Latin America, with its vast natural resources and five climate zones, is an area that is widely known for agricultural productivity. From the lush Amazon rainforest to the expansive pampas in Argentina, nature and agriculture play a crucial role in the economies and livelihood of many Latin American countries.
The Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region covers more than 2 billion ha and encompasses 34 countries, with a total estimated population of 657 million in 2018. Of the available area, 38% is used for agriculture (9.5% for crops and 28.5% for pasture) and the other 46% is covered with forests (OECD/FAO, 2019).
Latin American countries are major exporters of soybeans, pork, maize, poultry, animal feed, sugar, coffee, and fruits and vegetables. Brazil is the largest agricultural and food exporter (USD 125 billion in 2021) in the region, followed by Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Ecuador and Peru.
Some Latin American countries are significant importers of agri-food products as well. Mexico, for instance, is among the major importers of maize, soybeans, dairy, pork and poultry; Brazil is one of the top wheat importers in the world (OECD/FAO 2019).
In this article, we will explore some key facts about agriculture in Latin America, highlighting the region’s agricultural potential, challenges, and contributions to global food production.
1. Breadbasket of the World
Latin America is often referred to as one of the future “breadbaskets of the world” due to its significant contributions to global food production, as mentioned above. Inhabited by less than 10% of the world’s population, Latin America has ‘almost 30% of the world’s freshwater supply and 30% of the globe’s spare farmland. That’s why the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) estimates Latin America has 42% of the world’s agricultural spare capacity’ (James McKeigue, 2015) .
2. Biodiversity and Crop Diversity
Latin America is home to a remarkable array of biodiversity, making it an ideal region for agricultural cultivation. The continent boasts a wide range of climatic zones, from tropical rainforests to high-altitude plateaus, enabling the production of diverse crops. Latin America is known for its coffee, cocoa, bananas, citrus fruits, sugarcane, and tropical crops like avocados and mangos.
3. Role of Small-scale Farmers
Small-scale farmers are the backbone of the agricultural sector in Latin America. These farmers cultivate smaller plots of land and employ traditional farming techniques, often using sustainable practices. They play a crucial role in local food systems, supplying fresh produce to local markets and contributing to food security in rural areas.
Source picture: World Bank/Maria Fleischmann
4. Challenges in Agricultural Development
Despite its potential, Latin America faces several challenges in the agricultural sector. One significant issue is land distribution, with large landowners controlling vast stretches of agricultural land, while small farmers often struggle to obtain suitable land for cultivation. Additionally, climate change poses a threat caused by irregular rainfall patterns, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and the spread of pests and diseases.
5. Sustainable Agriculture
Latin America has been at the forefront of promoting sustainable agricultural practices. Many farmers have adopted agroecological approaches that focus on preserving natural resources, reducing chemical inputs, and promoting biodiversity. Organic farming and fairtrade certifications have gained prominence, ensuring environmental sustainability and fair working conditions for farmers.
6. Technology and Innovation
Latin America has embraced agricultural technology and innovation to enhance productivity and efficiency. Precision farming techniques, such as satellite imagery and GPS-guided machinery, are being employed to optimise resource allocation and reduce environmental impact. Additionally, biotechnology has gained traction, with genetically modified crops playing a role in improving yields and resistance to pests and diseases.
7. Access to Markets and Infrastructure
Improving access to markets and infrastructure is crucial for the development of the agricultural sector in Latin America. Investments in transportation networks, storage facilities, and processing industries can help reduce post-harvest losses, increase market opportunities, and enhance the competitiveness of agricultural products.
With its fantastic climate and crop diversity, abundance of resources, smallholders’ contribution, and yet so many challenges to sort out, could Latin America truly become the future “breadbasket of the world”? Share your ideas in the comments.