The Food and Nutrition Challenges Facing the New Government

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Camilo Olarte (@camilo_olarte) is a journalist, and José Luis Chicoma (@joseluischicoma) is the Executive Director of Ethos Public Policy Lab.

A new institutional approach to food systems that harmonizes various objectives related to economic development, inclusion, environmental sustainability, and nutrition and that implements long-term coordination of various government entities and initiatives.  

The Mexican government has failed in its obligation to provide food security: 11.3 million Mexicans experience severe food insecurity, with uncertain access to enough healthy food. Mexico is the country with the highest rate of child obesity in the world and has the second highest adult obesity rate. Coronary heart disease and diabetes are the first and second leading causes of death in Mexico.

Although agriculture represents less than 4% of Mexico’s total GDP, the agricultural sector employs more than 13% of the population, the majority of which (73%) are small-scale farmers that face a vicious cycle of a lack of support, low productivity, and poverty.

A Fractured Approach to Food Systems

The new administration has four flagship food system projects: creating the Mexican Food Security agency (Seguridad Alimentaria Mexicana – SEGALMEX), which seeks to ensure that the 36 products included in the basic food basket reach the most remote and impoverished areas; offering subsidies for the purchase of livestock; restarting Mexican fertilizer production to reduce imports; and strengthening food security through the production of staple foods.

However, these initiatives lack a holistic approach and are contradictory in their objectives.

Increasing the availability of basic products, establishing price guarantees, and supporting agricultural producers all sound like extremely popular initiatives. However, this protectionist approach to agricultural production has the potential to be extremely costly. More financially and environmentally sustainable alternatives must be evaluated to strengthen small-scale agriculture in the long term, such as training in agroecology.

Encouraging domestic production of chemical fertilizers fits nicely within a strategy of “self-sufficiency.” However, this initiative ignores the fact that promoting the production of these fertilizers is unsustainable in the long term due to the environmental impacts, soil degradation, and the threat posed to biodiversity in one of the most mega-diverse countries in the world.

It doesn’t make any sense for the government to invest in programs to reduce carbon emissions while simultaneously announcing the stockpiling of one million calves, considering that livestock farming (both extensive and intensive) is one of the main sources of greenhouse gases. This is particularly ludicrous in a country like Mexico, which is likely to be one of the countries most impacted by global climate change.  

Even if these contradictions are resolved, the new government’s programs still don’t address the broader issues of Mexico’s food system. In Mexico, the traditional diet, in which fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes occupied a significant place, has been replaced by the consumption of refined flours, sugary drinks, fats, and highly processed foods, with significant consequences on public health. Unless the technical capacities of small farmers are radically strengthened, rural agriculture is a poverty trap with no foreseeable exit.  

The Challenge Facing the New Administration: A New Institutional Approach

Mexican agriculture and food systems seem to occupy a significantly more important position in the new administration’s political agenda. As previously mentioned, it will only be possible to take advantage of this major opportunity if a “national food policy that includes food, health, and the environment” is proposed.

SEMARNAT, SAGARPA, and the Ministries of Health and Economy must work together to establish a joint comprehensive strategy. The existing agreements used to coordinate various issues among these entities are insufficient and there are serious contradictions in the objectives pursued by each. A commission that includes each of these entities must be created immediately in order to effectively address food systems, define strategies and policies, and oversee the harmonization of the objectives of each budget and program.

However, this new administration has the potential to create even more significant impact through the creation of a long-term institutional approach that goes beyond the immediate coordination potential offered by a commission and promotes the efficient accomplishment of harmonized food system objectives. This arrangement must have clear mechanisms of inclusion and transparency, particularly in terms of involving the voices of the most needy—such as small-scale farmers and consumer associations—and must also ensure that stakeholders with conflicts of interest are unable to influence policies when they bet against health, the environment, and the land.

This approach requires a proactive definition of Mexico’s global and supranational positions regarding the promotion of better food systems through political and commercial treaties. This institutional approach must also ensure similar arrangements throughout the country: it is necessary to gather input from local food system boards, as solutions to food and nutrition insecurity depend on local knowledge, climates, and other conditions that are specific to each community. Including the voices and experiences of communities and citizens will help democratize the governance of food systems and facilitate the inclusion of different communities in the design of policies and programs that directly affect them.

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