Pandemic puts food policies center stage, strengthens Mercosur’s presence on the global scene
Buenos Aires, 18 March 2021 (IICA). The pandemic brought the issue of food policies to the forefront and reinforced Mercosur’s presence on the global stage, thus revealing the key role played by the body’s member countries in addressing the matter of global food security and nutrition, a point emphasized during deliberations at the seminar on Sustainable Agri-food Systems held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the South American trade bloc, currently chaired by Argentina.
The seminar brought together representatives and specialists from the trade bloc’s four plenary members - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay – and associate countries Chile, Mexico and Peru - to discuss the challenges and opportunities the pandemic poses in relation to food policies.
The two-day seminar created a space for participating countries to share their experiences, through discussions, in current developments and programs. Argentina’s Ministries of Social Development, Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Culture, and Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries organized the event in collaboration with the Mercosur Social Institute and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).
In speaking, Daniel Arroyo, Minister of Social Development, presented the core elements of the plan against hunger under way in Argentina.
In this regard, Minister Arroyo pointed to the launch of a food card targeting 6 million people and a non-bank credit facility designed to strengthen family farming and the social economy.
“The non-bank credit facilities are geared towards supporting the procurement of machinery, tools and supplies. We have already successfully reached 400,000 people, a considerable number of them being food producers, especially agroecologists who lack access to bank financing”, Arroyo explained.
The minister further mentioned the ongoing, country-wide process of decentralizing market concentration in order to increase the incidence of direct food supply from the producer to the consumer, thus cutting out the middleman. The minister went on to share that a registry of social economy workers has been created that formalizes vulnerable sectors, by facilitating access to a public bank account free of cost.
According to Arroyo, food production, recycling, construction, caregiving and the textile business are all “labor-intensive manual work that drive economic activity in the poorest sectors”.
Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Luis Basterra, drew attention to the challenges confronting food security and nutrition as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic: “Isolation has caused families to take stock of what they eat, how they eat and who produces the food. This has led to the formation of trade and family-farming networks that lie within close proximity and guaranteed the availability of food under the circumstances.”
“Nowadays, production is by no means a free-for-all activity,” Basterra continued. “In fact, in Argentina, we have created the first National Directorate for Agroecology. Also under way is the development of a framework for consumers to access vital information on food. In this regard, we are working with Mercosur to define a policy on food labeling.”
Secretary of International Economic Relations at the Argentine Foreign Ministry, Jorge Neme, pointed to the global changes caused by Covid-19 and its damaging impact in diminishing economic activity and job losses in Latin America and the Caribbean.
According to Neme, “Many of our countries were still recovering from previous crises when the pandemic hit. In this situation, hunger and malnutrition continue to be the main challenges we need to address. The problem has worsened since the appearance of Covid-19. Current estimates show that an additional 80 million to 130 million people worldwide will suffer from hunger and malnutrition”.
The official emphasized the need to strengthen trade multilateralism and environmental protection as key factors for food systems to function effectively. He further claimed that “success stories of sustainable agricultural and livestock ventures abound in our country and the region. These ventures use productive and technological capabilities that should be openly shared in solidarity with other regions”.
According to Mercosur Secretariat Director, Luiz Coelho Júnior, the issue of food and nutritional security has become increasingly front and center on the negotiation agenda, spanning the past 30 years of the Mercosur integration process. “Agriculture has contributed greatly to the development of our territories through the effective use of production and supply processes, job creation and involvement in sustainable development practices”.
“Having an institutional framework for negotiating environmental matters has opened the way to addressing agricultural production and its impact without losing sight of each country’s need, indeed the region’s need for economic development and job creation”, he added.
IICA Director General, Manuel Otero, highlighted the importance of the timing of the discussion, just months before the Heads of State Summit on Sustainable Food Systems convened by the United Nations Secretary-General. Otero congratulated the organizers of Mercosur’s 30th anniversary seminar for adding “agro” as a prefix to the concept of food systems.
“We at IICA hold fast to the belief that you cannot think of food production without thinking of agricultural production. There can be no food without agriculture,” Otero said.
Otero explained that the agri-food system is a complex, dynamic and comprehensive concept that refers to a set of production chains installed in a given territory (rural and urban), that operate thanks to the dynamics of social actors in a given national and international macroeconomic context. These production chains are supported by a set of natural resources and operate in tandem with consumer demands.
The IICA Director General called attention to the region’s importance on the global playing field of food security: “When we speak of Latin America and the Caribbean, we refer to the region that is the largest net food exporter in the world, accounting for 13.8% of international trade. We are certain this trend will continue to strengthen in the future, and as such we can be guarantors of global food and nutritional security and environmental sustainability”.
Otero pointed especially to the contribution of the entire Mercosur, accounting for $164 billion in annual exports of agri-food products, equivalent to 64.1% of Latin American and Caribbean sales, and 9.2% of global sales.
Looking more closely at agricultural activity and the rural characteristics of the continent, Otero underscored family farming as a driving force that is particularly important for the Mercosur countries. “Family farming accounts for 80% of all the production, jobs and food self-sufficiency of our population. We are trending towards the concept of business proximity, short food supply chains and agroecology. These concepts bring us much closer to the environment, eliminating the characteristic market sterility where everyone loses”, he said.
In closing, Otero affirmed “IICA’s availability as the voice of agriculture and rural life in the Americas”, recalling that on September 1-2 the Institute will convene its Hemispheric Conference of Ministers of Agriculture of the Americas where he hopes a unified position will be agreed upon that reflects “the heterogeneity of our agri-food systems and be a voice that clearly shares all it has to say to the world”.
IICA Institutional Communication Division.