By Stephen Katz, Senior Coordinator Statistics Division, FAO

High quality statistics are essential for designing and targeting policies to reduce hunger, malnutrition, and rural poverty, and to promote the sustainable use of natural resources. They provide the foundation for evidence-based decision-making for governments and the international community, and play a critical role in measuring and monitoring progress toward national and international development goals and targets.

FAO Facilitates Capacity Development

Building on the official data provided by countries, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) plays a crucial role providing agricultural statistics as global public goods, employed worldwide for decision-making and policy development. The most evident example of this is FAOSTAT, the world’s largest and most comprehensive statistical database on food and agriculture with about 2.4 million user visits per year.

FAO’s reputation as a trusted provider of agricultural statistics is based on the high emphasis placed on data quality. However, since FAO depends heavily on the information provided by countries, attention must be given to ensure data quality at the country level. This is achieved through an extensive national statistical capacity development effort focused on the following:

  • Improving methods for the timely collection and dissemination of relevant data
  • Strengthening the technical skills of national statisticians
  • Increasing statistical literacy in the use of statistics, particularly for evidence-based decision-making

At the same time, FAO plays an important normative role in validating the quality of data received from countries and promoting the adoption of international standards, which helps to ensure comparability across national boundaries and facilitates the monitoring of global development indicators.


That was the topic of a special side event of the 151st Session of the Council of FAO, one of the organization’s main governing bodies, in March. Pietro Gennari, chief statistician and director of the FAO Statistics Division, summarized some of the key challenges as follows:

  • The coverage and quality of agricultural statistics worldwide is weak. There is very limited use of surveys: less than 50% of African countries have conducted at least one agricultural census or survey since the year 2000. The main available data comes from government administrative sources and information collected and provided by extension workers.
  • Part of the poor quality and coverage can be explained by the limited amount of resources that are dedicated to agricultural statistics, with a particularly negative impact on developing countries.
  • The methods applied for agricultural statistics by many institutions are outdated, expensive and inefficient. There also is very limited use of new technologies despite the ongoing “data evolution”.
  • Agricultural data often is collected in institutional isolation resulting in duplication of effort. The use of different survey instruments results is inconsistencies and difficulty to compare data.
  • One of the negative consequences of the above constraints is that the pool of available data is not always current and relevant, particularly at a time when the demand for new information grows faster than each institution’s capacity to adapt to changing user needs.

Voice of the experts

The main feature of the FAO Council side event was a lively debate among a panel of experts representing diverse perspectives (the media, national governments, donors and international organizations) on these issues.

Boubaker Karray, recently appointed director general of studies and agricultural development at the Ministry of Agriculture of Tunisia, explained how FAO has assisted his country to increase the coverage and improve the quality of data in a sustainable manner. He also highlighted the importance of improving coordination of data collection across the different ministries and working in a holistic way across disciplines. He cited some examples such a recent study to devise a national methodology for estimating the cost of production of agricultural products. He emphasized the importance of strengthening capacities on a multidisciplinary basis.

FAO Panel Discussion 525

A panel of experts discuss agriculture statistical capacity building at the FAO Council meeting.

Gero Carletto, manager of the Survey and Methods Unit at the World Bank, highlighted some of the current problems that countries face in producing relevant agricultural data. He also emphasized the importance of partnerships among international organizations in supporting countries to strengthen their national statistical systems.

Margot Skarpeteig, Norway’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations Organizations in Rome, stressed the importance of having up-to-date and accurate data for donor agencies to establish priorities and allocate resources. However, she stressed this should not be a separate data collection exercise but be integrated into the existing national and international processes. For this reason, national statistical capacity strengthening should be given high priority. She stressed the importance of having adequate results-oriented indicators so donors can easily monitor the progress and improvements achieved with their funding. She pointed to the importance of data quality and that the degree of quality does affect people’s welfare. She stressed the importance of statistics to measure impact.

The Executive Editor at National Geographic magazine and Director of Cartography for the National Geographic Society, Kaitlin Yarnall, also discussed the importance of data and the need for communicating statistics in a more effective manner. She argued that statistics are the key for an objective and reliable journalistic story. She explained that National Geographic employs a group of “data journalists”, who have expertise in mining data from publicly available Internet-based sources around the world and then repackaging and integrating the information into journalistic pieces of interest to the general public. In other words, through the work of a communications professional data can easily be made more relevant and comprehensible to all.

A very good example of communicating statistics is the “Food by the Numbers, Feeding our Hungry Planet” video, produced by National Geographic as part of its multimedia series “The Future of Food”, which is based entirely on data from FAOSTAT.

Audience Reaction

The debate ended with a number of questions from representatives of FAO member countries in the audience. There appeared to be strong consensus on the need to strengthen statistical coordination and governance at all levels; improve data quality; employ new methods and technologies; invest more in capacity development; and communicate data and statistics more effectively.

In this respect, while few would question the importance of statistics for evidence-based decision-making, the topic is not usually perceived as being particularly “sexy” and communicating numbers in an engaging manner is not a simple matter.

However, after listening to the panel debate and witnessing the National Geographic video based on FAO’s statistical data, people may have started to feel otherwise. In fact, at the end of the event, one pleasantly surprised member of the audience said: “Wow, talking about statistics is not nearly as boring as I had expected!”

Katz is senior coordinator of the FAO Statistics Division