Photo: Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil

Why is hunger still chronic in Brazil?

Problem has been worsening in the last five years in Latin America and could become even more critical in 2021, warns the UN

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In 2019, 47.7 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean lived with hunger, equivalent to 7.4% of the population. The situation has worsened in the last five years, with an increase of 13 million undernourished people in the region, ironically, one of the largest producers and exporters of food in the world. The wealth in land and water is one factor that leads FAO, the UN‘s Food and Agriculture Organization, to forecast that the region will be responsible for 25% of the world’s exports of agricultural products by 2028.

Even with these positive projections from the economic and production point of view, inequality ends up being an obstacle to sustainable and inclusive agricultural growth, which would improve the food security situation in the continent. If nothing changes, FAO estimates that by 2030, hunger will affect 67 million in Latin America, according to the organization’s edition of Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean 2020.

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In 2019, in addition to the number of famished people, another 191 million (one in three Latin Americans) were in a situation of moderate or severe food insecurity – meaning that they were people without access to sufficient and nutritious food that year.

And that figure does not yet include the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic; another aggravating factor pointed out in the agency’s reports. Oxfam, an international organization that works to find solutions to poverty problems, warned in a report released at the end of 2020 that more than 120 million people in the world would be placed in a situation of hunger, a direct consequence of the economic and social context generated by the disease. Brazil is among the 10 countries with the highest hunger rate pointed out by the organization, alongside India and South Africa.

In the Brazilian case, the emergency aid paid throughout 2020 to the unemployed, micro-entrepreneurs, and informal workers, including mothers who are heads of household, in the amount of BRL 600 (and then halved in the last months of 2020, and with residual withdrawals in January 2021) was a key factor so that the problem was not further aggravated.

Proposed by the National Congress at the beginning of the pandemic, the program became the target of a political dispute after President Jair Bolsonaro, who was reluctant to grant financial aid at the time, see his popularity grow and take advantage of the momentum – the same president who, in 2019, declared in an interview with the international press that “talking about hunger in Brazil is a big lie”.

“When the president says that there is no hunger in Brazil, he probably refers to skeletal bodies, the stereotyped image of hunger in an intense crisis. Today we have less of that in Brazil, but what we do have throughout our history is the inexplicit structural hunger, which remains on the regular course and is the result of social inequality,” defines the Brazilian historian, master in Social History from the University of São Paulo (USP) and researcher of eating habits, Adriana Salay.

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High prices are one more ingredient in the chronic problem of hunger

During 2020, several countries in Latin America faced problems of distribution and rising food prices. In Argentina, in the first months of the pandemic, several foods were missing from supermarkets, such as natural yogurt and certain types of sugar. In Brazil, the price of the main combination in the population’s dish, rice with beans, went up by 20% and 32% respectively, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

Accumulated food inflation in Brazil reached 16%, according to the Foundation Institute for Economic Research (Fipe). It is the biggest increase since the implementation of the Real Plan in the early 1990s, after a critical period following the impeachment of then-President Fernando Collor de Mello and years of hyperinflation in the late 1980s and successive changes in the country’s currency and economic plans.

The lack of control in exports in mid-2020 is pointed out by Salay as one of the reasons for the increase in food prices, apart from the growth in demand: with more time at home, people bought more at the supermarket, especially staple foods. “We need to preserve those who are in a situation of economic vulnerability with some control by the state,” suggests Salay.

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There is also a lack of incentives for family farming, whose producers are the ones who actually plant to feed the population daily. Social context analysis is also necessary, says the researcher, for seeking solutions to allow families to cook more at home. It is possible that a person is in a situation of hunger and, at the same time, is overweight, emphasizes Salay, due to the lack of fresh foods, but a greater amount of ultra-processed and industrialized food, which end up being the fastest option available.

“What we see in Brazil is that vulnerable families are already (those less favored) to cook at home. Women are the ones who most often manage this household, (but also) work, take public transport. And then you will you tell them to cook more fresh foods? ” emphasizes the researcher.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes