"Hunger is a crime," says José Graziano

On June 6, 2015, José Graziano da Silva was re-elected as director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). He was first elected to the position in June 2011, starting his term in early 2012, just after the end of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s second term as president of Brazil. Years prior, Mr. Graziano was part of the Lula administration, serving between 2003 and 2004 as the minister of Food Security and the Fight Against Hunger.

He also coordinated the elaboration of the Fome Zero (“Zero Hunger”) program and oversaw its implementation. Zero Hunger was the first step towards Bolsa Família, certainly Lula’s most famous policy. The cash-transfer program, which provides a minimum monthly cash deposit for families in extreme poverty, is the main source of income for 21 percent of Brazilian families, according to the Ministry of Social Development.

Mr. Graziano joined FAO in 2006 as head of the Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean and supported the “Latin America and the Caribbean without Hunger Initiative“. The project led to the region’s commitment to being the first region in the world to eradicate hunger by 2025.

He has written or edited more than 25 books on rural development, food security, and the agrarian economy and regularly contributes to important publications and high-level discussions on food security and sustainable agriculture. Born in the United States on November 17, 1949, he is a Brazilian and Italian citizen and has two children and three grandchildren.

In 2014, for the first time in its history, Brazil was no longer listed in the World Hunger Map, which features countries in which over 5 percent of the population ingests fewer calories than recommended. In 2013, 3 percent of the Brazilian population ate less than they should. A report published in July 2017, however, alerted that there is a risk that the country will return to the next Hunger Map due to a high level of unemployment, the rise of poverty levels, cuts to Bolsa Família’s budget, and the federal spending cap approved by the Temer government, which froze public spending for 20 years.

The Brazilian Report spoke with Mr. Graziano from Rome, where FAO is located and where he is currently living. In this interview, he talks about what Brazil and the world needs to do in order to ensure that every person has access to food.

What did the Zero Hunger program achieve, in your opinion? Has the situation changed since the Workers’ Party left the government in 2016?

The legacy left by Zero Hunger made it possible to end hunger in Brazil, and demonstrated how hunger is not just a function of food production. Brazil has long been a major food producer and it was hard to understand how people could go hungry in one of the world’s leading beef and grain exporting countries. Zero Hunger showed that people did not have access to food because prices were high in relation to prevailing income levels. Even when prices are relatively low, food may still be inaccessible to those not having jobs, or at least quality jobs, and earning low wages. Zero Hunger’s strategy, therefore, was to turn several existing and novel social programs into public policies that merged into a food security strategy.

Through Zero Hunger, as a first step, along with other fundamental measures such as raising the minimum wage and generating over ten million formal jobs, President Lula’s government lifted nearly 40 million Brazilians out of extreme poverty. Each of those initiatives helped improve access to food, in addition to creating new institutions such as community restaurants, food supply centers and the direct purchase of school meals from family farmers. In other words, a number of different policies converged towards the goal of ending hunger. Besides ending hunger, the goal was also to end all forms of malnutrition, in line with Goal 2 of the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda.

Of course, the program began as a feeble effort in the face of huge problems. There were administrative shortcomings, mostly due to the novelty of a ministry focused on food security (the Ministry of Social Development and the Fight Against Hunger, established in 2003). I believe that other spheres beyond the federal government failed to internalize the program and, for many reasons, it was not replicated by state and municipal authorities.

Is Brazil getting close to ensuring food security for all its citizens? What needs to be done for that to happen?

As you know, in 2014 Brazil was removed from the World Hunger Map, having reportedly overcome hunger, with less than 5 percent of the people experiencing food insecurity. Its experience shows the need for firm action by the government through a cluster of social programs organized around the concept of food security. Specific actions, such as the Food Purchase Program, credit for small farmers and seed banks, in addition to the Food Stipend, are fundamental tools for fighting poverty.

They would be insufficient, however, unless they were combined with macroeconomic measures to generate inclusive growth, with formal employment, real growth of the minimum wage, robust social welfare and non–contributing rural retirement pensions. With that combination of policies, the most vulnerable sectors of Brazil’s population gained access to food staples they had never been able to afford, due to high prices and low income.

Even so, Brazil’s economic crisis ended up blocking the final consolidation of a food security policy. To fight hunger efficiently, our recommendation is always to adopt anti-cyclical measures, i.e., invest in social programs during economic recessions. Food is only one part of this. Government social spending is very important for those who are poor because they cannot afford common goods such as health and education.

The so-called poverty line is very flexible. Having or losing even a temporary informal job can push a family above or below that line. As we see in the recent Continuous National Household Sample Survey (PNAD), the informal labor market has grown since 2016 for informal or self-employed workers. The number of discouraged workers who have dropped out of the labor market rose to 4.8 million, the highest figure ever on record. When we add up the figures for unemployment (nearly 13 million), underemployment (people working too few hours) and others who could potentially be working, the total is 27.5 million. No income or insufficient income leaves the door open – wide open – to the return of hunger.

What is the state of food security worldwide? What issues worry you most today?

According to the most recent report on the “State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” published recently by FAO in partnership with other agencies, global hunger continues to rise. Today, 821 million people are facing hunger, due to three key factors: conflicts, mainly in Africa, prolonged droughts exacerbated by adverse climate events, and economic slowdowns around the world. We no longer face the limit of productivity, since we now produce enough food to feed everyone.

The big factor now is access to food, and it is up to governments to act on all three of those factors.

First of all, governments can take steps to stop wars and promote sustainable peace. Even during conflicts, they must understand that there is no ideological, political or religious reason to interrupt food production.

Second, governments can indeed act on climate change. They, of course, cannot prevent drought, but it is within their reach to keep droughts from turning into hunger.

And third, governments can prioritize social policies that protect the access of the most vulnerable families to regular and adequate food. Governments must take the moral responsibility to include the poorest people of society in their budgets.

Does political polarization in many countries around the world affect, or could it affect, food and agriculture issues?

No doubt it does. The policymaking process for food security does not follow a single school of thought or a partisan political line. It is a universal right, whatever your ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. It is essential to ensure basic rights for the poorest, including their right to adequate food. Unfortunately, in many countries, the continuity of social protection mechanisms is still not seen as a responsibility of the state. Their interruption is an incalculable negligence, which often causes a relapse into impoverishment and extreme poverty.

I reaffirm what I said along with Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Esquivel in a recent article we co-wrote for El País: “There is no way around it. There can be no appeasing. In a world that produces enough food to feed everyone, hunger is no less than a crime.”

What country do you see as a model to be followed? Why?

After its positive outcomes in little over a decade, Brazil’s strategies against hunger are widely seen as providing guidance and benchmarks for other countries. They are a source of inspiration for many nations’ efforts to fight structural hunger with coordinated public policies that are embedded in the national budget. Yet, as I often say, there is no single model to follow.

Each country must adapt its food security policy to its own reality. To end hunger, each country must put together its own bill of fare.

In your opinion, is it possible to reconcile the interests of agribusiness with sustainability (in a broad sense)?

The FAO and its member countries have taken significant strides towards raising agricultural yields and sustainability, including sectors of large-scale agribusiness. For decades, the FAO has been on the vanguard of sustainable agriculture. It has been at the forefront of defining concepts and promoting international treaties, policies, strategies, and programs for the sustainable development of food and agriculture.

We recall Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner revered as the father of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, as an FAO consultant in India and other countries, whose expertise on hybridization brought extraordinary leaps in the yields of major global grain crops such as wheat, maize, and rice.

FAO and its member countries have developed many approaches and structures such as the “Ecosystem approach to fisheries and aquaculture,” the “Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock,” “Sustainable Forest Management” and “Climate-Smart Agriculture,” the latter of which deals directly with challenges of water scarcity. They have been adopted on a variety of scales in many different countries.

Now we must use the wealth of expertise and experience gained through those programs to develop a shared vision and approach, integrated through sustainability, for all of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Such a unified outlook – valid for all sectors of agriculture and taking into account social, economic and environmental aspects – will ensure the efficacy of local actions.

You are in your second term at the FAO. What have been your most important achievements in the organization? What do you still hope to accomplish?

I have tried to focus the Organization’s contribution and make it more effective towards the core goal I brought to the office in 2012: the fight against hunger and all forms of malnutrition. We are not simply an agriculture organization, but above all an organization for and about food. Six years ago, when I arrived in Rome, we reduced our eleven strategic objectives to five and we were managed based on results, with a work plan and a budget approved based on consensus among FAO member countries.

To work more effectively, FAO identified five priority areas where we are best positioned to intercede and provide guidance. Those priorities – or Strategic Objectives, as we call them internally – help us promote our vision of a world free of hunger and malnutrition, where food and agriculture contribute to reducing poverty and improving everyone’s standard of living, in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable manner.

That approach set the stage for the Organization to embrace the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by countries in 2015 for the entire United Nations system. Ours was one of the first agencies to provide countries with high-quality, SDG-aligned assistance.

We have also strengthened the institution as a feet-on-the-ground, knowledge-based organization. We have upgraded our technical capabilities in key areas for ending hunger, such as social protection, and we have increased the effectiveness of our presence beyond our Rome headquarters, and into regions and countries. We have thus improved the direct assistance we provide while making better use of, rather than sacrificing, our historical legacy of technical knowledge on a global scale.

We have offered complete solutions for challenges identified by countries, through policies focused on alliances and partnerships with governments and with the United Nations System, as well as closer relations with non-state players such as civil society, the private sector and other development agents.

By July 31, 2019, when my second and final term will end, I hope to consolidate those accomplishments and bequeath my successor with a more solid institution, better prepared to respond to the challenges of the near future.

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MoneyOct 11, 2018

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BY Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.