes place, vulnerabilities and fragilities are addressed, and food system resilience is strengthened against shocks. This report has emphasized that it is incredibly important to include the needs and bolster the participation of women and indigenous communities.



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