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FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean
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While hunger and malnutrition have fallen, overweight and obesity are on the rise throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and are particularly prevalent among women and children, according to a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). According to the report, hunger has fallen to only 5.5 % of the regional population, but 23 % are obese and 58 % are overweight.

Panorama of Food and Nutritional Security in Latin America and the Caribbean 2016

Key messages

  • Latin America and the Caribbean must address all forms of hunger and malnutrition in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), linking food security, sustainability, agriculture, nutrition and health.
  • In order to achieve the SDG 2 / Zero Hunger, Latin America and the Caribbean must eradicate undernourishment, which affects 5.5% of the regional population. The region must also face stunting and overweight, which currently affects 11.3 % and 7.2 % of children under 5, respectively.
  • While malnutrition and hunger have declined throughout the region, obesity and overweight have risen sharply in all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a greater impact on women and an upward trend in children.
  • Overweight affects at least half the population of all countries in the region, except in Haiti (38.5%), Paraguay (48.5%) and Nicaragua (49.4%). In addition, obesity disproportionately affects women: in more than 20 countries the rate of female obesity is 10 percentage points higher than that of men.
  • One of the underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition in all its forms are the inadequate food consumption patterns that exist throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Encouraging healthy eating is a key factor to simultaneously fight hunger, malnutrition, overweight and obesity.
  • Adopting healthy eating habits not only means promoting changes in consumption; it requires a change in public policies to create sustainable and nutrition-sensitive food systems that can provide an adequate supply of healthy food for all.
  • While food availability in Latin America and the Caribbean is sufficient to meet the energy needs of its entire population, there are worrying trends: sugar availability is higher than in developed regions and the availability of fats per capita is higher than the recommended ranges for a healthy diet, while fish availability per capita is the lowest in all regions of the world.
  • Signs of slower economic growth coupled with the stagnation of poverty reduction pose significant risks to food and nutrition security. Governments must maintain and increase their support to the most vulnerable so as not to undo their progress in the fight against hunger, and to reverse the rise of malnutrition in all its forms.
  • The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean must strengthen and expand their public policies to promote the consumption of healthy foods. Some of the initiatives already under way include the regulation of advertising of ultra-processed products, food labeling rules and the specific taxes for sugary drinks. These should be complemented with policies to increase the supply of healthy food, such as public procurement programs and their connection with family farming and urban and peri-urban agriculture; school feeding, nutritional education and the implementation of short food production and marketing circuits, among others.
  • A profound change in the current food systems is needed to ensure their sustainability and ability to provide nutritious and accessible food for all, preserving ecosystems through a more efficient and sustainable use of land and natural resources and better techniques for food production, storage and processing.

Q&A

1. How can hunger and all forms of undernourishment be eradicated?

1. How can hunger and all forms of undernourishment be eradicated?

To end hunger and malnutrition the commitment of the whole of society is needed, including the State, civil society, academia, productive organizations, ONGs and the private sector. This broad commitment provides the economic, social, legal and political foundations needed to create and sustain the policies and strategies needed to end hunger.

A second key factor is the adoption of a "twin-track approach": facing both the structural causes of hunger and undernourishment trough productive and redistributive policies while at the same time undertaking immediate action for those who have the most urgent needs through social policies.

The Panorama 2016 highlights a third key point: the transformation of food systems to make them sustainable and sensitive to nutrition.

This means improving productive systems so that they guarantee food and nutrition security in the present without damaging the future, through actions that reduce the negative impacts of productive systems on the region's natural resources and the environment, while integrating nutritional criteria and concerns in the development of agriculture to transform the current food supply towards more healthy standards.

2. How does the productive base of the region have to change to ensure hunger eradication in a sustainable way?

2. How does the productive base of the region have to change to ensure hunger eradication in a sustainable way?

Although food availability in the region has increased progressively in the last decades thanks to technology and the increase of land dedicated to agriculture, among other reasons, meeting the region's food needs during the coming decades will required a more efficient and sustainable use of natural resources.

It is also important to improve food systems in several different ways: encourage greater efficiency in the use of natural-resources used in agriculture; reduce the externalities of food production; improve market integration and efficiency of value chains; and reduce food losses and waste, among other actions.

Food supply has to improve both in terms of quantity and quality. A healthier food supply will have a positive effect on all dimensions of food and nutrition security.

3. How should agriculture change in the next 15 years in order to guarantee sustainability? What role must family farmers play?

3. How should agriculture change in the next 15 years in order to guarantee sustainability? What role must family farmers play?

Family agriculture and traditional production forms must play a major role in order to move towards greater sustainability, as small farmers produce large part of the fresh fruits and vegetables of the region, two key components for a healthy diet.

Improving food systems in Latin America and the Caribbean and their role in an appropriate nutrition will require family farmers to have access to better technologies, resources, finance and technical capabilities in order to make more efficient their production of healthy food. Markets will also have to adapt to respond to these challenges by fostering local food production and short marketing and distribution circuits.

To make these transformations at a large scale in the region's food systems also requires facing the changes that have arisen in the last decades in the region's eating patterns. The increase of poor diets with a high quantity of ultra-processed products is one of the biggest challenges for nutritional and food security in the region.

For countries to change this trend and recover diets based on traditional foods and preparations of the region, they will have to implement public policies that enable to introduce changes both in terms of food demand (through nutritional education and similar measures) and food supply.

4. How should agriculture and food policies adapt to eliminate hunger and all forms of undernourishment?

4. How should agriculture and food policies adapt to eliminate hunger and all forms of undernourishment?

On the one hand, changes in food demand should be promoted through consumer-centered policies, promoting better eating habits, while at the same time changes in food supply should be made through producer-centered policies that allow for a greater offer of healthier food for the population.

Policies regarding food demand include: laws for food labeling, the implementation of taxes on ultra-processed products, regulation of advertising of products aimed at children, and food and nutrition education, among others. Several countries in the region have already implemented these measures and recent studies show positive results in terms of improved food consumption patterns and eating habits, which could lead to a potential decrease in malnutrition.

Policies relating to food supply include public procurement programs, the establishment of short food marketing circuits, the improvement of production chains and those that support family farmers production of healthy foods.

5. How many people still suffer hunger in the region?

5. How many people still suffer hunger in the region?

According to the latest FAO figures (2014-16), 34.3 million people still suffer hunger, 5.5% of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This represents a significant reduction from 1990-92, when 14.7% of the population was affected by hunger. South America has managed to reduce hunger to levels to below 5%, from 15.1% in 1990-92; Mesoamerica, in the same period, managed to reduce hunger from 10.7% to 6.6%; And hunger in the Caribbean fell from 27% to 19.8%.

6. Which countries have made the most progress? What factors explain this situation?

6. Which countries have made the most progress? What factors explain this situation?

Nine countries in the region have managed to reduce their levels of undernourishment to less than 5%: Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay and Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Eleven countries in the region achieved the hunger reduction target of the Millennium Development Goals, reducing their prevalence of undernourishment to less than half with regards to the levels of 1990-92: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Guyana, Nicaragua, Peru, Dominican Republic, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Uruguay and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Among the factors that explain the reduction in hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean is the economic growth of the region, especially during the decade of 2000, which brought with it significant increases in family incomes, reducing poverty and improving fiscal capacity for the implementation of social public policies.

Political commitment has been another highlight of this more than twenty-year process, culminating in the largest regional hunger eradication agreement: the Food Security, Nutrition and Hunger Eradication Plan of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC, an accord by which all the countries of the region have committed themselves to eradicate hunger by the year 2025.

Progress in the region leaves it well placed to meet the challenges of the new Sustainable Development Goals, although the current economic context requires maintaining countries' efforts in terms of food security so that the progress achieved in the previous years is not undone.

7. Which countries are facing the worst food insecurity situations? What are the underlying causes of hunger in these countries?

7. Which countries are facing the worst food insecurity situations? What are the underlying causes of hunger in these countries?

The countries most affected by hunger are: Haiti, with 53.4% ​​of its population, Nicaragua 16.6%, Bolivia 15.9% and Guatemala with 15.6%.

The fight against hunger is a complex and multidimensional challenge. In this sense each country faces complexities specific to the national reality. The scope of action by governments, fiscal capacity, productive factors and the structure of their economies, among others, differ between the countries of the region, therefore their capabilities to respond and tackle hunger is not be the same.

Poverty and inequality remain major difficulties for the region: poverty affects 29% of the regional population, which highlights the need to advance social policies and improve social protection systems.

8. What is the state of obesity and overweight in the region?

8. What is the state of obesity and overweight in the region?

Obesity and overweight in adults maintain a worrying upward trend in all countries in the region. In almost all countries in the region, overweight affects at least half of the adult population.

About 58% of the inhabitants of the region live with overweight (360 million people).

Except for Haiti (38.5%), Paraguay (48.5%) and Nicaragua (49.4%), overweight affects more than half the population of all countries in the region, with Chile (63%) , Mexico (64%) and the Bahamas (69%) with the highest rates.

Obesity affects 140 million people, 23% of the regional population. The highest prevalence's can be observed all in Caribbean countries: Barbados (36.2%) Barbados (31.3%), Trinidad and Tobago (31, 1%) and Antigua and Barbuda (30.9%).

The increase in obesity has disproportionately impacted women: in more than 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the rate of female obesity is 10 percentage points higher than that of men. For example, in Antigua and Barbuda, obesity affects 22.8% of men and 38.7% of women, while in Jamaica, 18.4% of men and 35.7% of women.

9. What is the situation of child overweight?

9. What is the situation of child overweight?

Estimates for 2015 in Latin America and the Caribbean show that overweight in children under 5 years affects 3.9 million, 7.2% of the children in that age group: 2.5 million of whic are found in South America, 1.1 million in Mesoamerica and 200,000 in the Caribbean.

The prevalence of overweight in children under 5 varies between countries and ranges from 3.6% in Haiti (2012) to 12.2% in Barbados (2012). Argentina, Barbados, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Brazil, Belize, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico and Paraguay Uruguay report prevalences above the regional average.

10. How have the eating patterns of the region changed?

10. How have the eating patterns of the region changed?

From the last decade of the twentieth century onwards, a profound change in the eating patterns of the region occurred. Diets based on traditional culinary preparations and minimally processed products gave way to diets high in sodium, fat and sugars, with a preponderance of ultra-processed products.

At the beginning this was associated with the growth of the economy and the consequent increase of household income; However, these dietary changes are now being seen most in middle- and low-income countries, so it can be argued that there negative dietary trends are becoming common throughout the world.

The consequences of these changes can now be seen in the growing prevalence of obesity and overweight around the world and in Latin America and the Caribbean in particular, and in many cases this coincides with a high prevalence of hunger and malnutrition.

In particular, one of the effects of this situation has been a great increase in non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which not only have consequences on human health, but also have important effects on national economies by reducing productivity and increasing the expenditures of public health systems.

As such, the current negative eating patterns and habits not only generate increases in malnutrition, but also have effects on economic growth and social welfare.