Visions of a sustainable food future

Carolina Navarrete, Coordinator, Latin America and the Caribbean


“Latin America and the Caribbean really can become the precedent for inclusive, agricultural development and sustainable food systems that can both inform and inspire the rest of the world”

Latin America and the Caribbean: lessons in sustainability

A lot of people probably don’t realize it, but in some respects Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is already in the future. It’s one of the most urbanized regions in the world and by 2050 the United Nations predicts that more than 90% of its population will live in cities.

This rural-urban shift has already reshaped markets for food and other agricultural products, providing new opportunities for economic growth. But it also means LAC is dealing with many challenges that other regions of the world have more time to plan for.

Fortunately, LAC is ahead of the curve in other respects. Some countries in the region have made huge advances in the way they produce food; are proud and proven early adopters of new agricultural technologies and have developed groundbreaking policies on issues from ecosystem services to climate-smart agriculture. These have been driven by a large, well-qualified pool of scientists, practitioners, and academicians, and supported by government institutions, civil society groups and a robust private sector that encourages entrepreneurship.

As a result, I believe LAC is poised to be recognized as one of the great food baskets of the world.

But arriving at this point has brought all kinds of challenges. From the destruction of vast areas of rainforest, loss of invaluable fauna and flora, and depletion of freshwater sources, to the millions of hectares of land degraded by unsustainable practices, economic growth in the region has provided many cautionary tales.

Progress has been unequal too. Many people – including smallholder farmers and rural dwellers – have been left behind economically, as cities and industrialized agriculture exploded. With the entire region highly exposed to climate change, there’s a danger that its position as a major food producer could become increasingly precarious – and so too the plight of its most vulnerable people.

Building resilience across the agricultural sector must, therefore, continue to be a high priority for LAC, combined with increased efforts to protect and sustainably manage its natural resource base.

With agriculture continuing to provide the economic foundation for much of the region, rural populations, particularly women and youth, must be included in development plans. Policies and institutions will need to advance to meet the challenge.

While some of these challenges are daunting, they are also enormous opportunities. What I know for sure is that there will be no one-size-fits-all solution; the region is far too large and too diverse. Instead, responses will need to reflect the range of cultures, landscapes, ecosystems, and social conditions. Caribbean nations will require sets of policies for sustainable development different from those in Central America’s vitally important Dry Corridor; upland areas will require site-specific interventions different from those in the lowlands; the vast and diverse Amazon Basin alone will require multiple approaches.

With diversity often comes complexity, and that’s certainly the case in LAC. But in tackling these issues, I think the region will continue to innovate. While international donors increasingly focus on development challenges, particularly in Africa, it will be down to governments, regional development banks, the private sector, and civil society groups in LAC to team up directly with research organizations to co-develop, test, and scale-up solutions that generate lasting impacts for livelihoods and the environment.

That way, I believe LAC really can become the precedent for inclusive agricultural development and sustainable food systems that can both inform and inspire the rest of the world.

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