Throughout the past century, Brazil has experienced hunger as a natural phenomenon, being addressed by successive governments as a matter of emergency only, even during times when numbers faced a spike. Public policies to face this calamity were unleashed under the inspiration of Josué de Castro. We also owe a lot to the actions resulting from the mobilization of civil society in search of justice and respect for human rights, as Betinho and so many others taught us. However, in a country with high poverty and social inequality, such as Brazil, the fight against hunger and malnutrition cannot be episodic: it must be a permanent battle.
The Brazilian last Constitution (1988) enforced citizens the right to life. Brazilians conquered several other social rights, such as free universal health, social security, school feeding and pension for key categories of workers. In the academic context, universities and research institutions trained millions of scientists to develop technologies aiming at combating hunger.
In the international arena, the arrival of the XXI century led countries to establish a roadmap to address global food insecurity, which at the time was affecting 1 of 6 people around the world. As a result of this initiative, 185 countries signed the Rome Declaration in 1996 during the World Food Summit and committed to reduce food insecurity. At that time, Brazil, which had almost 16 million inhabitants living with malnutrition (10% of the Brazilian population) – representing the greatest number in Latin America (FAO – SOFI, 2000) – and was a very active participant in this meeting.
However, in the face of the central government’s inertia in addressing hunger, the Instituto Cidadania gathered around 100 researchers and scholars to assess proposals on how Brazil could reduce hunger by the year 2000. The initial diagnosis concluded that the number of people living with food insecurity in Brazil was much larger than the one FAO data pointed out. Based on the criteria of income availability to buy food, 44 million people, or around 28% of the population, were identified to be in a situation of vulnerability (based on data from the Demographic Census 2000). This analysis triggered the “Zero Hunger Project – A Proposal of a Food Security Policy for Brazil”, which was presented to the National Congress in October 2001. The project listed more than 30 programs – many of them already existing at local level – aiming at eradicating hunger in Brazil. The goal to eradicate hunger went far beyond the proposal to halve it by 2015 – as it was the commitment of the Rome Declaration and the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
With President Lula’s election in 2003, The Zero Hunger Project was put in place, and the proposal to eradicate hunger was tirelessly and massively pursued. The results could be seen very quickly, and, less than 10 years later, Brazil was pulled out the UN World Hunger Map. This feat was recognized by many respectful experts around the world and by the several international organizations, including FAO.
The success of the Zero Hunger Project has crossed national borders and inspired similar initiatives in several other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Moreover, Brazil proved it was possible to eradicate hunger within a generation and helped to redefine global targets in this regard. This way, the Zero Hunger became a clear reference for the second goal of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015.
Unfortunately, the food security and nutrition in Brazil began to reverse in the middle of last decade. The shift in the country’s central government in 2016, in addition to the economic crisis and to the return of the neoliberal orientation, had a direct impact on the Food and Nutrition Security Policy. This was reflected in a series of drawbacks, including the dismantle of essential social programs, the reduction of civil society participation, the extinction of CONSEA – National Council for Food and Nutrition Security and the decrease of budget and expenditure aimed at combating hunger cuts.
Data from the Brazilian Food Security Scale (EBIA) collected together with the Family Expenditure Survey (POF-IBGE 2017-18) showed that food insecurity was affecting almost 85 million Brazilians, figures that were higher than those observed in 2004 in absolute and relatively equivalent terms (40 % of the population in 2004 versus 41 % of the population in 2017-18). Severe food insecurity, which is the equivalent of hunger from a nutritional point of view, reached more than 10 million people or almost 5% of the population in 2018.
In this context of a setback in food and nutrition security, the Zero Hunger Institute – IFZ -is being created by a group of activists, scholars and researchers who participated in the elaboration of the Zero Hunger Project exactly 20 years ago, and that closely monitored the journey that managed to eradicate hunger in Brazil.
This is a moment of reflection for which we’d like to invite all people who care about food security and nutrition, in Brazil and around the world. The impacts of COVID -19 pandemic on the current social development context will only worsen, and temporary solutions will not put the country back on track to the food and nutrition security path. More than renewing and mobilizing actions and efforts, Brazil needs to build new ideas and new proposals to combat hunger and ensure all its citizen the human right to adequate and healthy food.
In this context, revamping successful social programs, such as the Food Acquisition Program (PAA) and the strengthening and increase of key initiatives such as the National School Feeding Program (PNAE) – with direct purchases from family farming, as well as reestablishing the mechanism of dialogue with civil society are actions that need to be present again in the national agenda. Besides, public policies addressing the reduction of obesity, which already affects one fifth of the Brazilian population, should also be treated with absolute priority, based on solid scientific evidence and the value of healthy diets.
To this end, we call all people to help us in being advocates for a new Zero Hunger and consider its past achievements to be preserved, valued and renewed.
São Paulo, October 16, 2020, World Food Day