Several months ago I was having a discussion with Agustin, Ximena’s loquacious 6-year old nephew, about a barbeque he had been at the prior weekend, when he surprised me with his claim that he did not eat roast lamb “because it comes from a live animal”. Well, I know he loves grilled steaks, as do most Chileans, so to get to pursue this apparent contradiction I asked him “But, Agu, where does beef come from?” “El Jumbo!” he replied. Right, lamb from a live animal but beef from the supermarket. UnwittinglyAgu was reflecting the disconnect between 21st century urban dwellers, and the reality of our sources of food.
This disconnect is becoming more and more common to be sure, and it will grow in Chile unless the printed press and other public opinion media inform the public better of the challenges of agriculture development and the provision of safe, nourishing and reasonably affordable food . One notable source of information on agriculture and food in Chile is the weekly Revista del Campo published in the newspaper El Mercurio. Consistent with other parts of the world, agriculture development issues get headlines in Chile only when there is a drought, flood, or pest that significantly affects the price and availability of food. True to that, the recent unusually late period of freezing weather in the Chilean central valley should be reminding policy makers, politicians, and the public how vulnerable their food production system is to the vagaries of the weather and the process of climate change.
As much as 68% of the fruit production may have been affected by the freeze (not necessarily lost, but to some degree affected), and producers and exporters are awaiting a response from the government with actions to minimize the negative effects on exports and farm and agribusiness labor. The government has the resources to provide financial support to farmers who lost this years production, especially in the fruit sector, so they can get through to the next production cycle. Temporary labor without work in the more northern regions will probably find work further south where the freeze was not as destructive and where farm labor is often in shortage. But, this will not be the last time weather causes agriculture losses, and the progressive effects of climate change require more aggressive attention to the changing panorama of what crops can be planted and where they will grow best. Just like certain field crops like soybeans and wheat are being planted progressively further north in the US, so is the grape industry in Chile moving into new areas of the country because of changes in climate and the availability of water.
So why is this important? Only fifty years ago Chile embarked on an intensive agrarian reform, the first step in a process that over the years has resulted in Chile becoming a global player in forest products, fresh fruit and vegetables, specialty food products, fish and seafood. Throughout this period policies were reformed that freed up imports and exports and that directed capital to the agriculture sector. Important institutions were created to support and promote the sector; INDAP to provide assistance to the small and medium sized farming sector, CORFO to provide investment for innovative sector projects often in partnership with the World Bank and InterAmerican Bank, and the Fundacion Chile, a semi-autonomous research and development institution set up to promote public-private investments some of which led to the highly sophisticated processing and marketing of Chile’s agriculture and food products capable of competing well on the global market. Throughout the process Chile’s universities, public sector institutions, and the private sector all developed strong links with US institutions, especially in California where similar crops (grapes and other fruits) and similar challenges (scarce water, increasing land values, changing demand for agriculture sector expertise and research) contributed to modernization of the sector and establishment of long term partnerships and technology-sharing networks beneficial to both countries.
Over the past two decades, Chile’s agriculture exports have grown faster than imports, with recent growth especially in dairy, pork, and poultry in addition to the traditionally strong exports of wood products, wine, and fresh fruits.
Because of this progress, recent Chilean leaders are convinced that Chile should be a “world level agrifood producer”. To support this, President Pinera is sending to the Chilean Congress a proposal for legislation to reconform the Ministry of Agriculture as the new Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Forest Resources. He states that the country could move up into the top 10 of global food producers, demonstrating a degree of ambition and confidence really quite noteworthy. But it will not happen without a high level of attention from Chile’s future leaders.
Several days ago, as the size of the damage from the freeze was becoming clearer, the candidates in this year’s presidential election met in the northern city of Coquimbo for a public debate. The debate was set up to focus for the most part on regional issues. It will not escape most who are reading this blog that in a Country like Chile, where about half the population lives in the capital city, and 75-80% are urban dwellers, there is no greater “regional” issue than the growing of food and fiber, and the provision of bioenergy (mostly fuel) in the rural regions from Coquimbo in the north to the Bio Bio in the south, to satisfy the growing demands of the urban population and for export. But, not one of the candidates even mentioned the issues of agriculture, food and wood production, rural development in general, or even issues related to water and irrigation. This latter omission is most noteworthy because it is precisely the region between Santiago and Coquimbo (the 4th and 5thRegions) where future agriculture development depends on expansion of the irrigation systems, and the availability of abundant water, a huge issue due to several years of drought conditions leading to deficits in all the major water reservoirs in this part of Chile.
You could expect one of the presidential candidates, Michelle Bachelet, to be right on top of the issues of agriculture and food, especially fruit production. Bachelet’s ancestors included pioneers in Chilean agriculture. Her paternal great-great-grandfather, Luis Bachelet, in 1876 authored a seminal document on the art of cultivating vineyards in Chile entitled “Guia; Vinicultor Chileno”. He also reportedly brought to Chile some of the first root stock of French grape varieties now the backbone of the Chilean wine industry.
During a visit I made to the agriculture school of the Universidad de Chile, on the outskirts of Santiago, the dean, Antonio Lizana (whom I had met many years before in Cairo, Egypt, where he was working on an agriculture development project and I an environmental policy project, both funded by USAID), showed me the bust of Bachelet’s maternal grandfather, Max Jeria, that they have set at the entrance to the administration building of the school to note that he was the first Ingeniero Agronomo (agronomist) to graduate from the university. Antonio also provided me with a copy of Jeria’s 1876 publication that I admittedly have yet to read.
With her genes deeply rooted in Chilean agriculture you would think granddaughter Michelle would be steeped in the problematic of rural development and agriculture. Well, as it turns out, Michelle Bachelet did not attend the debate in Coquimbo last week, so unfortunately her views and positions were not in the mix. Maybe we will hear more on the subject of agriculture and food production from her and other leading presidential candidates next week when they are invited to speak at the annual meeting of the National Agriculture Society (SNA). It will be a timely event to gauge the degree to which the next generation of Chilean leaders understands the links between agriculture, the growing global demand for food, the effects of climate change, and the requirements for technological innovation through modern research and education institutions. If they understand this, they are more apt to attend to the requirements of a modern agriculture sector and accelerated rural development in general.
With the recent climate related emergency in the agriculture sector still fresh in their minds, a serious discussion is needed to detail the national policies and programs required to face the effects of climate change and increased global and national demand for the very foods that Chile produces and exports with excellence. Chile has always been linked to US and other countries to stay up to date on productivity enhancing technologies, but the public research institutions will need resources and trained professionals to keep Chile’s agriculture growing, especially in the face of the complexities of climate change.
Strong presidential leadership is needed now, leadership that knows that beef gets to the Jumbo for Agustin’s barbeques only because a modern agriculture invests, produces, harvests, delivers, and profits from working the land, conserving water, and growing the economies of rural towns and villages.
Posted in Santiago, Chile on 10-19-2013.