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Mario Lubetkin: ‘The issue of food security is here to stay, as was the case with the climate crisis’

The FAO deputy director and regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean analyzes the perfect storm of conflict, climate, post-pandemic inflation, and inequality that is driving world hunger

Ana Carbajosa
Mario Lubetkin, FAO regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean
Mario Lubetkin, FAO regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the organization’s offices in Santiago de Chile, Tuesday, July 13, 2023.Cristobal Venegas

Mario Lubetkin has very little reason to be upbeat, but after a long while spent reeling off shocking figures that indicate that, despite technological advances, world hunger is only getting worse, he ends on a note of cautious optimism. In his travels to and from the decision-making centers around the world, the deputy director of the Food and Agriculture Agency of the United Nations (FAO) has detected that something may be starting to change. Whereas in the past he would meet with the minister of agriculture, now it is the heads of state who turn to organizations such as his.

Lubetkin believes that they are increasingly aware that hunger and obesity are generators of disaffection and political instability and that the solution cuts across traditional societal dividing lines and inevitably becomes the responsibility of the state. The perfect storm of inequality, climate crisis, war, and inflation requires solutions that transcend political swings. Lubetkin speaks in his office in Santiago, Chile, on the eve of the Latin American forum and the summit that will bring together 150 parliamentarians from dozens of countries, determined to fight hunger with the law in hand.

Question: The number of hungry people in the world is increasing, even though we are able to produce more and better food. What is going on?

Answer: The data is negative. It speaks of 828 million people going hungry and nearly 700 million who are overweight or suffering from obesity. It is not possible to think about food security without thinking about the whole panorama: from land management to seed quality, water use, and support for family farmers, who represent more than 80% of producers.

Q. We know what needs to be done, but we’re not doing it. Is the policy failing us?

A. In the 1990s, a billion people were hungry; that went down to 600 million and now it has increased again. There is a clear cause, which is military conflicts. In Sudan, in Somalia .... Since 2004, military conflicts have increased dramatically, but there are other factors, such as food wastage. We have the ability to produce [enough food] for the eight billion people on the planet, but one third of the production is lost or does not reach the consumer.

Q. You did not mention the war in Ukraine, the blockade of grain exports, and the high cost of Russian fertilizers.

A. It cannot be analyzed as an isolated event. This is a situation that has been dragging on for many years. The pre-war scenario must be taken into account, because it is an explosive combination. Covid and the climate crisis, which is the primary cause, added to inequalities. Ukraine is just one piece of this story. Russian fertilizers will continue to arrive, only they will cost more. We still do not know how much land in Ukraine is still fertile and how much is mined.

Q. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the increase in hunger is particularly pronounced.

A. There are 26 countries in this region that depend on imported grains and 85% of fertilizers come from abroad. Food here has a greater impact on inflation than elsewhere. It is unacceptable. We have the ability to produce food for 1.3 billion people and a population of no more than 700 million, yet 7.5% of children under the age of five go hungry.

Q. What are the political consequences of hunger? Disaffection and polarization are growing and so is the possibility of civil unrest.

There is an increasing link between food security and socioeconomic and political stability”
FAO deputy director Mario Lubetkin

A. There is something new. Never before have I seen so many presidents concerned about food. In the past, the FAO regional director met only with the ministers of agriculture or specialized institutes, but now they know that there is an increasing link between food security and socioeconomic and political stability. It is not a question of political parties. It is a cross-party problem. The issue of food security is here to stay, as was the case with the climate crisis. Any government that comes in is going to have to deal with this. It is a profound change.

Q. Are political leaders more aware?

A. Covid helped to raise awareness; the big question is whether the numbers in the future will reflect this new awareness, or if it will remain only in declarations. In this region, Covid has increased the number of hungry people from 43 million to 56 million, an increase of 30%. But there are lessons to be learned. The Caribbean, for example, lived off tourism and imported foodstuffs with the proceeds. With the pandemic, tourism plummeted and now they [Caribbean governments] are planning to produce a minimum of 25% of their food within the country because they have perfect land and water conditions.

Q. More domestic production, less globalization.

A. I wouldn’t use the term “less globalization”. Globalization would be different.

P. What role does international cooperation play in this new scenario?

A. Not only does ending hunger require the help of international cooperation from charitable countries that have always helped, but it also needs state budgets.

Q. Is this where laws and national parliaments come into play?

A. Governments are primarily responsible, but parliaments have to legislate and facilitate, and the private sector has to assume its responsibility.

Q. Do laws make it more difficult to reverse achievements when there is a political change?

A. Processes are not static. Look at Brazil. In 2014, we took the country off the hunger map, but in 2022, it was back to 2002 figures. These are dynamic processes and can be reversed. Laws help to provide more continuity. In Latin America, parliaments have enacted at least 80 laws that have to do with elements of food security and that have undoubtedly helped millions and millions of people.

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