Every year governments in low- and middle-income countries invest millions of dollars in agriculture without accurate and reliable information. This leads to losses in productivity and income and perpetuates hunger and poor nutrition, particularly among the most vulnerable. There is an urgent need for more timely, accurate and reliable data to inform the decisions that will drive a more sustainable, equitable and inclusive food systems transformation.

The annual plenary of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is an important moment globally for meeting and discussing the most pressing issues for global food security and nutrition. Increasingly, data is on the agenda. In its most recent Multi-Year Programme Work, the CFS has approved a thematic workstream on ‘data collection and analysis tools’, aiming to improve the quality, availability and use of data to advance global efforts towards Sustainable Development Goal 2 on Zero Hunger.

This month the 47th plenary of the CFS took place, albeit virtually and a little later than planned due to the pandemic, and we co-hosted a side event on Data for Food Security and Nutrition. The discussion highlighted the foundational role that data can play in supporting decisions on food systems transformation, but also some of the challenges that strengthening data systems presents, and aimed to kickstart an informal discussion around the forthcoming data workstream.

Here we share our key takeaways from the event: 

1. Multi-stakeholder partnerships are central in catalyzing and supporting data-driven decision-making towards the goal of zero hunger. Ensuring that everyone is counted is a massive undertaking and no organization will be able to do it alone. A recent survey by the United Nations and the World Bank showed that a majority of National Statistical Offices have developed partnerships to address interruptions to routine data collection caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They have established partnerships to access new data sources (69%), to implement new methods for data collection (68%) and to access and use new technology (56%). Governments are recognising the need for robust national data ecosystems and have been partnering across sectors. As Gallup’s Andrew Rzepa reflected, we need these multi-stakeholder partnerships to “identify and remove barriers impeding data use for decision makers, and promote and help policymakers understand the benefits and the value of investing data for decision making. Only once we realize these data goals, we will realize lofty ambitions set out in SDG2.” 

2. Agricultural data systems must take into account national contexts and capacities. The global community needs to place more attention on improving the production, analysis and use of food and agricultural data, to support collective action in this area. 

Indonesia offers an interesting example here, with their success in adopting a Single Data Policy for joining up data across agencies. Dr. I Ketut Kariyasa, Interim Director at the Centre for Data and Information Systems at Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture reflected on how this approach has enabled the Ministry of Agriculture to integrate different data sources, establish standards for comparability and produce timely and accurate data that are fed into their ‘Agriculture War Room’. This serves as a control center for decision-making and monitoring on agricultural policies and food security. He stressed that investing in strong nationally-owned data systems that engage local knowledge is essential in supporting greater efficiency and more effective targeting of policies and programs. 

3. Data sharing and integration is becoming more important than ever. FAO’s Pietro Gennari emphasized that an analytical approach to sustainable food systems means bringing together data on many different aspects from different sources. Innovation in the area of geo-localisation can be a powerful instrument for linking data across different sources to provide new insights such as by overlaying health, food and environment data sources to understand food systems interactions in a particular region or community. Yet this also has implications for data protection.

4. Data collection and use at the local level must be inclusive and not extractive; ensuring that the views, experiences and rights of the most vulnerable are considered and included. As Action Aid’s Sesheeni Joud Selvaratnam reflected, “the data collection process should take into account all the concerns and views brought forward by the most vulnerable communities, especially women and young people. These should be translated into gendered national development plans and their implementation, policies, plans and implementation strategies, as well as, supports in designing gendered policies.” 

Many civil society organisations are aiming to empower communities through the process of data collection, analysis and use. These approaches and those led by government and international organizations need to close the feedback loop, so that communities can use data in their daily decisions around planting, harvesting, and feeding their families. In particular, small-holder farmers and women should participate in the development of protocols on data collection and use to ensure that the insights generated meet their needs. 

5. There are deep running tensions between the value of open data and potential risks to privacy and concerns around data ownership. FAO’s Pietro Gennari acknowledged this tension and reflected on the longstanding principles governing statistics that ensure confidentiality as well as the many technical tools for anonymization and legal parameters that are in place to prevent data misuse.  

Another important dimension here is debates about bias and equity in the use of digital technologies. Speakers underlined the importance of triangulation and ground truthing data from new digital tools and methods against more robust surveys and census data. The pandemic has shown us the value of these new methods to get data for immediate decision-making. However, it has also highlighted that we can’t do away with these more robust sources to help us understand and adjust for shortcomings in the data.

What’s next?

A report on ‘Data collection and analysis: tools for food security and nutrition’ will be presented at the CFS Plenary in October 2022. This process will be led by the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE). The report will aim to identify some of the barriers for the collection, analysis and use of data for decision-making, highlight data gaps, and assess the opportunities and risks of the use of a data-driven approach by multiple stakeholders. The report is expected to be followed by a policy convergence process to discuss what key stakeholders can do to take the report’s recommendations forward.

We hope that the discussion offers a useful contribution for the HLPE as it works toward actionable recommendations for improving the data needed for food systems transformation. The CFS offers a unique platform for dialogue and consensus building across states and sectors, and we look forward to engaging with CFS stakeholders in this process. If you want to shape the discussion, please share your views on the scope of the HLPE Report through the e-consultation, live until March 8, 2021. 

This side event was co-hosted by the Government of Indonesia, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. We are grateful to speakers who participated in the discussion: Pietro Gennari, Chief Statistician of the FAO, Dr. Martin Cole, Chairperson of the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) Steering Committee, Professor José María Sumpsi Viñas, Member of the HLPE Steering Committee, Sesheeni Joud Selvaratnam, International Programme and Policy Lead at ActionAid, Dr. I Ketut Kariyasa, Director (ad interim), Centre for Data and Information Systems, Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture, Andrew Rzepa, Partner, Gallup.  You can watch the full event recording here.