Latin America Is Facing Rising Rates of Hunger — and COVID-19 Likely Made It Worse
The pandemic could push malnutrition levels back 30 years in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Although Latin America is a leading food exporter, almost a third of its people experienced either moderate or severe food insecurity in 2019, according to a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other United Nations agencies.
This means that nearly 1 in 3 Latin Americans were forced to reduce the quantity or quality of their meals, or go days without eating at all.
The "Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean 2020" report reveals that after decades of progress, hunger in Latin America has been rising steadily over the past five years. Rates of obesity have also been creeping up as people struggle to afford a nutritious diet.
Since the report only analyzes data through the end of 2019, it does not reveal the impact COVID-19 has had on the region’s malnutrition levels. But the authors note that inequalities that were leading to rising hunger in recent years have only gotten worse since the pandemic ravaged livelihoods and the global economy.
“If the projections we have of the impact of the pandemic occur, we could be going back to the [malnutrition] levels of the 1990s,” Julio Berdegué, the FAO’s regional representative for Latin America, told NPR.
“We could lose 30 years in the fight against hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said. “This is what we are talking about. It is a tragedy of unfathomable magnitude for millions of human beings.”
Around the world, worsening food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic has become an urgent issue, and has even put several countries at the brink of famine.
In November, the UN released $100 million in emergency funding in an effort to forestall looming famine in countries that are most at risk, including Yemen, where roughly 80% of people have a hard time getting enough food and water to survive.
The alarming situation in Latin America is not so much due to the scarcity of food — in fact the region is a leading exporter of agriculture and fish. The problem for millions of families is that they don’t have the money they need to stay nourished and healthy.
“In Latin America there is hunger, there is food insecurity, and there is malnutrition because of a lack of purchasing power,” Berdegué said. “Hunger in Latin America fundamentally is an expression of poverty and economic inequality.”
Latin America is often identified as the most unequal region in the world. Three-quarters of Latin Americans are low or lower-middle income, and only 3% are classified as high income, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. While nearly a third of Latin Americans live beneath the poverty line, the richest 10% owns more than 70% of the wealth.
The region’s economic disparity also explains the rising rates of obesity, which reached 60% last year, according to the report. Since people who are poor are more likely to consume inexpensive, calorie-rich, processed foods to fill their stomachs, they often become overweight.
This trend is particularly concerning during the COVID-19 pandemic, as obesity increases the risk of severe illness from the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These interconnected issues — poverty, preexisting health conditions, and the COVID-19 virus — exemplify how the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities and has undermined efforts to achieve the UN’s Global Goals.
For Latin America specifically, the report indicates that the region is far off-target from reaching Global Goal 2 to end hunger by 2030. With only a decade left to eliminate the leading cause of death in the world, Latin America still had 47 million people classified as hungry and another 190 million listed as food insecure in 2019.
As COVID-19 vaccines begin to enter the market, there is hope that the world will recover from the pandemic. But the end of the virus does not guarantee less hunger or less poverty in the world. Countries will need to establish sustainable solutions that assist those who are most vulnerable.