Extreme weather puts food security in doubt

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"This is my great harvest," said José Antonio López, pulling from the ground a couple of bare bean plants that failed to produce a single grain this season.
López, a 37-year-old Salvadoran campesino farmer, from Santa María Ostuma in the central department of La Paz, is one of thousands of small-scale farmers who lost crops because of near-constant rain in August. This year, he planted 1 hectare of beans and corn, which were destroyed by the rain, putting in doubt the food security for his family and for many others like him.
Rains on drenched soil
As in most of Central America, El Salvador is at risk for extreme weather, including droughts and excessive rain, both of which spell disaster for crops and put food security in risk for a population that generally just barely scrapes by.
In November 2009, Hurricane Ida slammed into Central America, killing hundreds and destroying crops and infrastructure. In El Salvador alone, 198 people were killed and the storm left $239 million in damages. Tropical Storm Agatha had another devastating effect on crops this year in Guatemala and El Salvador.
In its report "The State of Food and Nutritional Security in Latin America and the Caribbean 2010," the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that the largest impact on the region has been the drought of the previous two years, which was caused by the most recent El Niño.
In September 2009, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom declared a "state of public calamity" as the drought gripped Guatemala. There, 240 adults died of hunger, mostly women, along with 54 children, last year.
Damages from the drought reached $70 million in Central America, according to preliminary estimates by the FAO.
A year later, the region was hit by the most intense rainy season of the past decade.
In El Salvador, rains affected close to 8 percent of the national bean production.
Central America and Caribbean countries are already facing enormous challenges in food production, particularly of basic foods — corn, beans, rice and sorghum — according to the report.
Even though the number of basic grains farmers in Central America increased from 1.4 million in 1987 to more than 2 million in 2007, the annual production per capita fell from 156 kilos in 1970 to 125 kilos in 2007, FAO statistics show, and production has not been able to cover demand, leading to an increase in food imports.
"Logically, if production falls, the price of grain rises and fewer people will be able to eat," said Jaime Tobar, a researcher at the FAO office in San Salvador.
Beans have been hit the hardest. Prices for beans, the backbone of the Salvadoran diet, tripled this year to US$1.40 a pound in markets.
The rise in prices was also influenced by stockpiling in El Salvador. Authorities fined four vendors on Nov. 11 for hoarding beans until its price increased by more than a third.
But critics believe the government needs to go after large-scale farmers for this illegal practice.
"It's fine to investigate the small-scale farmers, but you have to ask yourself how much the large companies are stockpiling," said Edwin Trejo, research coordinator at the nongovernmental Consumer Defense Center.
El Salvador produces some 1.8 million bags of beans a year, but Salvadorans consume 2.5 million bags, a deficit that is made up for with imports, mainly from Nicaragua.
But Nicaragua also has problems with its harvest. Local reports state that the country lost 40 percent of its bean crops this year because of the rain. Honduras is also reporting shortages of this staple.
While it may seem that little can be done to counter the rains or droughts, Tobar says more could be done to prevent or limit the impact of this extreme weather and climate change, such as nationwide programs to ensure that the population's food security is not put at risk.
"The reality is that we are not implementing adaptation measures for adverse climate," he said.
- Source: Latinamerica Press: http://www.comunicacionesaliadas.org
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