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UN Expert Calls on Argentina to Prioritise Family Farming, Right to Food.

The article below was published in South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #8760, 26 September 2018.

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Argentina: Family farming should be given high priority, says UN expert

Geneva, 25 Sep (Kanaga Raja) -- The Government of Argentina should promote family farming as a high priority in order to achieve the goal of adequate and healthy food for all Argentinians, a United Nations human rights expert has said.

"This is the only way to achieve a balance between current robust industrial agriculture and the developing agro-ecological production system. Achieving this balance is the only way to reach a sustainable and just solution for the people of Argentina," said Ms Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

The rights expert conducted an official visit to the country from 12-21 September 2018.

"I understand the challenges faced by Argentina, but I am critical of the Government's decision to take advantage of the ongoing economic crisis to dismantle support for the country's family farming sector by laying off almost five hundred workers and experts from the Ministry of Agroindustry," said Ms Elver, as she presented her preliminary observations at the end of the 10-day fact-finding mission to the country.

"This action seems to be targeted to further promote export-orientated industrial agriculture mainly of soybean and maize," she added.

"The adoption of such policies in the middle of a severe economic crisis, which has already significantly increased poverty and diminished the purchasing power of the poor, will intensify the impact on Argentina's realization of the right to food," Ms Elver underlined.

"In crisis situations with acutely high inflation, people who are already vulnerable such as landless peasants, agricultural workers, migrants, and indigenous peoples are further hit, with the livelihoods of many put at risk."

"During the visit I have observed an increasing number of people going to soup kitchens, or skipping meals, and children being forced to rely for their daily meals entirely on school feeding programmes," said the rights expert.

In her end-of-mission statement, Ms Elver noted that Argentina is facing a situation of economic and financial crisis.

"This current emergency situation can have a direct impact on the poverty levels and peoples' livelihoods and leads me on this occasion to assess some of the more direct impacts on the Argentinian population's right to food."

In mid-2018, said the Special Rapporteur, Argentina experienced a series of shocks combined with economic vulnerabilities that exerted immense pressure on the peso.

One such shock is the severe drought impacting soy production - Argentina's main export and a key source of government revenue - which reduced Argentina's agricultural economic output by almost a third.

Argentina has since reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) establishing a fiscal arrangement designed to address the financial crisis.

Ms Elver said that the indirect impacts of the economic crisis cannot be underestimated and all necessary means should be taken to ensure that peoples' rights and livelihoods are not adversely affected by declining purchasing power and increasing food prices.

"I am aware that during the 2001 financial crisis and its aftermath, enormous numbers of Argentinians fell below the poverty line. A repetition of this experience should be avoided at all costs," said Ms Elver.

The rights expert pointed out that despite a wide range of well-formulated and well-intended legal structures and strategies to ensure the realisation of the right to food, Argentina does not have an explicit constitutional protection on the right to food at the domestic level and hence lacks the opportunity to address right-to-food issues in a comprehensive and multi-dimensional manner.

The Special Rapporteur noted that the agricultural sector contributes to just below 10 per cent of gross domestic product.

Argentina is a leading producer of soybeans, cereals, vegetables, as well as honey, lemons, beef and sunflower seed oil and produces enough food to provide for its 42 million population.

In recent decades, Argentina's production profile has become less diverse, with certain commodities, and particularly, soy and derivative products, replacing others.

The surface cultivated with soy has now increased to 19 million hectares, which is 56 per cent of the cultivated area in Argentina.

This year's unprecedented drop in expected production due to drought has caused Argentina to increase soybean imports. In March 2018, imports reached a historic high of almost a million tonnes.

"This highlights the vulnerabilities of the agricultural sector. The current crisis can provide an opportunity to further diversify and reform the sector," said Ms Elver.

Despite land concentration with the expansion of agribusiness, family farming has persisted in Argentina, she noted.

Seventy-two per cent of all farming establishments in Argentina are in the family farming sector which includes activities such as agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forestry production, agro-industrial artisan production, traditional harvesting, handicrafts and rural tourism. It represents around 20 per cent of agricultural GDP.

According to the Special Rapporteur, family farming represents around 250,000 productive establishments that involve 2,000,000 people (approximately 5 per cent of the country's total population), according to the data of the National Agricultural Census 2002. They produce around 40 per cent of vegetables for the Argentinian domestic market.

"Many small-scale farmers have been unable to take advantage of Argentina's growing agricultural economy as industrial agriculture is under the control of a few large companies."

Lack of access to credit due to high interest rates prevent most small-scale farmers from access to investment in the agricultural sector.

"During interviews with officials at the Ministry of Agroindustry, I observed a tendency of support geared towards the industrial agricultural model with the Family Agriculture sector facing severe cuts in support, personnel and their budget, including the lay-off of almost 500 workers and experts," said Ms Elver.

The Special Rapporteur strongly encouraged that programmes are strengthened in order to support and protect this crucially important sector.

Also tax schemes in the agricultural sector should protect small-scale farmers and their right to adequate food, and not only advantage the industrial export sector.

The Special Rapporteur said that during her mission, she had the opportunity to visit farms in the greater Buenos Aires area that practice agro-ecology.

"Agro-ecological practices have [been] shown to be successful in many parts of the world, not only producing impressive yields but also promoting environmentally friendly practices and local producers."

Ms Elver said that agro-ecology as such represents an important alternative to industrial, monoculture agriculture which should be seriously considered by the Government in order to achieve diversification, sustainability, as important inputs for the school feeding program, the protection of natural resources, management of climate change and protection of small-scale farmers.

The Special Rapporteur also noted that Argentina is one of the world's leading consumers of beef. Conversely, consumption of fruits and vegetables remains low, with only 6 per cent of the population consuming the amount of fruits and vegetables recommended by the Dietary Guidelines of the World Health Organisation.

Consumption of highly-processed food products rich in fats, sugar, salt, and additives, have also contributed to poor nutrition, particularly among children and adolescents.

Argentina consumes the highest yearly amount per capita of ultra-processed products - 194.1 kg - in the region and leads the consumption of soft drinks with 131 liters per capita per year.

As a result, Argentina is one of the countries in the region with the highest rates of both childhood and adult obesity. Some 60 per cent of Argentinians are overweight or obese, including 40 per cent of children.

Argentina is also one of the leading producers of genetically modified seeds. It produces 14 per cent of the world's total biotech crops.

Argentina has more than 22 million hectares of agricultural regions dedicated to the growth of soybean (around 95 per cent), cotton and maize using genetically modified technology.

The Special Rapporteur recommended that the State create plant banks in order to maintain a genetic diversity of seeds and to ensure access to equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such genetic resources.

"This is further important to protect traditional seed exchanges among farmers to promote food sovereignty."

With the increase in production of genetically modified organisms and the agrochemical industry in Argentina, herbicide, pesticide and insecticide use has soared.

The last 25 years has witnessed an almost tenfold increase in the use of pesticides, from 38 million to 370 million kg, with an increase in the cultivation area of 50 per cent, from 20 million hectares to 30 million hectares.

Glyphosate, which in 2015 was declared by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen, is applied in Argentina indiscriminately without due consideration to the existence of schools and villages, said the Special Rapporteur.

"Company guidelines or provincial laws do not issue advance warnings to surrounding communities. As a result, I was informed of dramatic loss of lives and an increase in cases of life threatening diseases."

A study carried out by the University of La Plata found that the majority of the population consumes fruits and vegetables that have been applied with agrochemicals.

"Pesticide exposure can have very dangerous impacts on human health, with children and pregnant women being particularly vulnerable to their effects," said Ms Elver.

The rights expert said Argentina is devoting more agricultural land to soy production, and soil depletion and land degradation are becoming an increasing concern.

More than 3 million hectares of forest were destroyed in the past decade to make space for grain production and livestock. Argentina has an approximate rate of deforestation of around 27 million hectares per year.

"In the context of large-scale industrial agriculture, it is vital that development plans and policies take into account the true cost of particular farming methods on soil and water resources, and the impact of environmental degradation on future generations, rather than focusing only on short-term profitability and economic growth," said Ms Elver.

In some concluding remarks, Ms Elver said: "I trust that the Government will give priority to designing and implementing effective policies and reforms with the participation of all relevant segments of society aimed at ensuring the right to adequate food and will do all in its power to avoid negative impacts of the financial crisis on the most vulnerable members of society."

The Special Rapporteur reiterated the importance of family farming to achieve the goal of adequate and healthy food for all Argentinians.

"Family farming should be promoted as a high priority in a diligent manner. This is the only way to achieve a balance between current robust industrial agriculture and the developing agro-ecological production system. Achieving this balance is the only way to reach a sustainable and just solution for the people of Argentina."

Ms Elver said she is convinced that Argentina could improve the current situation and make impressive strides in attaining food and nutrition security for everyone as soon as possible, to avoid further suffering, while at the same time keep working towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in due course. +

Argentina: Agriculture ignores the right to food

Buenos Aires, 24 Sep (IPS/Daniel Gutman) -- In front of one of the busiest railway stations in the capital of Argentina, there are long lines to buy vegetables, which farmers themselves offer directly to consumers, at prices several times lower than those seen in stores.

This scene taking place in Plaza Once, across from the railway station that connects with western Greater Buenos Aires, is one of the faces of this South American nation's economic crisis, complete with skyrocketing inflation, which has particularly hit food prices.

"We had announced that we were starting at 10 a. m., but people were lined up two hours earlier," Guillermo Riquelme, one of the family farmers enrolled in the Union of Earth Workers (UTT), who brought their produce in three trucks, as part of a special initiative, told IPS.

The UTT is an association of about 10,000 family farmers from all over the country who work farms of one or two hectares, generally leased.

They set up a vegetable market in Plaza Once, in the heart of Buenos Aires, to show that food can reach the public at affordable prices.

"We are selling our produce here for 10 pesos (0.25 dollars) per kilo. And of course we earn money anyway, because we are usually forced to sell at three pesos to intermediaries," said Roberto Eizaguirre.

Both Riquelme and Eizaguirre grow beets, carrots, lettuce, chard and other vegetables on the outskirts of the city of La Plata, some 60 km from Buenos Aires, where thousands of small farmers are concentrated.

That was one of the places visited by Hilal Elver, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who on Sept. 21 concluded a 10-day mission to Argentina with a presentation to the media, in which she made a harsh diagnosis of the situation.

She also provided the Argentine government the preliminary observations from her visit.

Elver, a Turkish lawyer who has held that post since 2014, questioned the government's policies that "seem destined to further promote the export-oriented industrial agriculture model, mainly based on soybeans and maize."

In this regard, she criticised "the government's decision to take advantage of the current economic crisis to dismantle support for family farming," firing nearly 500 workers from the Ministry of Agroindustry, which was claimed to be because of a need to reduce public spending.

The special rapporteur also visited the northern province of Chaco, one of the poorest in the country, on the border with Paraguay.

She met with indigenous Qom or Toba people, who because of poverty left their ancestral lands to move to nearby cities, but have not been able to enter the labour market.

Elver said that during her visit she saw that there were "a growing number of people who go to soup kitchens or skip a meal."

She pointed to the paradox that the government claims that this country produces enough food to supply 450 million people worldwide, while almost four million of its own citizens face serious food insecurity.

Argentina, the eighth country in the world in size with only 44 million inhabitants, has the Pampas, temperate grasslands considered one of the parts of the planet most suitable for agricultural production.

Agricultural production has an enormous importance in Argentina's economy. Last year the sector's primary and manufactured products accounted for 65 percent of the country's exports.

The national economy entered a down-slide, with the peso devaluing by 100 percent since April.

As a result, inflation - originally projected by the government to reach 15 percent this year - has soared. In the first eight months of the year it grew almost 25 percent and, in its latest update, the Finance Ministry estimated a rate of 42 percent by year-end.

But food prices rose even faster, by 88 percent in the January-June period, according to a study by the National University of Avellaneda, located in the south of Greater Buenos Aires.

"The price of a bag of flour went from 300 pesos to 1,000 pesos in just a few months, and we no longer know how to keep retail prices down. We are thinking about closing," the woman in charge of a bakery in Villa Crespo, a middle-class neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, told IPS.

This story repeats itself around the country.

"The problem is that wheat is considered in Argentina a commodity, whose price rises when the dollar rises, while here people don't earn in dollars," Tete Pinero, of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), told IPS.

"The government should regulate the domestic price of wheat so that this doesn't happen, but it does not. So today the poor are going hungry and the middle class is in serious problems," she added.

UN special rapporteur Elver appeared to make a similar assessment, when she said "the Argentine government should take more account of the direct and indirect impact of its austerity measures on access to food for the poorest."

According to the latest official data, announced in March, poverty affects 25.7 percent of the population in Argentina.

But President Mauricio Macri admitted in August that the proportion would be higher in the next survey, due to "inflation, since it is the biggest generator of poverty."

The UN official also questioned "the adverse effect on environmental resources and biological diversity" of the Argentine agricultural model.

She mentioned deforestation, with rates close to 27 million hectares per year, and the strong increase in the use of agro-chemicals.

In Argentina there are no statistics on agrochemicals, used intensively in genetically modified (GM) soy farming, which covers more than half of the area planted in the country, as well as in non-genetically modified crops.

Elver described as "miraculous" the counter-current experience represented by the small farmers enrolled in the UTT who on the outskirts of the city of La Plata "grow healthy vegetables free of pesticides."

"These production methods should have much more weight in the design of Argentina's agricultural policy," she added.

Javier Scheibengraf, technical coordinator of the UTT, explained to IPS that "we have about 100 hectares, where we work with herbicides and fertilisers that we make ourselves with manure, ash, soil and other natural products, without chemicals."

Sheibengraf said that small farmers see the advantage "of not contaminating themselves and their families with agrochemicals, because practically everyone lives in the same place where they plant their food."

"It is also the only way to lower costs because the technological package sold to us by the companies is in dollars and is becoming unaffordable, especially today, due to the devaluation of the Argentine currency and the government's decision to suspend practically all programmes to support family farming," he added. +