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By Kenton X. Chance

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — The 35th Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) regional conference for Latin America and the Caribbean began Monday with a high turnout among delegation as a note of optimism amidst a two-decade high level of hunger in the region.

“I think the issues are grave. I mean, for the first time in two decades, we are going back in the number of hungry people and we are going back in the number of people in extreme poverty in rural areas,” Julio Berdegué, assistant director-general of the FAO Regional Representative for Latin American and the Caribbean told the opening press conference.

The FAO says that after a plateau of several years, in 2016 approximately 42.5 million people do not have enough food to meet their required daily calorie intake, accounting for an increase of 2.4 million people versus the previous year.

If necessary actions are not taken to overcome both hunger and malnutrition, Latin America and the Caribbean will not attain the goal of ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030, set in the Sustainable Development Goals, according to the FAO.

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“So something is not working and I think that the governments are concerned. So this is an opportunity for the member governments, member countries to discuss what is happening. Why are we sliding back? What can we do? What are other countries doing that might work in their conditions,” he said.

Vice-President of the Dominican Republic, Margarita Cedeño de Fernández along with 38 ministers, vice-ministers and the eight ambassadors, and 35 other high-ranking officials from various ministries across the region will attend the four-day conference as members of official delegations.

There are also 50 observers from non-governmental entities, including the private sector, civil society, and social movements,” Berdegué said.

The 250 or so delegates, and 50 support staff expected to attend the meeting represents a 100 per cent increase in the average attendance for the three previous conference, the FAO official said.

He pointed out that while the problem of hunger and malnutrition in the region will not be resolved at the meeting, the FAO is hoping to receive guidance on sharpening its focus.

“… I do hope that the ministers will give us a very clear mandate to focus our work on certain critical issues,” Berdegué said, adding that the United Nations’ food agency needs political mandate in order to really have large-scale impacts on hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“That means much more intelligent targeting, focusing of our work on those very specific critical issues. We are asking the ministers, we are asking the member countries to give us a sharper agenda with, perhaps, fewer issues, but where we can concentrate our resources and capacities and with them try to make a difference,” he said.

Berdegué said Latin America and the Caribbean needs to reverse its hunger statistics.

“We have done it before. We had done it before. We did very well in the past 20 years in terms of reducing hunger, in terms of reducing malnutrition in the region and in most countries individually. So we can do it again. We just need to know why is this happening, why this slide and what are the steps we need to take to come back on track.”

He said the high number and high level of participants at the conference is also recognition of the FAO’s work over the past two years.

“We have been working very, very hard in the past biennium to really try to improve the quality of agreements with the governments so that our work is much more closely following the needs as established by the different governments of the region.”

The conference comes amidst growing hunger and an obesity epidemic in Latin American and the Caribbean.

At the same time, climate change threatens agriculture and millions of people in rural areas live in extreme poverty.

These are the greatest challenges for food security in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The main task of the 35th FAO Regional Conference will be to discuss solutions for each of these challenges.