GUATEMALA CITY, Oct 14, 2011 (IPS) - The countries of Central America have set their sights on research and innovation in the production of tomatoes, cassava, potatoes and avocados to increase food supply and combat hunger, which mainly affects rural areas. The initiative, launched in March, is part of the Regional Programme for Research and Innovation in Agricultural Value Chains in Central America (PRIICA), carried out by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) and financed by 5.6 million euros (7.7 million dollars) from the European Union. The project will be carried out over the next four years in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
Diego González, of IICA-Costa Rica, told IPS the research is aimed at developing technological innovations that will meet the needs of extremely poor small farmers.
"National and regional research collaborations will be established, and the technologies will be selected according to the needs prioritised by these groups, in cooperation with national institutes for agricultural research and similar agencies," he said.
The staple food in Central American countries is maize. But the high level of dependence on this crop has had devastating effects on the food supply of hundreds of thousands of families, when their harvests were destroyed by extreme climate phenomena, like hurricanes Mitch (1998), Stan (2005) and Agatha (2010).
The same thing happens when prices rise and families cannot afford to buy enough maize.
Therefore, one of PRIICA's strategies is agricultural diversification by encouraging the growing of tomatoes, cassava, potatoes and avocados to enhance food availability and boost the incomes of small farmers.
Another aspect of the project is promoting climate change mitigation and adaptation by incorporating new technologies into production systems, such as greenhouses and irrigation systems.
The project focuses on value chains as a means of improving technical and commercial relations between research institutes, development agencies, technical experts, the business community and producers.
"Although it will not solve the entire problem of food and nutrition in Central America, the programme will make a contribution in a field where there are felt needs, and where there is a shortage of available finance to promote solutions," González told IPS ahead of World Food Day, celebrated Oct. 16.
It is estimated that half of the 43 million people in Central America live in poverty.
Agriculture represents close to 20 percent of GDP in Guatemala and Nicaragua, between 10 and 15 percent in Honduras, El Salvador and Belize, and less than 10 percent in Costa Rica and Panama, according to 2007 figures from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
René Rivera, the head of the state National Centre for Agricultural and Forestry Technology in El Salvador (CENTA), told IPS his country has "a low international ranking for applying innovations."
"Until a few years ago, efforts were focused on basic grains," he said.
In his view, PRIICA will be an opportunity to do research on the varieties of potato most resistant to diseases and pests; handling of avocado post-harvest so that it is less perishable; the susceptibility of tomatoes to pests; and the varieties of cassava best adapted to the soils in El Salvador.
"As research advances and knowledge is transferred, the ability of the countries, and El Salvador in particular, to produce foods that are essential to family diets will improve," Rivera said.
In neighbouring Honduras there are also high expectations of PRIICA.
"The programme will benefit some 3,500 producers living in the centre-west region, in the departments (provinces) of Comayagua, La Paz and Intibucá, which have a high index of food insecurity," Jeovany Pérez of the Honduran state Directorate of Agricultural Science and Technology told IPS.
Pérez said PRIICA is organising farmers into value chains for potato, cassava, tomato and avocado. The project participants have been identified and the first crop assessment report has been prepared.
But not everyone views this kind of initiative in such a positive light. Omar Jerónimo, an activist with Plataforma Agraria, a Guatemalan NGO working for agrarian reform and development, told IPS that the problem of food insecurity in Guatemala "will not be solved by nutrition programmes or value chains."
"The problem in this country goes deeper, and is related to land distribution," he said. Nearly 80 percent of fertile land in Guatemala is in the hands of five percent of the population, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
"Farmers need resources of their own in order to enter a value chain, and the people with the resources are the landowners, who end up selling foods at higher prices to us, those who work the land," he complained.
Jerónimo called for democratisation of land use, and for land to be speedily acquired for the people who are most dispossessed, as an essential measure to fight poverty and food insecurity.
"Until this is done, the situation will not change," he said. (END)
Picture: Barbara Schieber, Asadón, Guatemala