Food Imports, Costs Skyrocket As Colombia Struggles to Feed ‘Too Many Hungry People’

Government decries WFP-FAO report highlighting high levels of food imports and hunger

A Maersk container ship arrives at Buenaventura port in Colombia, the country's main Pacific coast port.
February 08, 2022 | 07:30 PM
Reading time: 7 min.

Bogotá — Colombia imports approximately 30% of the food consumed in the country, or around 12 million tons, of which cereals are one of the largest components and which have seen the sharpest price rises amid the devaluation of the Colombian peso to the U.S. dollar, and inflation that surpassed 5.62% in 2021.

Food imports totaled $54.8 billion between January and November of last year, a 39.5% increase over the same period of 2020, according to the country’s statistics agency DANE.

During that period, imports of agricultural products, food and beverages totaled $8.09 billion, a 27% increase over the same period of 2020.

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That result is mainly attributed to higher imports of food products and live animals (24.9%), which contributed 19.5 percentage points to the variation, according to DANE.

A report published in 2021 by Greenpeace states that in Colombia, “3.6 million tons of corn, wheat and soybean paste are imported, and there is a significant participation of other products such as palm oil, cane sugar, cooked or preserved vegetables, milk, soybean oil and barley”.

In addition, Colombia has a “very high rate of cereal imports, which makes it very vulnerable to world crises that restrict international trade”, Greenpeace’s report, entitled New Food Culture Manifesto, states.

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The paradox, according to the organization, is that 9.76 million tons of food are lost or wasted every year, and which could feed 8 million people.

The challenge for Colombia is to produce, process and consume foods that are appropriate to our culture, geography and ecology for our territory, to take advantage of the abundance and diversity (10% of the world’s biodiversity is located in Colombia), of the wide range of agro-ecological foods that are grown in our country,” Tatiana Céspedes, Greenpeace’s campaigns coordinator , told Bloomberg Línea.

“In recent decades, population growth, migration to urban centers and the increase in purchasing power have led to a dietary transition toward a greater consumption of meat and processed products, which are cheaper and of low nutritional quality,” she added.

“In addition, there is a standardization of a global diet; people want to eat the same things.”

Controversy Concerning WFP-FAO Report

A report published earlier this month by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states that at least 7.3 million Colombians will require food assistance in 2022 due to a combination of factors, ranging from the Venezuelan migrant crisis to political instability and the escalation of the armed conflict in the country.

The WFP and FAO also lamented that access to humanitarian aid in Colombia is severely restricted and projected to worsen in conflict-affected areas.

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The UN body refers especially to delays in the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the former FARC guerrilla group that has now become a political party.

Read More: How a Peace Deal in Colombia Brought War on the Amazon

Such delays “have led to new waves of violent attacks, with 61,000 persons having become internally displaced between January and September 2021, three times more than in 2020″.

The violence that has flared up in the country “could contribute to continued high levels of displacement in the coming months” as social unrest and economic disruption continue amid the electoral processes scheduled for the first half of 2022, according to the report.

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However, the Colombian government says the report does not take into account the country’s progress in the matter, and issued a communiqué rejecting the claims, saying the report had taken it by surprise and claiming it is not backed up by figures, and has requested rectifications.

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The historical marginalization of the peasantry and the rural sector from political agendas has meant that opportunities are scarce, and that peasants prefer to seek new horizons far from the environment where they grew up as soon as they graduate.

Rodolfo Correa, president of Colombia's national council of agricultural secretariats (CONSA)

The Association of Food Banks of Colombia (ABACO) also warned after the publication of the FAO report that food insecurity in the country has been aggravated by the pandemic, stating that about 6.5 million people suffered from insufficient food consumption in 2021.

ABACO cited DANE figures indicating that “42.5% of the population (21 million people) live below the poverty line. Of those, 7.4 million people live in extreme poverty, with an average monthly income of 145,000 pesos” ($36.74).

In addition, “21 million Colombians are in monetary poverty, with incomes of 331,000 pesos ($83.85) per month. With this they must cover all their needs, including basic food supplies,” ABACO said on Twitter.

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‘Too Many Hungry People’

Rodolfo Correa, president of the National Council of Secretariats of Agriculture of Colombia (CONSA), has warned that “in 10 years there will be no one to grow food in Colombia. Studies reveal that the total number of young people between 14 and 18 years of age has reached 12 million, of which nearly 22% are rural youth, most of whom do not find opportunities for development and growth in the countryside.

“This phenomenon has generated different processes that are connected to the dynamics of education, employability, housing and health. There is a diversity of problems, potentials, dreams and expectations of rural youth that distance them from a life project in their territories of origin,” he said.

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For her part, Sara Eloísa del Castillo, coordinator of the Observatory of Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security (OBSSAN) of the National University of Colombia, wrote in an article that “it seems that what worries the government is that we are on a list, a map or a news item that affects the image of the country, and not the imperative of assuming with responsibility and ethics the fact that today in Colombia there are too many hungry people”.

The fact that there is no shortage of food in a country does not guarantee access to food in the quantity and quality required by the entire population, and assistance programs are not a guarantee of sufficient consumption to meet the nutritional needs of all the poorest households,” she wrote in an article published in the UNAL newspaper.

The government’s reaction to the report is not surprising. However, what has been deeply disheartening and distressing is the response of FAO Colombia in retracting (...) FAO Colombia’s apology, which is incoherent and inconceivable given the status of those making it, indicating that there were ‘errors’, when the intention of the report was not to obtain a map of hunger, but rather the objective was to show that there are some critical points, and therefore to document and warn of hunger.

Sara Eloísa del Castillo, coordinator of the Observatory of Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security of Colombia's National University

The Cost and Volume of Food Imports

A man studies his shopping list while a vendor selects fruit at Paloquemao market in Bogotá, Colombia, in March 2016.dfd

To get an idea of Colombia’s volume and spending on food imports, the country imported a total of 450.6 tons of fresh or dried oranges from Chile in 2021, with a value of around $625,000, according to figures provided to Bloomberg Línea by the country’s customs and tax authority (DIAN),

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Chile was also a significant supplier of fresh peaches, totaling $1.1 million, equivalent to 824.1 tons, as well as fresh plums and sloes, with a total value of $930,345 (totaling 616.4 tons) and fresh cherries worth a total $894,602, totaling 138.7 tons.

As for mandarin oranges, including tangerines and satsumas, and either fresh or dried, Colombia last year imported 2,930 tons with a total value of $309,914 from Ecuador, in addition to 3,316 tons of Ecuadorian passion fruit worth $672,377 and 5,875 tons of fresh bananas from the same country, worth $690,845.

Colombia also imported 75,378 tons of fresh apples from Chile worth $83.1 million, and 1,449 tons from Spain worth $2 million and 1,383 tons from Brazil with a value of $1.3 million.

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And despite Colombia’s fraught relations with Venezuela, the country imported 1,882 tons of fresh or dried coconut worth $860,599 during the year.

Cereal Problems

A combine harvester in a field of wheat.dfd

Colombia imported more than 3.85 million tons of corn from the U.S. in 2021, valued at more than $1 billion, while also purchasing volumes totaling $333 million from Argentina and $201 million from Brazil, among other markets.

And Colombia imported a total of $1.9 million, or 1,620 tons of rice from the U.S. in 2021.

Read More: The Country That Makes Breakfast for the World Is Plagued by Fire, Frost and Drought

Regarding barley for malting or brewing, Colombia purchased some 196,000 tons worth $69 million from Argentina in 2021, and 112,000 tons valued at $37.1 million from France, as well as wheat with a value of $6.3 million from Russia and$5.8 million from Argentina, to cite just a few examples.

Dairy Products and Other Foodstuffs

Bottles of pasteurized milk on a processing plant conveyor belt.dfd

The United States is a significant exporter of dairy products to Colombia, of which the South American country imported a total volume of 1,830 tons worth $11.7 million last year.

Also in 2021, a total of 743 tons of cheeses was imported from the U.S. with a value of $5.39 million, in addition to 562 tons of processed cheese, worth $2.43 million.

Colombia purchased a total of 23,705 tons of milk and cream from the U.S., totaling $61.4 million, in addition to 115 tons of yogurt, with a market value of $477,136, as well as buying smaller quantities from Italy and Germany.

Among other products, Colombia also imported honey from Argentina to the value of $751,519 and from Mexico, at a cost of $698,968, from where it also sourced fresh chicken eggs worth $228,967, as well as from Brazil, to the tune of $25,548.

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