The Paradoxical Dual Crises of Food Waste and Hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean

By Abby Neiser

In discussing solutions to climate change, the conversation often centers around issues like energy sources, transportation, and plastics.  While these issues are all absolutely important and critical to talk about, a major problem that is less discussed yet endemic in almost all corners of the globe is food loss and waste.  In fact, Project Drawdown, a large organization devoted to developing and analyzing climate solutions, ranks reducing food waste as the number one way to reduce carbon emissions in a scenario in which temperatures rise by 2°C by 2100 and the number three most important solution in a scenario in which temperatures rise by 1.5°C (Table of Solutions).  Because food waste and loss are so commonplace and little thought of both in industry and households, the statistics on their environmental impact are shocking.  According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the global population produces 931 million tons of food waste every year (Bowden, 2021).  Moreover, not all countries record how much food is wasted, so the actual number is likely even higher (Bowden, 2021).  The UN number represents almost a fifth of the food produced for human consumption annually, and the production of this food accounts for ten percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (Bowden, 2021).  These emissions are due to land use, byproducts of certain crops, exhaust from agricultural machinery, and carbon produced during processing and shipping (Ritchie, 2019).  Additionally, when food is thrown out in landfills, its decomposition produces methane, which has even stronger warming properties than carbon dioxide (Campos, 2015).  To put this into context, the Environmental Programme’s executive director Inger Anderson said, “If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions” behind only the United States and China (Bowden, 2021).

Food loss and waste are universal problems around the world, both in high- and low-income countries, including in the Latin American and Caribbean region (LAC).  LAC produces more food waste than any other region in the developing world and is the fourth greatest contributor to food waste in the world (Ewing-Chow, 2019).  This adds up to six percent of global food loss (Ewing-Chow, 2019).  Infrastructure and supply chain issues are the primary culprit for why food loss and waste are such an issue in LAC (Ewing-Chow, 2019).  Improper planning and a lack of resources in these areas lead to waste at several points over the course of processing and distributing food (Ewing-Chow, 2019).  Not only does such inefficiency result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, but it also causes damage to the land, water, and biodiversity (Ewing-Chow, 2019).

The preexisting issues responsible for food loss and waste have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (known as CEPAL for its acronym in Spanish) has identified numerous factors liable for this.  To begin with, both international and domestic travel have been heavily restricted, resulting in fewer migrant workers able to tend to the land and thus decreasing the amount of food that can be harvested (CEPAL, 2020).  Virus-mitigating social distancing efforts then necessitate that fewer people occupy a given space, which creates a decline in the workforce further down the chain as well (CEPAL, 2020).  Travel restrictions also make it harder to access both domestic and international markets (CEPAL, 2020).  On the consumer level, “panic buying” was rampant at the beginning of the pandemic (CEPAL, 2020).  This phenomenon had two major implications.  First, the market reacted to the high demand and overproduced, causing surplus that went to waste when demand fell (CEPAL, 2020).  Second, many people bought more than they could consume before perishable items went bad, resulting in individual consumer waste (CEPAL, 2020).  Since then, the pandemic has decreased demand for fresh produce below normal levels, as people trying to avoid going out to the grocery store as often has resulted in a higher demand for non-perishable goods compared to perishable ones (CEPAL, 2020).  In short, the pandemic has affected the food supply chain at every level, often leaving food to rot in the field, warehouses, grocery stores, and at home.

Ironically, as more food intended for human consumption has gone to waste in LAC, more people have become malnourished.  According to the Latin America regional director for the World Food Programme Miguel Barreto, about a third of Latin Americans “do not have access to nutritious and sufficient food” (Beaubien, 2020).  In raw numbers, 47 million Latin Americans were classified as “hungry” last year, and 190 million were classified as “food insecure” (Beaubien, 2020).  LAC had set a bold goal of eradicating hunger by 2030, but the pandemic has erased much of the progress that had been made toward achieving this (Beaubien, 2020).  Julio Berdegué, the regional representative for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, even worries that malnourishment levels could dip down to where they were in the 1990s (Beaubien, 2020).  Further, Berdegué believes that food insecurity in LAC is a manifestation of poverty rather than an actual lack of food (Beaubien, 2020).  Food insecurity may provoke mental images of people being underweight, but due to the availability and price of high-calorie, processed foods, people who cannot afford good food often may become heavier (Beaubien, 2020).  In fact, nearly two-thirds of Latin American adults are overweight (Beaubien, 2020).  The link between poverty and the growing obesity problem stems from several factors, including the tendency of foods that are “empty calories” to be cheaper, irregularity in meal frequency, a lack of health education, and the psychological impact of scarcity in childhood (Żukiewicz-Sobczak et. al, 2014).  As the pandemic has cast economic anxiety around much of the world, the health consequences of poverty are of even greater importance than before.  Beyond the direct physical consequences that being undernourished has on the body, it can also make society less healthy and productive as well as fuel political unrest (Attwood et. al, 2020).  Such repercussions would undoubtedly be particularly regrettable in a region with as much food waste as LAC.

Food waste, hunger, and poverty are all tragic, serious problems in and of themselves.  However, the situation is even more lamentable when taking the three together.  LAC provides the world with almost a quarter of global agriculture and fish exports (Beaubien, 2020).  According to Berdegué, food security should not be an issue in a region with as much agriculture as LAC (Beaubien, 2020).  The World Bank estimates that consuming wasted food from just one link in the food chain, retail waste, could solve hunger in the region (Campos, 2015).  Though this number is from 2015, and as has been discussed already, hunger numbers have since increased, it nonetheless demonstrates how unnecessary and preventable hunger in the region is.

While the situation is dire and regrettable, this problem has been recognized, and regional leaders are taking steps to solve the problem.  Countries in the region are working together and with the United Nations to tackle the issue (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016).  They are taking a holistic approach of targeting waste at all levels and stages of food production and working to incorporate it into a broader goal of sustainable development (Campos, 2015; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016).  For example, many resources have been devoted to improving equipment, storage, and training after harvest (Ewing-Chow, 2019).  Additionally, both officials and individual citizens have started to reimagine how a sustainable economy should be structured and how people should think about food.  The United Nations Environmental Programme, for instance, has promoted the idea of a “circular” economy that focuses on making economic practices as renewable and cyclical as possible and heavily discouraging waste (Sustainable Brands Staff, 2021).  As Carlos Correa, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia puts it, “As extracting, wasting and ‘doing business as usual’ can no longer be supported by the planet, it is key to build a common regional vision on circular economy” (Sustainable Brands Staff, 2021).  Such an approach would be much more sustainable and work to address food waste from the ground up.  Many social movements led by Indigenous people have also been fighting for a more sustainable food system through efforts such as advocating for more input in agricultural policy, food and land sovereignty, and respect for the cultural heritage surrounding food (Nierenberg, 2020).  One of the largest such organizations is La Via Campesina, which represents around 200 million small and medium farmers in 81 different countries (Nierenberg, 2020).  This movement is pushing back against large, multinational agrobusinesses in favor of these smaller farmers, as they believe that this is the best way to ensure sustainability and social justice in food production (Nierenberg, 2020).  A number of other organizations are doing similarly important work across LAC (Nierenberg, 2020).  Further, individuals such as Barbadian chef, Taymer Mason, are reconsidering what food is truly “usable.”  Chef Mason has started to incorporate edible ingredients that might otherwise be thrown away into his cooking (Ewing-Chow, 2019).  While the agricultural sector contributes a lot to food waste, the individual consumer carries a heavier burden in addressing this problem than in many other sustainability issues.

The aforementioned measures are promising steps to solve food loss and waste in LAC.  However, getting this saved food on the table is equally critical.  Despite the setbacks from the pandemic, the steps that have been taken in the region over the past few decades to fight hunger have been effective and can likely be reapplied in the forthcoming post-pandemic era.  Nonetheless, it is of utmost importance that damage done by the pandemic does not discourage leaders from sticking to these plans.  Additionally, leaders must take lessons from how the pandemic affected food production and food security to create a more resilient supply chain and hunger safety nets.  Recognizing that these two issues are inextricably linked is key to solving both crises.  Only when economic institutions surrounding food consider the wellbeing of the planet and people will they truly be sustainable and ethical.

Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies.  During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program.  She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt.  Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression.  Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.


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