We had to rub our eyes to quite believe what we were reading. But there it was, black on white: the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in its latest Global Report on Food Crises, reports that “the worsening economic situation in Venezuela might also cause severe shortages of consumer goods, including food and medicine. Hence, food security here will need to be monitored.”
Even as we welcome FAO starting to come to grips with what’s happening here, the report’s drafting is pathetic. That “might“ will raise the anger of the millions of Venezuelans who waste hours each week lining up for scarce items. It will read like cruel mockery to the 73% of Venezuelans who’ve lost, on average, almost 8.7 kg in bodyweight in the last year because they can’t find enough food. That “might” is the sound of a bureaucrat fretting about what the horse might do now that the stable door’s been opened… about a month and a half after the horse decamped to a neighboring state.
None of us has forgotten that, in June 2013, Nicolás Maduro travelled to Rome to accept a FAO Award in recognition of Venezuela’s “notable and exceptional efforts” in the fight against hunger. The award was already a scandal in 2013, based as it was on plainly made-up statistics. Bizarrely, in 2015, Venezuela got the award a second time!
In the two years since, as a hunger crisis has taken hold of Venezuela, these FAO awards have morphed into something beyond scandal. They’re a macabre insult to hungry Venezuelans, a monument to the outside world’s destructive cluelessness about what was happening here.
The awards were a huge propaganda coup for the government and have featured in official discourse heavily ever since. It figures, “guaranteeing food security” was always one of the revolution’s central goals. It’s been officially enshrined in countless documents going all the way back to Chávez’s first development plan.
How FAO could’ve thought those conditions were being achieved in Venezuela in 2013 remains a dark mystery.
Food security isn’t just a nice sentiment, it’s a rigorously defined concept: “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (1996 World Food Summit). To achieve food security, all four dimensions have to be fulfilled simultaneously: physical availability of food, economic and physical access to food, food utilization and stability of the other dimensions over time.
How FAO could’ve thought those conditions were being achieved in Venezuela in 2013 remains a dark mystery. The government’s policy mix for agriculture has been plainly incompatible with food security for as long as anyone can remember.
Venezuelan farmers have said, time and time again, that the main obstacles for domestic production are the lack of access to inputs: fertilizer, herbicides, seeds, spare parts and machinery. The government has systematically taken over each of these markets, expropriating existing producers and substituting existing functional systems with new systems that don’t work at all.
Even if the input situation was worked out, agricultural output markets are a mess. Price controls ignore the real cost structures, making production a money-losing proposition in many cases.
The government has systematically taken over each of these markets, expropriating existing producers and substituting existing functional systems with new systems that don’t work at all.
And, let’s not forget that many previous international suppliers won’t come back until existing debts are settled. Debts generated by an inefficient FX exchange control system: dollars approved but never disbursed by the Central Bank.
These are messages that have taken FAO far too long to process. Here are some more:
Don’t let anyone tell you our recession is because oil prices fell. It’s because our policy makers failed.
It’s important to keep on reminding the world that the crisis erupted in the first semester of 2014, when oil prices averaged US$ 95 per barrel. And while “normal” scarcity levels average 5%, the official scarcity index reached 28% in January 2014, this being the last scarcity index published by the Central Bank.
Colas and shortages are not due to distribution problems; they are due to supply bottlenecks
In February 2017, representatives of the Confederation of Associations of Agricultural Producers (known in Spanish as Fedeagro) claimed that Venezuelan food production covers 30% of domestic consumption. It covered 70% barely 10 years ago.
In mid-March 2017, the Venezuelan Chamber of Food Industry (known in Spanish as Cavidea) estimated that food production in the country had fallen 40% since 2015. And if the decline of domestic production isn’t worrying enough, Cavidea also reminds us there is no money to make up the shortfall with imports.
Maduro and his combo actually think that if we can’t find produce in the supermarket, we can simply grow it at home in the cities
Faced with these dire, structural shortcomings to the nation’s food system, Maduro and his combo actually think that if we can’t find produce in the supermarket, we can simply grow it at home in the cities; hence, the creation of the Ministry for Urban Agriculture. Thing is, as even Anabella’s mom can tell you, trying to grow the food you need in a city home is just plain nonsense.
The Maduro Diet is no joke
Official figures on food consumption have not been updated since the first semester of 2014.
Official data on child malnutrition used to come from the National Nutrition Surveillance System by the National Institute of Nutrition, but the last official posting from this source was in 2007. Unicef showed some preliminary figures in 2011 and FAO included Venezuela in the last report on the Food Security Situation of Latin America using figures from 2009.
Why is the government hiding the data? Because the data is horrible.
Caritas SAMAN –a monitoring system based on sentinel surveillance– showed global acute malnutrition (GAM) levels of 8.9% in kids between 6 months and 5 years of age in 25 of the poorest parishes in the Capital District, Miranda, Vargas and Zulia between October and December 2016. After including 6 new parishes between January and February 2017, GAM levels reached 10.2%, surpassing the 10% threshold that defines a “serious humanitarian crisis.”
FAO disgraced itself with its 2013 and 2015 awards, and is only now, very partially and belatedly, starting to wake up to the facts about Venezuela’s hunger crisis. The time for bureaucratic cageyness is behind us. It’s time to call a spade a spade. Venezuelans are going hungry in unprecedented numbers. That’s a fact nobody wins an award for.