by Max Radwin
November 27, 2018

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

A girl removes scales from a fish

in her home in Belle Anse, Haiti,

May 22, 2013

(AP photo by Dieu Nalio Chery).

Over the past 30 years, as economies in the region developed and democratic gains were made, Latin America has undeniably seen major progress in the fight against hunger.


Since 2000, the number of Latin Americans suffering from undernourishment has dropped from more than 60 million to 39 million.


From Mexico to Argentina, leaders have felt optimistic.


Compared to Africa and Asia, few places in the developing world were tackling food security and nutrition-related health risks with quite the same rigor and effectiveness.

It was with that kind of progress in mind that the World Health Organization and the United Nations laid out hugely ambitious development goals in 2015 that included ending hunger and achieving food security by 2030.


But since then, the number of undernourished people in the world has actually grown, now having surpassed 820 million, the highest in seven years. Despite its track record, Latin America has hardly been immune to this trend.

In fact, the region appears to be on the cusp of a major relapse in under-nutrition, with figures not only increasing from year to year but actually doubling.

  • In 2016, there were 200,000 more hungry people in Latin America than the previous year.


  • By 2017, that figure had grown by 400,000. Meeting those 2030 nutrition goals is not just a matter of eradicating hunger.

Complicating the situation in Latin America is what the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO, calls the "double burden" of malnutrition:

The population has problems with being overweight as well as underweight.

A new U.N. report on food security in Latin America paints a complex and increasingly worrisome picture of nutrition standards.

"Although undernourishment persists in the region, particularly in vulnerable populations, we must also consider obesity and overweight, which also affect these groups," Carissa F. Etienne, the director of the Pan American Health Organization and the WHO's regional director for the Americas, said in a statement.


"A multisectoral approach is needed, one that ensures access to balanced and healthy foods while addressing other social factors that also impact on these forms of malnutrition, such as access to education, water and sanitation, and health services."

Currently, 250 million people are overweight in Latin America - 60 percent of its total population - with about 3.5 million more each year.


Whereas 5.6 percent of children under the age of 5 are overweight worldwide, in Latin America that figure is over 7 percent, a situation the FAO called "appalling."

The Caribbean is having a particularly difficult time combating obesity, with Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago near the top of the list.


But countries in South America, such as,

  • Paraguay

  • Bolivia

  • Ecuador,

...continue to show increases as well (read also "Diet, sugary drinks, and obesity in Peru").


Chile and Argentina, which also suffer from some of the worst obesity rates in the region, have made some strides in recent years, due to increased marketing regulations that make junk food less attractive to consumers.

The same factors contributing to obesity throughout the region appear to also be the ones that result in undernourishment, according to the FAO.


Uncertain access to food can lead to inexpensive, high-calorie meals that have low nutritional value, which results in obesity. But it can just as easily lead to hunger, if it means an insufficient intake of calories and proteins.

Approximately 6.1 percent of Latin America's population is underfed. In Haiti, 5 million people, or nearly 46 percent of the population, are suffering from undernourishment. In Guatemala, the figure has climbed to over 15 percent.


In Venezuela, where an economic crisis under President Nicolas Maduro's government, has left supermarket shelves bare, hunger has tripled since 2010, now affecting over 11 percent of the population.

The same factors

contributing to obesity

throughout Latin America

appear to also be the ones

that result in undernourishment.

With malnutrition comes a host of many other day-to-day problems that ripple through Latin American society.


Both under- and over-weight households have, on average, higher medical costs - sometimes by over 50 percent - which can cut into their ability to spend on the other needs of a family.


Malnutrition on each side of the spectrum also lowers productivity in the classroom, worsening a student's performance and raising the probability that he or she will repeat a grade, or decide to leave school altogether.

In a similar way, malnutrition has the potential to significantly lower the productivity of a country's workforce, the report said.


All told, these factors can negatively affect a country's GDP by between 1.7 and 11.4 percent.

Perhaps the largest ripple effect from malnutrition is generational. Women who are obese or go hungry during a pregnancy tend to pass unhealthy traits onto their children, which in Latin America has resulted in nearly 10 percent of the population under 5 - some 5.1 million children - showing signs of stunted growth.


Ecuador, Honduras and Haiti are notably troublesome cases, but Guatemala is by far the worst, with 46.5 percent of children suffering from stunted physical maturity.

Guatemalan officials have been well aware of this situation for some time, having started a program in 2016 that will assist with what the government calls "family agriculture," in which rural households will be able to more effectively depend on their own production of food for sustenance.


Last year, Guatemala's Congress passed a "school feeding" law that increased the budget for food per student by 75 percent.


However, the country's most recent census revealed that nearly 150,000 kids in Guatemala don't attend school.


And because a disproportionate number of them live in areas where undernourishment is severe, it appears that the kids most in need of government assistance are not all able to benefit from the policy.

Across Latin America, those who are most in need of healthy food are often the ones who miss out. Nutrition-related issues affect women more than men, indigenous people more than non-indigenous people, and rural residents more than urban ones.


The amount of available milk, grains and fish is significantly lower than the world average in many Latin American countries, even though some, such as,

  • Brazil

  • Argentina

  • Chile

  • Guatemala,

...actually produce enough food on their own to create a surplus for their populations.


Yet poor communities still continue to lack access to them.

In the 2000s, largely led by the global commodities boom, Latin America as a whole averaged more than 2 percent annual GDP growth. But for a variety of reasons - from that boom going bust to the more recent slump in global oil prices to rampant corruption scandals that have consumed governments - growth has slowed to under 1 percent.


If poorer people across the region felt the least impact of economic growth when the times were supposedly good, whether in terms of food security or otherwise, what will happen if growth continues to stagnate?

For good reason, the U.N. report made a point to emphasize "not leaving anyone behind" when thinking about how the region can meet its 2030 food security goals.


To keep pace with that agenda, stunted growth rates will have to drop by 40 percent by 2025. Most Latin American countries are set to hit this target, or at least come close.


But the U.N. says they can only do so by increasing their assistance to the people who are most vulnerable.