In an exclusive interview to indianexpress.com, Pietro Gennari, chief statistician at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), talks about why countries need to start investing in statistics to improve agricultural data, productivity and safeguard the livelihood of farmers.
How can we best measure the impact of policy intervention in agriculture where baseline data are absent? What are the challenges?
The baseline data tells you the starting point but equally important is to measure progress and check if the policies that you’re implementing are affecting people’s livelihoods while ensuring the sustainable use of natural resources. We need a system that regularly produces a certain type of data comparable over time and benchmark it against neighbouring countries or with those who have similar problems. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2030, for example, is a complex agenda and the reason why there are so many data gaps is because of many indicators that are completely new and cover areas where the traditional national statistical offices were no venturing into. This isn’t something you can build overnight and requires prolonged efforts and investment by all parties, from national governments to the donor community. For example, the Millenium Development Goals (MDG) were designed at the beginning of 2000, when there were few data available on key indicators, mainly social. But at the end of the period, the availability of data and the possibility of monitoring progress towards achieving targets was immensely greater. So MDGs was an opportunity to improve the statistical system. Same should happen with SDGs.
In many developing countries, including India, there is a big challenge to plug in data gaps before formulating policies. In the absence of reliable data, many governments are left shooting in the dark. How are they going to implement and monitor the 2030 agenda with this serious limitation?
At the global level, FAO has seen that we’re not moving in the right direction to achieve the targets, let’s say, in food security. If we don’t have good data on why and what’s happening and what are the drivers of this situation, how can we make progress? On the contrary, we are going backwards in terms of what we have envisioned. Lack of data is an obstacle to advocating the global agenda and obtaining progress. Investment in statistics is very low at the moment. We shouldn’t see this as competing with other investments. But this investment in statistics will help the rest of the investment in policies and be able to say where interventions are needed, who should be the beneficiaries and what amount of money should be spent to get certain results. If you don’t have this data, you’re shooting in the dark. You may spend money, but not in the right direction and not having the impact that you were hoping for. More timely data, more accurate and more relevant data are bedrocks of good policies that can help accelerate progress.
In terms of achieving the SDGs, what are the immediate challenges in agriculture and how do we overcome them?
There is a big challenge of increasing the productivity of small farmers, who are always at the margin of the market and risk losing their livelihood. One of the key targets of the agenda is to sustainably increase the productivity and income of small landholders. This way you can also ensure food security and nutrition improvement because large parts of the global population live on agriculture and if they produce a diverse range of products, their diets can change as well. Another problem is the impact of climate change and environmental sustainability. You have to adopt practices that don’t have a negative impact on the environment. There’s a water shortage in many countries and agriculture is water-intensive. So ensuring that we reduce the water needed for the same amount of food production is an important aspect of mitigating land degradation prevalent in many parts of Africa, Central, South and Southeast Asia. So there are challenges and, in a way, the SDGs have good coverage of all of them. This is much more comprehensive than the MDG agenda, where agriculture was almost not present. With the SDGs, agriculture and sustainable and efficient use of natural resources and productivity is at the centre and is linked to all other SDGs.
What is the 50X2030 initiative?
This initiative wants to establish an integrated farm survey program in 50 countries by 2030. We have developed this with a number of partners to bridge the agricultural data gap. The issue is that many countries don’t have regular farm surveys. Normally, this survey has, until now, collected only a little information on agricultural produce and not accounted for the livelihood aspect of farmers and the environmental impact on agricultural productivity. We need more integrated data that has coverage of economic conditions along with the social and environmental aspects that affect farmers. This is called an integrated agriculture survey. We are establishing this with the support of the World Bank and other donors in 50 countries so that they can produce on a regular basis the data that’s needed to monitor the agriculture-related SDGs.