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What is the future of agriculture in a post-pandemic world?

A farmer in Guatemala.World Bank / World Bank

Being a farmer in Latin America is not an easy task, especially in times of covid-19. Although the region has been able to respond favorably to the challenges of the current pandemic, how does the future of agri-food systems in your countries envision? Being considered the breadbasket of the world is not enough to face a greater demand from a constantly growing population, to maintain price stability, but, above all, to do so in balance to protect the rich biodiversity of the region.

Michael Morris, an agricultural expert at the World Bank, presented with his colleagues Ashwini Rekha Sebastian and Viviana Maria Eugenia Perego, along with collaborators from other institutions such as the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and McKinsey a report on the agri-food systems of the region. In this interview, Morris presents an overview of the sector and how the agriculture of the future can be reimagined in Latin America and the Caribbean

Question: What is the current outlook for the agricultural sector in Latin America? What are your main challenges?

Morris: The agricultural and food systems of Latin America and the Caribbean are recognized, and rightly, as one of the most successful on the planet. They have fed a rapidly growing population, facilitated economic development, enabled urbanization, generated substantial export earnings, and contributed to a reduction in hunger and poverty, especially for some 20 million households classified as small producers or producers. relatives. And in the current pandemic context, they are playing a key role in ensuring a very timely supply of food and stabilizing its prices on world markets.

In fact, the region is the largest net food exporter in the world, that is, it exports more food than it imports. These exports help reduce and stabilize international food prices, benefiting consumers around the world. In addition, Latin America is the largest producer of ecosystem services, its enormous forests and extensive savannas have a crucial influence in shaping climate patterns worldwide and in mitigating climate change.

Despite these contributions, the public image of Latin American agricultural and food systems of being dynamic, productive and efficient reflects only part of a more complex reality. In many respects, these systems are underperforming: they have been slow to respond to changes in the global environment, and many of them continue to rely on centuries-old, inefficient, and environmentally damaging production methods.

Fortunately, the outlook is not so negative. Faced with the current underperforming landscape, huge opportunities lie. Technological advances open the door to new, more efficient and more environmentally friendly methods for producing, processing, distributing, consuming and recycling food.

Q: In the last few decades, we have seen the expansion of the agricultural frontier in the region. How can you boost the growth of agricultural production without damaging the environment?

A: While some producers in the region have been at the forefront in adopting green technologies, agriculture and food systems in many countries are dominated by production models based on unsustainable practices that harm certain ecosystem services critical to well-being. human; at the same time that they generate a considerable volume of greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture and livestock are responsible for 70% of the transformation of regional habitats, while the deforestation rate in the region is three times the world average. Current production models threaten the viability of Latin America’s food production capacity and should be replaced by superior models that improve productivity, reduce food loss and waste, and ensure the sustainability of the natural resources on which agriculture depends, increase the provision of ecosystem services and improve climate resilience.

As with most complex problems, there is no magic bullet, but rather a combination of actions that would be necessary, ranging from intensive agricultural and livestock practices to payment for ecosystem services, climate-smart digitization, and technology adoption. One approach that offers great potential to integrate many of these angles is the circular economy, to take advantage of better land management, energy and water consumption, waste management and pollution prevention. Technological innovations such as precision agriculture, water reuse, bioenergy and biofertilizer or smart agriculture offer numerous opportunities to complement this approach, enabling intensive and efficient use of resources, high productivity and low environmental footprint, and increased climate resilience. And in a region where four out of five people live in areas classified as urban, integrating the circular economy into urban and peri-urban agriculture (the practice of growing food and raising livestock in or near urban areas), seems a particularly option. promising.

Q: In this context of a pandemic, what is the role of agriculture with a view to a sustainable economic recovery in Latin America?

A: While the large-scale effects of the pandemic are not yet fully understood, its impact on agriculture and food in the region is being felt in several ways. Fortunately, primary production proved highly resilient, in that most producers have been able to continue their operations. On the other hand, challenges are observed higher up the production chain, as the flow of many food products is altered by movement restrictions that cause bottlenecks in distribution or that prevent the redirection of food flows after production. closure of some sectors of the economy.

But it should not be doubted that the agri-food sector plays a very important role in a sustainable economic recovery of the countries, guaranteeing the food supply in the region, providing employment to millions of people, providing foreign currency to food-exporting countries. , improving the trade balance in food-importing countries, and restoring the ecosystem services on which the long-term well-being of the planet depends.

Recovery represents, in a significant way, an opportunity to rebuild better and promote comprehensive measures at the nexus where human, animal and environmental health converge, the three interconnected axes of the “One Health” approach. Systems, policies and institutions will need to be rethought during the post-covid-19 transition to ensure a cleaner, greener and more inclusive food landscape and quality, safe and more nutritious food. Jobs and economic transformation must be at the center of this forward-looking strategy, one that is built on resilient infrastructure and strengthened human capital.

Q: What could affect Latin American agri-food systems in the future?

A: The report identifies factors divided into two categories: trends and disruptive factors. The trends are long-term forces such as population growth, rising income, and urbanization. These have a large effect on agri-food systems, although they are slow and largely predictable, so governments should be able to deal with them relatively more easily.

Rather, disruptive factors are sudden forces such as technological advances, catastrophic weather events, global pandemics, or radical changes in public policy. Their impact is significant, and because they can occur suddenly and without warning, it is more difficult to be prepared.

As we cannot predict the future, the report does not provide a forecast on how trends and disruptive factors will affect agri-food systems in the region. Instead, it presents an exercise of scenarios that incorporate a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods and promote the participation of a wide number of stakeholders through the use of face-to-face and virtual platforms. The exercise analyzed how different combinations of factors can lead to different results for agri-food systems in Latin America. Based on these scenarios, priority measures were identified that could help to obtain positive results and avoid negative ones. You can consult our study Future Food Scenarios: Reimagining Agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean to get a better idea of ​​what these measurements are.

María José González Rivas is the digital editor of the World Bank