'Agricultural censuses can monitor environmental changes'

From providing agricultural information for specific countries to identifying trends in the sector, censuses serve a variety of purpose

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Published: Thursday 12 November 2015

Census data enables the formulation and monitoring of policy measures to address the needs of specific types of crops, livestock and farmers
Credit: Vikas Choudhary

In the backdrop of a round of country-driven agricultural censuses which will begin in 2016 to gather information and statistics on the global agriculture sector, senior FAO statiscian Jairo Castano discusses with Down To Earth the importance of the exercise.

How helpful are agricultural censuses in gathering information and statistics about the agriculture sector worldwide? Do they serve any other purpose?

The census of agriculture is the principal means of collecting basic agricultural statistics in a country and is aimed at providing comprehensive national agricultural information at the farm level.

(It) provides a snapshot of agriculture in a country and an opportunity to identify trends in the sector (and) possible areas of intervention.

The use of standards, concepts and definitions proposed by the FAO guidelines ensures the international comparability of the data collected and the possibility for countries to benchmark their performance against other countries.

The guidelines also help countries to develop the frame for an integrated census and survey programme, promote cost-effective methodologies and broaden the dissemination of census data for informed strategic decisions by governments and the private sector.

What the FAO guidelines regarding this and how will adhering to these guidelines help the member countries? Is FAO also providing technical support and know-how?

The World Programme for the Census of Agriculture (WCA) 2020 provides updated guidelines to countries for conduct(ing) agricultural censuses in the 2020 census round, which covers the period between 2016 and 2025.

It is the 10th round in the decennial programme of agricultural censuses, which started in 1930 (or from 1945 since the founding of FAO).

Since 1945, FAO has technically assisted many countries, especially those with limited statistical capacity, and will continue to support its members in the organisation of their censuses of agriculture in line with the new guidelines.

The 2006-2015 census round marks a new record in the number of countries which have conducted agricultural censuses, 135 in total as of today.

How is creating agriculture census linked to rural development? In India, where around 70 per cent of the population depends on the agriculture sector, how will it help?

The agricultural planning and policy-making process is an evidence-based process and heavily (depends) on the national statistical system. Census data contributes to this evidence-based process in the following ways:

  • Promoting agricultural production and investments to stimulate economic growth
  • Rural development: census data are commonly used for the preparation of rural development programmes
  • Access to land and land distribution: land data enables formulation and monitoring of policy measures and programmes addressing the needs   of specific-target farmer groups
  • Types of farming system: census data facilitates classifying holdings by type of farming system
  • Family farms: family agriculture can be identified, for example, using data on area, household size and type of labour
  • Crop diversification: census data guides diversification and cultivation of new crops
  • Support schemes: census data helps improve the understanding of the use of agricultural inputs and the need for subsidy schemes
  • Assessing food security: (This is done) by assessing the severity of food insecurity as experienced by individuals in the population
  • Assessing the role of gender in agriculture: allocation of work on family farms, responsibilities, ownership

Why for the first time has the census programme provided guidelines on fisheries data integration and greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activities?

The WCA 2020 provides two new themes to better address emerging data needs: “Fisheries” (capture fisheries activities conducted at the household level) and “Environment/Greenhouse Gases (GHG)” (basic agro-environmental data on GHG and ammonia emissions).

For agricultural holdings in some countries, aquaculture and fisheries constitute an additional source of income and food. For this reason, these countries have expressed (an) interest in guidance on collecting information on these activities in the agricultural census.

Similarly, in response to the growing demand for basic agro-environmental data on GHGs and ammonia emissions, the WCA 2020 includes a new theme with a set of items that can help countries assess their emissions, with a view to improving their national GHG inventories. (This will enable) planning for effective climate change responses and facilitating access to international funding.

Are there separate guidelines for developed and developing nations? Also, are the guidelines specific to regions and climate?

The WCA 2020 was carefully reviewed by countries and key stakeholders, including internal users at FAO, external users in regions and national and international experts on agricultural statistics.

These reviews and consultations have provided critical feedback for (the) development of the guidelines in terms of methodology and content.

Consultation with member countries has been particularly important and has helped to ensure that the guidelines address the requirements of both developed and developing countries and are tailored to various country needs and capacities.

Are conducting agriculture censuses an expensive affair? If yes, how can be made affordable for poorer nations?

The census of agriculture, like any national census, is a costly operation. The WCA 2020 makes a series of recommendations to countries on (the) cost-effective approaches) such as census methodologies (use of complete enumeration combined with sample enumeration, combining census with administrative data, combining census with rotating thematic surveys) and the use of information technology in data collection (tablets, smartphones, online questionnaires).

(These methods have) the potential to lead to improvements in data quality (through real-time automatic checks) and reduce time lag between data collection and data analysis.

(Other recommendations are) the use of interactive outputs and web-based data (tables, infographics, geo-referenced maps, atlas) which are user-friendly dissemination tools to support informed decision-making and using the census as a first step towards creation of a system of integrated agricultural censuses and surveys in countries where such systems do not exist.

The guidelines emphasize on GPS, GIS and mobile phones? Are they feasible in countries like India where network is limited and technology use remains a challenge

Advanced technologies such as information technology, GIS and GPS have created new opportunities for data collection to increase efficiency and improve the quality of data.

For instance, the use of advanced technologies has the potential to lead to improvements in data quality, including timeliness, reduction of under-coverage and response error, and reductions in staffing and other cost efficiencies.

During enumeration, GPS-enabled devices, together with customised location software, can be used to assist enumerators to locate the route and holdings to be enumerated or to assist with census management.

GPS devices can provide objective measures of areas of the holding. GIS can be useful for census management, as location data can be mapped as part of management of the enumerators. GIS also allows the incorporation of detailed geo-referenced data into census analysis.

Iran, Jordan, Thailand, Mozambique, Tanzania, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico with similar infrastructure as India have used tablets, smartphones and GPS in agriculture census for data collection and dissemination.

Finally, what is the FAO doing in terms of increasing food production worldwide? Can agricultural censuses ensure zero wastage and bumper output?

Census data enables the formulation and monitoring of policy measures to address the needs of specific types of crops, livestock and farmers.

Agricultural censuses are sources of structural information that, through comparison at different points of time, contribute to the monitoring of environmental changes.

Data on the use of environmentally-friendly practices, collected through the census of agriculture, helps decision-makers and planners when adopting measures to mitigate adverse effects.

Environmental impacts of agricultural practices such as methods of ploughing, crop rotation or sources of high GHG emissions can be analysed and help countries to improve their ability to plan effective climate change responses and access international funding.

Methods of irrigation, sources of water and final disposal of water used for irrigation are important elements to analyse threats and actual risks to the environment.

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