Interview to Brazilian journalist Jamil Chade – UOL

Geneva, 10 May 2019 – From Geneva, at the sidelines of his last session of the UN System Chief Executive Board as FAO Director-General, José Graziano da Silva talked to journalist Jamil Chade, from UOL‘s portal from Brazil. Full text (in Portuguese) may be accessed from this link.

Here are some highlights.

OBESITY AND OVERWEIGHT IN THE WORLD

To the extent that eating is no longer a basic necessity for much of the world’s population, today we do not eat only to satisfy our hunger. In fact, we also eat for pleasure, with this “gourmet” approach in which, for example, we enjoy cooking with friends. This has also led to an increased demand for the origin of these gourmet products. The trend is to get what is close to home, the products of proximity. Going to a food market and meeting the local producers helps to know the origin of the product. This is an increasingly common activity in the developed world, food as a mixture of culture, pleasure and need.

In fact, much of the world’s population still bases its food on commodities. This cannot be changed radically. Fruits and vegetables, compared to flours and grains, have higher prices. So a large part of the world’s lower income population does not have access to this healthier diet based on fresh produce. While this gives a boost to commodity exporters, there will be more and more competition and lower prices. In 2019, all prices are in a general decline and everything indicates that they will continue like this for the next year. Another aspect is that when incomes decrease, there is no longer an increase in the consumption of commodities. When incomes rise, the  consumption of these basic, grain-like commodities decreases. These situations become complicated for both sides, by reducing consumption of ultra-processed products or by decreasing incomes.

In our region (Latin America), the number of obese people is already higher than those who are hungry. On average, 22% of the Latin American population is in this condition against a food insecurity index of 7%. This is due, in part, to the fall in the number of people who are hungry. We have reached very low numbers (approximately 30 million). We are, however, seeing a daunting rise in obesity. We also see this in the US, where it has been a new standard to adopt new food based on ultra-processed products with high sugar and salt content. The curious thing is that the most popular fast-food chains worldwide have made a huge effort to move away from this image.

OBESITY AND TRADE

The Caribbean region is an example of this. There are cultural factors as well, but the importing of food is also a factor. It has a direct relationship with the replacement of their food by imported, often ultra-processed products. This is more than proven, with evidence. Mexico is another case. By importing American products, we see a change in obesity related to the change in the pattern of food and the substitution of basic products. It is one thing to eat corn in the form of a tortilla, and it is another thing to eat “corn flakes” and sugary products, especially among children. Without a rule that regulates the trade in unhealthy products, it is very difficult to control the obesity epidemic, which is out of control. In the Pacific Islands, about 60% of the population is already obese.

GOOD EXAMPLES OF STATE INTERVENTIONS

In Chile, the sale of these products have started to be prohibited in school cafeterias. This alone will make a big difference in just a few years. Another good Chilean example is the labeling of products, especially the frontal model, which specifies very clearly if it has excessive salt, sugar and oil content. Adopted a few years ago in the country, such labeling is responsible for already reducing obesity, particularly among children.

FOOD SECURITY SITUATION IN LATIN AMERICA

Our evidence goes on to point out that Latin America is the region that most suffers an economic impact, unlike other regions of the world, where conflicts are more directly linked to the increase in hunger.

Latin America was the region that had advanced the most, and today, unfortunately, we see a setback. The system of coverage through social protection policies was more comprehensive and more consolidated yet it is still fading. As these foundations are compromised, hunger returns and increases similar to how it has happened, most emblematically, in Venezuela.

THE CASE OF VENEZUELA – FROM A 2014 TO THE COLLAPSE

Yes, that was in 2014. It was all lost. Venezuela was one of the 72 countries recognized by FAO for achieving the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015. During that period, the country had a hunger index ranging from only 4% to 6% of the population. Today, we are talking about an index above 15%. This means that hunger has tripled in a short period of just three or four years.

The problem in the food sector is related to the country’s economic collapse. This begins with the fall in oil prices, continues with a very complicated problem of internal economic mismanagement. And now, aggravated by the [US] blockade. In a country that depends on imports, blocking the purchase of food is nothing more than using hunger as a weapon of war. And that is what is happening in Venezuela today.

FAO is the only UN agency to have the consolidated figures, which will also be released in July. Our initial prognosis is that it has been deteriorating. There is a 15% decline in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the last year, which is directly reflected in the increase in poverty.

FOOD SECURITY SITUATION IN BRAZIL

I think it is early to judge what’s happening in Brazil. The country is undergoing a change and is looking for a new path. I get a little scared by the ideological weight that exists in this quest for a new path. When you are in government, you cease to be left or right. You have to be practical and show results. And to show results, you do not ask whether the person is fascist or communist. Is he or she hungry? You have to get food for him or her. Anyway, I would still rather wait to see what the government will actually do.

There is no doubt that there is still hunger all over the world, associated with the conflicts and impacts of climate change. However, in countries like Brazil, and Latin America in general, hunger is associated with insufficient income to buy a basic food basket.

Today’s hunger that persists in Brazil is concentrated in areas of extreme poverty, but obesity is everywhere. Hunger and obesity are two opposite sides of the same coin: the lack of access to less processed, healthy foods.

We do not have the clear evidence yet. In July 2019, we will launch the United Nations report on food and nutrition security for the first time in New York, where we will look at the numbers for 2018. So far, we can anticipate an increase in food insecurity in general due to the economic crisis, with rising unemployment.

Brazil is one of the countries where obesity is growing the most and we are still discussing which labeling model to adopt. The obese population index rose from 6.6% in 1980 to 22% in 2016. The growth of obesity has a relation with urbanization and is related to the change in our eating habits. We are also trading our rice and beans for more flour, pasta, ultra-processed products and fried foods. At USP (University of São Paulo), there are studies that show that obesity is related to the increase in consumption of these ultra-processed foods. The classification recognized by the Brazilian professor Carlos Monteiro, who is recognized worldwide, divides food between fresh, lightly processed, processed and ultra-processed.

It is known, today, that obesity is closely linked to the considerable increase in consumption of ultra-processed foods. They are products of low value and high-energy content. All of this is further amplified by the Brazilian tradition of eating and drinking a lot of sugar.

SOCIAL PARTICIPATION AGAINST HUNGER

Our experience is that hunger cannot be overcome without strong social participation. It is a society that decides to end hunger, not a government. The government does not decide to end hunger. The government helps, but it does not determine. The example comes from the USA.  They decided to end hunger in the 19th century and made a great relief program that still survives today, in the form of Food Stamps. Government enters and leaves, democrat or republican, and no one asks if this program will end. Brazil has created some programs, such as school feeding. This cannot end, especially on the grounds that this type of program spreads ideologies. These are things that need to be preserved in any context.

HUNGER AND CLIMATE CHANGE

The biggest impact at the moment is in East Africa, passing through Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. These countries have lost harvests due to prolonged droughts and changes in the rainfall regime. Ethiopia had conquered hunger and today it has receded. The country is currently dependent on food aid programs. This is due to climate change, which reduces soil fertility. Rainy seasons are still concentrated in fewer days. However, as evidence suggests, what we are seeing is the advance of the desert, especially in Africa, in the Sahel. The desert is advancing.

There is the effort to reduce the emission of gases through mitigation and to find other production models to escape this situation. Agriculture, however, is the only productive sector that sequesters carbon. In producing, we improve the climate, but the question is how to produce. Today, it is the defense of a reduction of fertilizers and chemical defenses. We now have a whole technology available for agriculture that would help reduce emissions, even in livestock farming. 

SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE?

Agriculture needs to adapt to the changing times. Today’s agriculture can be divided into two major groups: one for subsistence and another that uses the technology of the Green Revolution. This revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had a huge positive impact. If it were not for the Green Revolution, we would have had devastating hunger in Asia. This revolution allowed to increase the levels of productivity, using chemical fertilizers. Today, however, as a pattern of production, the Green Revolution is exhausted. There is no way to continue increasing income with this form of technology. It would have to incorporate new areas, including deforestation, which would be an even greater climatic disaster. The problem of agriculture is to adapt to ongoing climate change, such as rising temperatures and water shortages. We cannot find another way to produce without using the basic resources, such as sun, water and soil.

CHALLENGES TO MULTILATERALISM

Yes, no doubt. Today, the major challenge facing the UN system is the discrediting of multilateralism. We see this even in the payment of countries to organizations. Countries have imposed a zero-growth policy on the regular budget. I spent ten years on a frozen budget. It did not even boost inflation. I have $1 billion a year. That figure has not increased by one penny in the last ten years and at the same time we have accumulated inflation of 30%. In real terms, my regular budget lost 30%.

At the same time, we have received more voluntary contributions. Countries prefer to place their bets on those programs that they find important, and not paying more for the regular budget leads to a complete deviation from the system. This makes the system focus on making programs that matter to donor countries. The UN system must be an autonomous system, above countries. There are global problems and we need global solutions for them. Only an independent budget can guarantee this autonomy.

There is a revolt of those who have not been integrated into the process of globalization. That is part of the explanation. Another part is to recognize that we have a world that is going to have less and less multilateral forms of regulation. This issue of deregulation is affecting us in several areas. We are beginning to feel the effects of deregulation of which we were previously unaware. For example, linking free trade with obesity, the internet with the spread of fake news, and so many other topics.

FAO TERMS AS DIRECTOR-GENERAL: TRANSFORMATIONAL CHANGES

I found FAO of the Green Revolution, which since then has made a great effort to bring this technology to the world.  Since the 1970s there was hope that by increasing food production, it would end hunger. It was not imagined, however, that hunger was not a problem of lack of food – but, rather, of access. This idea became clear in the 1990s, when income transfer policies began. They showed that by improving access to food, hunger rates were reduced much more rapidly than by simply increasing production.

FAO had to transform itself to go back to its origins. Before, we paid close attention to agriculture and little to food. It was thought that by promoting agriculture we would solve all problems. this was not the case. Our problem was finding ways to feed people. We also look more at what people eat, including diets and poor nutrition in general. Our commitment to eradicate hunger and all forms of malnutrition depends heavily on agriculture. When I arrived, FAO was in an agricultural ghetto when famine was in the urban world. Hunger was no longer coming from the production side, but in marketing and access. And this is the FAO that I try to consolidate.

Whenever there is a change, there is resistance. Until the new paradigms are consolidated, you are battling different generations. Today, FAO does not only have agronomists, but also sociologists, and even anthropologists. This diversity of approaches is a key component in addressing current and future food challenges.