Mayor Findings for the Americas
The challenge for the Americas will be to retain the ability to feed and adequately nourish itself while also making a substantial contribution to the food supplies available to the rest of the world.
The Americas are heterogeneous with respect to climates, topographies, agricultural practices, health and nutrition challenges, research and educational development, and governmental institutions. Despite these heterogeneities, there are a number of generalizations that emerge from the IANAS assessment of food and nutrition security in the Americas. One is that Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) have played, and will continue to play a key role in agricultural development, in the provision of nutritious foods and the guarantee of food security. A second key finding is that the Americas, like other regions of the world, face major challenges in environmental degradation, including the degradation of essential water and land resources.
A second key finding is that the Americas, like other regions of the world, face major challenges in environmental degradation, including the degradation of essential water and land resources. Addressing these challenges will require continued STI investment, together with adequate training for a new generation of qualified professionals as well as the implementation of more effective evidence-based policies at the governmental and inter-governmental levels. Finally, broader international cooperation is essential to achieving food and nutrition security for all countries and peoples.
The major findings of the assessment of food and nutrition security (FNS) in the Americas are presented in a brief, succinct bullet point format. The detailed arguments that support these findings and their resulting conclusions can be found in the chapter assessments below.
Emeritus Professor, University of California Irvine and
Owing to an exceptional abundance of natural resources, the Americas are a privileged region. The region’s wealth in agrobiodiversity, arable land, and availability of water, all constitute major advantages for the future.
- The Latin American region is a biodiversity superpower that includes five of the ten most biodiverse countries in the world.
- Latin America is the largest net food exporter in the world, yet 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are net food importers.
- North America is the second largest net exporter.
- Aquaculture has emerged as a major industry in countries such as Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and Ecuador.
- More than 85% of all Biotech and GM crops are currently planted in the Americas, which have provided substantial environmental benefits through reduced herbicide use, low or non-tillage practices, increased productivity per unit land area and reduced Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.
- The region of the Americas has major potential for growth in food production.
There is substantial diversity among national agricultural research systems, infrastructure, investments in human capital, in financing capabilities and in the roles of public and private sectors in the provision of Science TechnoIogy and Innovation (STI). Some critical issues include the following:
- While STI capacity is substantial among large countries in the Americas, it is less well developed in many smaller countries, making regional cooperation especially important. In almost all countries, universities are crucial in training human capital for food systems and are key sources of research and innovation.
- There has been a long-standing practice of supporting international exchange in graduate education for agriculture and related subjects, but participation by the United States has declined, while increasing opportunities in Brazil and various European countries have, in part, compensated. In general, these exchange practices are not formalized into international governmental agreements and access to infrastructure and financial support varies greatly among countries.
- Broadly speaking, collaboration between universities and research centers is not robust, so it is important to create more stable and dynamic links. The CGIAR centers such as CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Colombia), CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico), and IICA (Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, Costa Rica) stand out as an exception by connecting agricultural research throughout Latin America and the world.
- Public investment is essential for agricultural research in all the countries of the region. However, in many countries in the Americas, investment is far below the average of the most developed countries and even below those recommended by organizations such as the United Nations.
- Many countries do not have adequate databases for characterizing the status of their agricultural system and there is insufficient statistical information on the sector.
- The nations of the Americas are not very integrated with respect to agricultural trade and economic policies. A valuable first step is the regional network of public food supply and marketing systems for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) to promote inclusive and efficient production and marketing created in 2015 by Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, but more needs to be done.
- There are very few private companies in the field of agriculture or agricultural biotechnology with their own research programs in most of the countries in the region. The United States, where approximately 60% of the agricultural research investment comes from the private sector, is an exception. Canada follows with roughly 12% of private sector investment.
- Effective collaboration networks between research centers and private companies are crucial so that efforts in science and technology are focused on solving problems related to the needs of the productive sector.
- In many countries, the link between scientific research and the food and nutrition security needs of vulnerable populations is weak.
- Reducing food waste and loss is a joint task in which all actors – producers, distributors, retailers, consumers, research institutions and governments – must intervene decisively.
- The identification and correction of the substantial weaknesses in the agri-food systems of many countries in the Americas constitute an urgent agenda that can be most efficiently pursued within an interregional cooperative framework.
Water, Food, and Energy are interdependent resources that need more integrated management.
- It is important to identify the energy forms that use large amounts of water and to gradually replace them with ones with the potential to reduce water use.
- Innovations in solar and wind energy production have almost no impact on water.
- The water requirements used to irrigate crops grown for biofuels can be much larger than for the extraction of fossil fuels. Biofuel based subsidies that incentivize farmers to pump aquifers at unsustainable rates have led to the depletion of groundwater reserves and such practices must be discouraged.
The region of Latin America continues to suffer massive deforestation and associated environmental degradation. The largest net losses (3.6 million hectares/yr) were recorded between 2005 and 2010 and occurred in South America.
- In all countries, the conversion of forests to farmland increases erosive processes and has an extremely negative impact on water bodies and riparian zones, due to higher rates of sedimentation, eutrophication, and reduction of the regulation capacity of the hydrological regime, leading to higher risks for flooding intensity. Deforestation is also a major cause of greenhouse gas accumulation and therefore a driver of climate change.
- Most areas of the Americas are facing great challenges related to the destruction and fragmentation of habitat. This is caused by the expanding agricultural frontier, urbanization, tourism and other land and commercial developments, together with changing consumption habits.
- Deforestation in many areas of the Americas has a high impact on quality of life, especially for poor and rural populations.
- Deforestation has multiple economic and social drivers including (1) population growth, (2) land use changes (spread of the agricultural frontier), (3) unsustainable economic expansion, (4) poverty, and (5) corruption.
Climate change research is essential, not only because agriculture is a major source of Green House Emissions or GHGs, but also to develop strategies for climate adaptation and mitigation in every country.
- The abundance, incidence, and severity of pest and disease attacks is one of the major predictable threats of climate change.
- In-situ and ex-situ preservation of local genetic resources is an important insurance policy against climate change.
- The Caribbean is particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation and at the greatest risk of climate-related disasters. The Caribbean is also the most vulnerable region for Food and Nutrition Security, because it is heavily dependent on imports and suffers from a weak, undiversified economy. More attention must be focused on the special needs of the Caribbean region.
- A focus on average climate statistics obscures the fact that it is the extreme events that cause most damage. It will be important to manage for extreme events and to recognize that what were once believed to be 100-year events, are now more likely to be decadal or even more frequent. Strategies to minimize risk will become essential tools.
A key future challenge is to produce more healthy food without increasing agricultural area, while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing wastage.
- Based on the ranking of 25 countries in the 2016 Food Sustainability Index (including measures of food waste, sustainable agriculture, and nutritional challenges), the countries in the Americas that were ranked occupy mid to low levels: Colombia 10, United States 11, Argentina 14, Mexico 15, and Brazil 20. This suggests that there are substantial opportunities for further improvement in the Americas.
- An important step forward will be the adoption of the circular economy model of reducing, reusing and recycling in production. This model should promote sustainability and encourage the process of value addition for products such as processed foods, probiotics, prebiotics, nutraceuticals, bioenergies, and biomaterials, thereby strengthening and diversifying local economies.
- Modern technologies, such as biotech crops and precision agriculture, are critical to producing more healthy food without increasing agricultural acreage, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions and wastage.
- However, the adoption of modern technologies is slowed by constraints on infrastructure that are common to all countries in the Americas. These constraints include the development of adequate irrigation systems, adequate water and food storage capacity, sufficient transport and road systems, and adequate investment in STI producing institutions.
- Big data and modern Information Technology (IT) offer substantial opportunities to advance sustainable management practices. These approaches can be especially valuable in anticipating and mitigating climate-related impacts, enhancing water use efficiency and improving agricultural efficiency.
Malnutrition, food insecurity and obesity coexist to a greater or lesser degree, as well as chronic diseases related to obesity.
- In several countries in the Americas, a reduction in poverty and malnutrition over the last 10 years has been associated with an increase in obesity. Thus, poverty reduction is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for adequate, healthy diets.
- Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) represent the main cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile and impose heavy costs on health care systems.
- More behavioral research is needed to determine how food choices are made and how they can be modified, together with a more rapid assimilation of science-based best practices into the food production system.
- It is crucial to recognize and incorporate into policy, the key role gender plays in food production, food preparation, food selection, and nutrition.
- There is a strong need for more effective systems for water purification and distribution. Safe drinking water remains an important issue in the Americas and has a clear link with the incidence of foodborne disease.
Progress in the Americas over the last quarter century has been impressive and STI have played a major role in improvements linked to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). STI will continue to play a key role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, but progress will depend, in part on greater regional and global cooperation in STI, and partly on the development of more uniform policy frameworks.
- STI is essential, not only to achieving food and nutrition security but also to eradicating poverty, protecting the environment and accelerating the diversification and transformation of economic conditions.
- Agriculture is increasingly seen as a dynamic sector, driven by STI, for the transformation of national economies in the future. However, it will be important to generate an enlarged framework for STI cooperation and coordination in the Americas with respect to FNS.
- Past investments in agricultural research have yielded high returns (estimated at 20 to 40-fold globally), but rates of gain are now declining as the potential of older technologies (e. g., green revolution) are fully exploited. A whole suite of new technological innovations shows great promise for future plant and animal improvement. These new innovations include the more efficient use of water and nutrients, increased yields, more effective approaches to pests and diseases, the integration of robotics with big data and advanced algorithms for more efficient management, and the adoption of best practices in agriculture. It will be important to accelerate the rate at which promise is turned into practice.
STI alone cannot achieve all the advances in FNS required for the future. STI advances, combined with effective evidence-based policy, must be implemented more widely in the Americas.
- It is hard to overemphasize the importance of governance and public policy in achieving both food and nutrition security and in supporting the development of more sustainable agricultural policies. One only needs to consider the present situation in Venezuela where an otherwise well-endowed country is suffering from food shortages, owing to poor public policies.
- There is a trade-off between high investment-high efficiency agricultural systems and smallholder agriculture in many countries in the Americas. This social trade-off is a major public policy issue.
- Trade in agricultural products has historically been distorted by subsidies and barriers to market access. These distortions will need to be reduced in the future.
- Most countries in the Americas are in need of better functioning policies and more effective enforcement to promote the sustainability of forest, marine, inland and ground waters, and all other terrestrial ecosystems and their biodiversity.
- Poverty eradication and food and nutrition security are closely linked goals that must be pursued together.
- The secondary effects of agricultural policies should be taken into account, such as migration of the rural population to urban centers, and impacts on land use and conservation.
- In many countries, regulations relating to such things as pesticide use, overuse of antibiotics, organic agriculture and the reduction of food waste, are inadequate.
- Evidence-based regulation should be improved to more effectively combat foodborne diseases.
- There is an important role for international aid donors and NGOs in advancing STI based FNS in many countries in the Americas.
- The potential for involving the Organization of American States more actively in facilitating STI based approaches to FNS must be explored.
- Organizations such as IANAS can also accelerate progress by reaching out to national policymakers and advocating for evidence-based FNS policies. IANAS has a significant presence in most countries in the Americas through the national science academies.
The gradual shift in STI investment from public to private sectors must be monitored and understood, so that gaps in public support can be prioritized.
- The low research participation of the private sector in most counties is deemed a major deficit.
- There is a need for better methods for communicating STI advances and investment opportunities to national policymakers and the public.