Without data you’re just another person with an opinion

Geneva, 20 October 2022 - 

The title of this blog is a famous quote by the statistician Edwards Deming. It seems to me that the quote is especially relevant to food systems which are comprised of complex, sprawling sets of relationships.  

We at GAIN certainly believe data for food systems are important generally and for our own work and we invest in it. There are four recent reports that we have contributed to that I would like to draw your attention to. The first gives us insight into the magnitude and nature of the diet problem. The second shows us how to monitor diet quality accurately, inexpensively and in a timely way. The third gives us insight where in the food system, action is most needed. The final one guides us on how best to support food system SMEs. 

Micronutrient malnutrition is likely to be twice as common as we currently estimate

First is a new paper by GAIN, commissioned by USAID and coordinated by the Micronutrient Forum. This was to investigate the origins of the famous '2 billion people worldwide' that are malnourished. We all cite the statistic, but we can’t really say where it originated or how it was constructed. Regardless, it is probably out of date. The new paper has just been published in Lancet Global Health and the authors find that 1.6 billion women 15 - 49 years of age and children less than 5 years of age alone, experience micronutrient deficiency. When considering the remaining 5.5 billion of the global population (for which there was not enough data to include in the analysis), the total number of people with micronutrient deficiencies is likely far higher. Based on comparisons of inadequate micronutrient intakes between sexes and age groups worldwide, it’s reasonable to assume the prevalence of deficiency among this remaining 5.5 billion people is around 50%. Under this assumption, the total number of people with micronutrient deficiencies worldwide is likely over 4 billion.

Close up on a pen rested next to highlighted text on paper

We at GAIN certainly believe data for food systems are important generally and for our own work and we invest in it. There are four recent reports that we have contributed to that. 

It is now possible to collect diet quality data, in a rapid, low-cost manner

Second, a new report called 'Measuring What the World Eats' by GAIN, Harvard University and Gallup links a new diet quality assessment module to the Gallup World Poll to gain new nationally representative data at the individual level, for 41 countries in 2021. This is a real game changer. Suddenly diet quality can be assessed rapidly and affordably. This can be used to track crises in near real time. I wish we had it available in March 2020 when no-one knew for sure the who, when and where of diet quality impacts of COVID-19. This module can be linked to any data collection effort and will revolutionise data collection.  

Nutrition is the domain in which food systems in Africa are most challenged 
Third, a new report by GAIN and Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) for the recent AGRF meeting applies the diagnostic cut-offs developed by the Food Systems Dashboard team to food systems data from Africa. This allows us to explore the challenge areas within the food system domains of each African country. Out of the four domains - food supply, food environment, nutrition outcomes, environment outcomes - nutrition was by far the most challenging. This confirms the importance of the African Union’s commitment to making 2022 the Year of Nutrition.

SMEs are facing massive challenges due to Climate, COVID and Conflict

Finally, a new survey of SMEs in Africa and Asia was conducted by GAIN and the WFP as co-convenors of the SUN Business Network. Input prices (level and volatility) and access to finance were the top challenges faced by these small-scale entrepreneurs who are so critical for linking farmers and markets. This kind of information helps us –and hopefully others - to tailor our programmes and policy work to better meet the needs of SMEs. 

Data matter

Data help build the conditions for change. They do this by building political commitment, by allocating capacity for action to where it is most impactful and by supporting the steady generation of nutrition solutions via sustainable food systems. This is what drives our data work forwards at GAIN - to make sure we do the right things in the right places at the right time.  More importantly perhaps these data resources should make it easier for everyone to do this. 

After all, without food systems data you are just another person with an opinion about food systems.