By Guy Henry | Jun 05, 2017

Over 80% of the Latin American population now lives in urban areas. Many of them are poor and have limited access to healthy food at affordable prices. As a result, they suffer disproportionately from a double burden: hunger and malnutrition – caused by unbalanced diets – and their associated disease conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart failures.

On Friday, 30 October 2015, experts and food system actors from across Latin America and beyond, came together at CIAT headquarters in Cali, Colombia, to discuss food, health, and nutrition in the region. Organized by the EAT Initiative, CGIAR Consortium, and CIAT, the EATxCali Forum saw representatives from academic and government institutions, international agencies, businesses, and civil society debate our understanding of food systems dynamics, and their major challenges and opportunities. This is what they discovered.

Challenges in the LAC region

Although the recent decades have seen a great progress in reducing hunger, poverty, and infectious diseases throughout Latin America, major development challenges persist for the region:

  • Endemic micronutrient deficiencies persist in diets, particularly of zinc, iron, and vitamin B12.
  • The overconsumption of carbohydrates and fat is contributing to growing epidemics of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related, non-communicable diseases.

“Many urban people are poor and have limited access to healthy food at affordable prices.”
Dr Sudhvir Singh
EAT Initiative

  • Decades of emphasis on economic growth, industrial food production, and export markets have led to numerous ecological and societal costs: depletion of soil, water, and other natural resources, environmental pollution, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, centralization of power in agricultural value chains, displacement of rural communities, dependence on global commodity trade and associated price swings, and food wastage.

“In Colombia, one out of every two persons is overweight or obese.”
Dr Ana Patricia Heredia
Colombian Ministry of Health

“Our biology clashes with our food technology, giving rise to a triple nutritional burden.”
Prof Barry Popkin
University of North Carolina

  • Major commodities, cereals, oil crops, and animal products are becoming more dominant in diets at the expense of regionally and locally important traditional crops, in particular, beans/legumes and coarse grains. Dramatic health as well as environmental costs have been linked with these shifts.
  • By 2050, South America will be the most urbanized region in the world (91.4%). In the absence of proper planning, urban sprawl is contributing to the degradation of a number of environmental resources, including substantial damage to environmentally sensitive areas. In addition, the informal share of the urban population growth (“slums”) will have tripled.
  • As the region is largely urbanized, the highest rates of malnutrition are now found in these poor sections of cities.
  • A growing population with greater dietary expectations will intensify demand on these already stressed food systems in the coming decades, outpacing yield gain predictions for staple grains. Limitations in land, water, and natural resource inputs; competition for arable land with non-food crops; the need to minimize further impacts on biodiversity and other ecosystem services and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and greater climatic variability further constrain food production potential.

“We must conserve crop diversity before it’s too late.”
Dr Joe Tohme




“Healthy food is on the shelves but the urban poor are priced out of the market. How do we achieve change?”
Prof. Carlos Monteiro
University of Sao Paulo

The challenges to achieving the region’s development goals are numerous, and tradeoffs are perceived between human health and environmental sustainability objectives. Yet, many of the goals can be addressed by transforming the ways we produce and consume what we eat. Food is the most significant common denominator between peoples’ health and our ecological footprint. And the framework for intervention is the food system and all the activities, infrastructure, and environment that encompass food production, processing, distribution, and consumption.


Addressing these challenges

So, what can be done to address each of the above challenges and transform how we produce, distribute, and eat food? Everyone in attendance at the EATx Cali Forum agreed that further progress in achieving health and sustainability development goals requires updating and expanding the primary objectives of our food systems. The updated role for food systems should be: to produce diverse and

healthy food within safe environmental boundaries, and ensure that sufficient quantities are continually accessible to an empowered population.

It was also agreed that to do this we must develop food systems that support sustainable agricultural production systems, including the people who derive their livelihoods from them, and that benefit and empower all consumers, particularly the most vulnerable. This will lead to more secure and resilient food production systems, rural and urban economic development, improved conservation of natural resources and ecosystem services, climate change adaptation and mitigation, energy efficiency, healthier consumers and producers, improved food safety, and savings on health care spending.

To achieve this, we need:

  • A transformation of food systems based on clear policy agendas that unite stakeholders throughout the food value chain from farmers to urban consumers. Evidence-informed policymaking (global, international, national, and local) is essential to push food systems in healthy, sustainable, and equitable directions, emphasizing the health-social-environmental public goods that food systems provide. There are many synergistic opportunities to improve human health, sustainability, and equity through food system change.
  • To start controlling the marketing of unhealthy food to allow cultural change to happen. We should emphasize that a healthy diet is a sustainable diet. We also need to define what a healthy diet is, and make these concepts widely known so that consumers can make informed choices.
  • To encourage all sorts of alternative solutions to create a sustainable, healthy diet. We need to ask: are they scalable? And can they reach low-income populations in both urban and rural areas? And how we can create a healthy sustainable food trade pact?
  • Coordination and collaboration across sectors (health, environment, agriculture, labor, etc.) pushing for the same goal.


As Dr Frank Rijsberman, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium at that time, pointed out at the EATx Cali Forum, a radical overhaul is needed to address the “Food Paradox” that sees 2 billion people in the LAC region currently malnourished while 2 billion others are considered overweight or obese. And while current initiatives have seen good progress in some areas, change will not be achieved in Latin America if we don’t transform our food systems.


Need radical overhaul to address Food Paradox: 2 billion malnourished and 2 billion overweight or obese #EATxCali
Dr Frank Rijsberman

Going forward, dramatic changes to policy, food marketing, and crop diversity use should be a high priority for the region, while buy-in from numerous sectors across the region will be essential to implementing these changes successfully and seeing the best results.

Interested in discovering more about CIAT’s work on Sustainable Food Systems, visit our website. Learn more about EAT click here.

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