• Latin America and the Caribbean play a lead role in reimagining agriculture, with the region’s farming systems ranking among the world's most dynamic.
  • The area has fed a fast-growing population while facilitating economic development, but in some parts at the expense of the environment.
  • Two experts from the World Bank explain how the region can adopt a more sustainable agriculture model, and why.

We live in an era of large-scale disruptions and fast-paced technological advances that are transforming many aspects of our lives: health, education, transport, communications, among others. But changes taking place in one area are particularly key for our future: agriculture. Where is it going and how will it define our future on this planet?

Latin America and the Caribbean plays a lead role in writing that script. Some of the region’s farming systems rank among the most dynamic worldwide. They have successfully fed a fast-growing population, facilitated economic development, generated substantial exports, and helped drive down global hunger and poverty. But many agri-food systems in Latin America and the Caribbean are technically inefficient, socially inequitable, fiscally irresponsible, and environmentally unsustainable. Which model will win out in the future that successfully addresses these challenges?

To explore possible scenarios and policies that will make or break sustainable development, we published a new World Bank report, Future Foodscapes: Reimagining Agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean. It offers a fresh way to think about the role of agriculture in Latin America, today and in the years to come.

Latin America´s agri-food systems are also important globally. The region is the world’s largest provider of ecosystem services, and it supplies an important share of the world’s food supply.

Natural resource endowments, Latin America share of world total

A chart showing how Latin America compares to the rest of the world in terms of natural resources
Latin America has a wealth of natural resources.
Image: World Bank

Net exports of agriculture products by region, 1992–2016

a chart showing the growth of global food exports by region
Latin American food exports have grown considerably.
Image: World Bank

These impressive achievements have come at a cost, however.

Agriculture uses over one-third of the region’s land area, consumes nearly three-quarters of the region’s freshwater resources, and generates almost one-half of the region’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While LAC is particularly rich in terms of its agrobiodiversity endowments, the rise of monoculture cultivation threatens that diversity. And the expansion of the agricultural frontier remains the main driver of deforestation in the region.

The existence in some countries of a large-scale, productive commercial agriculture sector, well-integrated into global value chains, tends to mask a parallel reality in which many small-scale farmers and ranchers depend on low-productivity agriculture for their livelihoods and are frequently challenged to meet their basic subsistence needs.

In many countries, poverty levels remain highest in rural areas in which agriculture predominates. And despite the consistent food production surpluses, millions of Latin Americans regularly go hungry or suffer from malnutrition, overweight and obesity and related diseases: in 2016, the share of the region’s population suffering from undernourishment exceeded 10 % in seven countries, while nearly 60 % of the region’s population of the entire region was overweight.


The challenges ahead

The longstanding challenges associated with the region’s agri-food systems have taken on increased urgency. COVID-19 is ravaging many economies in Latin America and impacting millions of people who have lost their jobs and are struggling to earn enough to feed their families.

Transformation and increased resilience of agri-food systems are all the more critical, especially since Latin America agri-food systems are predominantly informal and employ some of the poorest and most vulnerable people, often in remote and lagging areas.

So where should policy makers be directing their attention?

To address this question, the World Bank brought together influential thought leaders and development partners to build alternative scenarios for the future of the agri-food sector in Latin America. Building on these, our new report proposes a menu of 20 actions that policy makers can tailor to the circumstances of individual countries as they build forward better following the COVID-19 crisis and pursue sustainable and inclusive agri-food systems.

The 20 actions include measures that can be considered imperative and should be undertaken regardless of a country’s particular circumstances and measures that are more discretionary in nature and will depend on a country’s aspirations and appetite to bear risk.

The first group of proposed actions are considered imperative either because they are ‘no regrets’ actions that are guaranteed to deliver benefits (examples include investing in agricultural research, and reducing food loss and waste) or because they are needed to protect against potentially catastrophic risks (for example, establishing early famine warning systems, or strengthening defenses to guard against food-borne diseases).

The second group of proposed actions are considered discretionary because they may or may not pay off. They include measures designed to keep open options to seize opportunities that may emerge in future (for example, building capacity to produce nutritionally enhanced foods and nutraceuticals), as well as potential ‘game changers’ that could fundamentally revolutionize the trajectory of agri-food systems but require large capital investment and sustained political commitment—things like eliminating all distortionary subsidies, making agri-food systems carbon neutral, and declaring all-out war on junk food.

Fulfilling the promise of sustainable agri-food systems is not effortless: it will require appropriate strategies, well-crafted policies, robust investments, and strong institutions staffed by capable people. But the pay off – whether measured in growth, food security, nutrition, natural resources or climate change mitigation – is eminently worth it. Let’s roll up our sleeves and make it happen!