The case of Latin America

Posted: 13 December 2007

In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of developing countries pursued policies dominated by international trade. The need to increase exports and to earn more foreign exchange - often to pay off foreign debts - often came, however, at the expense of agricultural policies and food security, worsening the plight of the hungry. Latin America provides an example.

A huge growth in the export of fruit, vegetables and flowers from Latin America to the United States has occurred over the last twenty years. Much of Latin America's best farmland is now growing not just traditional export crops, such as coffee, banana, sugar and cotton, but also products for export such as mango, soybean and roses. These non-traditional crops can fetch high prices. For those in control - large landowners, wealthy investors and foreign companies - the business is profitable. Larger businesses have accumulated land in agro-export crops while poorer farmers have been squeezed out of the market and pushed onto marginal land.

The trade has frequently been at the expense of food for local people and has come at a cost in workers' health, inequitable distribution of economic benefits. In 1980, Chile, for example, exported about the same amount of beans, an important staple, as it grew for local consumption. But by the early 1990s the quantity of beans exported was almost three times higher - 55,000 tonnes a year, compared with 20,000 tonnes grown for local consumption.

Between 1989 and 1993 the area in Chile under basic food crops fell by nearly 30 per cent, from 1.2 million hectares to 0.86m. hectares. Fruit, flowers and other crops destined for the export market, had replaced beans, wheat and other staple foods. Large-scale fruit producers bought out small farmers who could not afford to invest in the new crops and this has changed the face of the country's agriculture and embittered many small farmers.

Brazil's big new export earner was soybean. In 1970, soybean grew on 1.4 million hectares of land; by 1988, it was growing on 10.5 million hectares. Argentina followed Brazil's example. The area under soybean has risen, since the early 1970s, from 10,000 hectares to 5 million hectares. Mexico and other Central American countries have greatly increased their export of vegetables to the United States.

Government support for farmers to help them sustain the production of food staples has fallen dramatically in many countries on the continent. Governments are now more interested in how they can use land for export crops; scientists have been switched to work on these crops. This is reflected in research spending. In the 1980s, around 90 per cent of the money that Latin American countries spent on agricultural research went on food crops, especially beans. There has now been an almost total change.

Only about 20 per cent of agricultural research spending is devoted to food crops, while 80 per cent is going to export crops. These are now the priorities of Latin American countries. Land is not seen, primarily, as the place on which to grow food for local people, but as something from which a country can earn more foreign exchange. In some countries on the continent, research into small farmer problems has been virtually abandoned. In the absence of adequate technical assistance to sustain the production of food staples, small farmers have been forced into growing export crops.

Latin America's poor are paying the price of this drastic shift to export agriculture. In towns and cities across the continent, beans are now frequently scarce as land which once grew beans now grows vegetables for export. Beans contribute around 30 per cent of the protein consumed by the continent's 200 million low-income families. Most bean farmers are now trying to grow vegetables for export and devoting less of their land (often already small) to beans for their own use. Millions of the poor have seen their food security decline as a result.