In an exclusive interview with ChileCarne, Ignacia Fernández, Chilean Undersecretary of Agriculture, talked about the role of food security in today’s world and the strategic actions Chile is taking to guarantee it. Fernández explained how the strategy aims to increase production and access to nutritious food, tackle the challenges of climate change, and promote public-private partnership to ensure food safety throughout the production chain. She also described the progress that has been made and the goals that are changing the food security landscape in Chile.

– How important is food security today and what is being done to guarantee it in Chile?

Ensuring that all people, regardless of age or background, have access to adequate and sufficient food must be a top priority for every country. In Chile, the COVID-19 pandemic made apparent that there is still plenty to be done to solve this problem. Before the pandemic, according to data from the 2017 National Socioeconomic Characterization Survey (CASEN), 10.2% of people experienced moderate food insecurity, that is, unpredictable access to food or having to accept lower quality food, while 3.4% experienced severe food insecurity which, in the worst cases, could mean going one or more days without eating. At the height of the pandemic, 25% of households that saw their income drop suffered food insecurity, and for the first and second quintiles that figure was 30% and 20%, respectively (UNDP-Social Development Ministry, Socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic in Chilean households, 2020).

Facing this reality and the multiple causes behind food insecurity is part of our ministry’s mandate, in close partnership with other public services. This is why last May we announced the National Sovereignty Strategy for Food Security, to protect the right to food and set the fundamental principles that guarantee that right for all people. The strategy adopts a comprehensive approach that addresses the various links of the agri-food value chain, from production to consumption, including cross-cutting actions considering sustainability, gender equality, rural youth, decent work, partnerships, etc. Far from a protectionist approach, the strategy proposes a definition of food sovereignty that aims to strengthen agricultural production, local trade, and the agroexporting sector.

– How will this strategy strengthen food production and security? 

To implement the proposal, we are working on an Action Plan that coordinates the policies and programs from different ministries that help guarantee the right to food.

A key issue for food security, in which various ministries are involved, is the fight against malnutrition. Malnutrition is when a person’s diet does not have enough nutrients, which can result in malnutrition but also overweight, obesity, and noncommunicable diseases related to the diet, which are increasingly frequent. While 23.5% of children and adolescents from pre-school to year 9 had obesity in 2019, that figure went up to 31% in 2021, a 7.5% increase in two years (2021 Nutritional Map Report, Junaeb – the Student Aid and Scholarships Board).

This is why we have to guarantee physical, social, and affordable access to safe nutritious food in sufficient quantity to meet nutritional requirements and food preferences for people to lead active and healthy lives. This is only feasible by building a sustainable food system that makes healthy diets accessible for all. Some of the initiatives of the Action Plan, such as micro food banks to help reduce food loss and waste, are an example of the work that we are promoting in this area and which we seek to implement in partnership with other ministries and local governments.

The Ministry of Agriculture in particular is working on a program to support the sustainable production and trading of vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods that are part of the basic household food basket. It will help us increase the supply of safe, healthy foods from rural family farming, thus improving access for Chilean households. We believe that strengthening the production and trading capacity of agricultural products in the domestic market will improve their availability and affordability, as they are often not sufficiently consumed by families because of their unaffordable prices.

During the first year, the program will focus on supporting the production of vegetables, tomatoes, and potatoes, as these foods represent a significant share of the fresh foods needed to ensure a healthy diet and are also strategic for Chile’s agriculture. The following years, we aim to expand to other strategic areas for production and household consumption.

– What are Chile’s main food security challenges and how are they being addressed?

One of the main challenges we face to ensure food production is climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), by 2050 we will need to produce 50% more food to feed the population, a challenge that is complicated by the climate situation.

Chile is considered highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on natural systems and communities. Climate change is transforming the productive capabilities of the agricultural and forestry sector, natural resources, and agroecosystems. This impacts production but it also has economic, social, and environmental repercussions. Agriculture is strategic for any country, with clear social impacts because of the jobs and supply chain it creates and the regulating demographic impacts of land use.

We are already seeing how new agro-climatic conditions are reshaping the production map, with the loss of soil suitability for certain types of conventional production in central Chile and the relocation of export products to the south, where conditions could be better for fruit farming and winemaking. Some studies show that the relocation of fruit and vegetable production to the country’s south is already underway. Goat farming will be the most impacted, while cattle farming could see better conditions in the south thanks to pasture conditions.

We are working on several actions to address this difficult situation. The National Irrigation Commission (CNR) is promoting a new Irrigation Law to update water security guarantees for small farmers while improving water efficiency, introducing irrigation agriculture in lagging areas and the ongoing improvement of irrigation systems to achieve the much-needed climate change adaptation and therefore guarantee food security. All this goes in line with advancing sustainable and equitable rural and territorial development. We expect the bill to be passed soon in order to move forward on water security.

This year we will also introduce a bill for the sustainable soil management incentive system (SIGESS, in Spanish) that will transform the current soil program and help us contribute to the soil’s agro-environmental sustainability. The system’s goals are the recovery of productive potential in degraded agricultural soils and maintaining the level of improvement achieved, which will be governed by this law.

– What measures are being implemented to ensure food safety throughout production, from farm to table?

Food safety is key to strengthening food sovereignty and security and therefore guaranteeing people’s access to sufficient safe and nutritious food. Chile’s institutional framework for food safety risk management is concentrated in three institutions: the Ministry of Health through its regional secretariats, the Ministry of Agriculture through the Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG), and the Ministry of Economy through the National Fisheries Service (Sernapesca). Additionally, the Presidential Advisory Committee of the Chilean Agency for Food Safety and Quality (ACHIPIA) is tasked with promoting interinstitutional coordination and support evidence-based decision-making.

Chile has a technically robust institutional framework for food safety and quality, which is recognized by the public. There is evidence that Chileans trust food labeling, the production process, and oversight institutions, and farmers are identified as the most trusted members of the food chain.

Although this institutional framework has made important progress in its ability to address food safety, we still need to address systemic challenges related to primary production, the harmonization and integration of SAG’s and the Ministry of Health’s surveillance and control programs for pesticide residues in fruit and vegetable products, which would help strengthen risk management by optimizing resources and efficiency in the system’s performance. This goes in line with the latest report from the Food Information and Alerts Network (RIAL), which underscores the need to pay attention to the higher prevalence of chemical hazards, mainly pesticide residues, in fresh fruit and vegetables available countrywide.

Strengthening our institutional framework to tackle these issues is also critical. This is why in the coming weeks we will convene the ACHIPIA Council, which brings together the undersecretariats with competences in food safety, to analyze various options for formalizing this body that was created as an advisory committee but which we must work to give permanent status.

– What is the role of the private sector in promoting food security in Chile?

There is a public-private partnership to promote food security. The drafting of the Sovereignty Strategy for Food Security brought together eight ministries, 55 public agencies, including regional and local governments, 84 private institutions, 24 academic institutions, 3 international organizations, and 43 individuals. Sectoral trade associations such as Aproleche Osorno and Fedeleche (dairy), Fedefruta (fruit), and Horticrece (vegetables) are some of the private sector representatives that were part of this important initiative.

They joined the National Commission for Food Security and Sovereignty (CNSSA), inaugurated on June 16, 2022, at La Moneda to draft the Sovereignty Strategy for Food Security and monitor its implementation.

In the coming months, as we move forward with the implementation of the Action Plan, we expect to add more regional and local governments, many of which are already implementing actions that the central government should join to support feeding the population in different contexts.

– What strategies are being implemented to strengthen the response capacity to potential crises or natural disasters that could impact food production?

As I mentioned before, climate change stresses agriculture due to the higher intensity and occurrence of extreme events that impact crops, harvest, and agricultural and forestry land. These agroclimatic events are often combined with other plant health issues that produce recurrent emergencies that we need to address separately, with higher anticipation and prevention capacities and more coordination with other institutions that have risk mitigation tools and response strategies.

One example of this is our work with Chilehuevos (egg producers), the Chilean Economic Development Agency (CORFO), Banco Estado, and Agroseguros (public farming insurance provider) to address the economic impact of the Avian influenza outbreak on poultry production.

We created a technical roundtable with SAG and the industry to strengthen the surveillance and early warning network to reduce and control new outbreaks, and we have also supported the recovery of impacted producers with competitiveness, technical assistance, and recovery tools.

This set of instruments represents the government’s cross-sector effort to provide public policy solutions in the event of an unforeseen crisis such as Avian influenza, prioritizing good management, the efficient use of public resources, and the ability to coordinate public-private partnerships. Another goal is to lay the foundations for a work methodology that can be useful in similar events that might challenge the public sector’s ability to provide lasting solutions.

How is food security monitored in Chile, and what are the key indicators to measure progress in this area?

In Chile, we use the CASEN to report data on food insecurity. The survey contains relevant data on the prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity across the country broken down by region, gender, ethnicity, poverty level, etc. It should be noted that these data were first reported in the 2017 CASEN, after including FAO’s Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) to assess Chile’s situation and being able to compare with other countries to monitor the UN’s 2030 Agenda (SDGs). The 2022 CASEN will provide an update on food insecurity in Chile.

On the other hand, Junaeb produces an annual Nutritional Map to assess the nutritional situation of students from preschool to year 9 throughout the country and provide alerts, reporting on malnutrition, stunted growth, and overnutrition (overweight, obesity, and severe obesity), from which the nutritional situation of Chilean households can be inferred, with data broken down by region, gender, ethnicity, and nationality.

The Ministry of Agriculture follows up the work carried out by the National Food Security and Sovereignty Commission and soon we expect to release a series of indicators and goals related to the program to support sustainable production and supply of nutrient-rich foods.