Breaking the Basket: Understanding Guatemala’s Food Crisis With Data Science

In the year 2019, it was estimated that 15% of Guatemalans were unable to reach their daily food requirements. The country, who ranked 68th in food security standings, continues having a significant portion of their population being incapable of having a stable source of food…

but why?

It may be to ascertain possible origins for the problem, such as the civil war that plagued the country in the 20th century. The war, that destroyed over 440 rural communities in the country and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, also led to a halt in the economic development of the country and became the original reason as to why the government lacked the funding to provide aid to economically unstable or needing communities.

The result? In 2020, it is estimated that over 60% of Guatemalans live in poverty.

With this, comes the struggle to meet one’s basic needs. That is shelter, water, and food. But why is food such a large issue in Guatemala? Well, the country does not only face large economical problems that lead to people being incapable of affording food, but it also has to deal with large problems regarding the climate.

El Corredor Seco, roughly translated to the dry corridor in English, is a large ecological sector that deals with constant high temperatures and severe droughts throughout summer. It has resulted in miles of farmland being ruined by the lack of water and continues creating new economical hardships for the people inside.

The land in Guatemala covered by “El Corredor Seco”. Source

In fact, as the land in the region becomes continually dry and unfarmable, food sources in the area have become more scarce. As a developing country that yet lacks a stable infrastructure and governmental aid, Guatemala has many of its local denizens, particularly those that are located far away from the urbanized areas, to depend on local food sources for sustainability. The destruction of these sources has made food gathering ever so difficult for these people, creating an ever-larger population that does not have the proper means to nourish themselves.

Even so, is Guatemala’s situation all that bad? How does its situation with food security compare to other countries, particularly those in South America and the Caribbean?

For that, the United States Department of Agriculture has prepared a dataset that contains food security indicators for a large number of countries. The dataset had records going back as far as 1980 and even contained information spanning forward to 2013. Although not the most recent data, it still draws an interesting comparison between Guatemala and other countries, and it may help provide a more complete perspective on the country’s issue.

Although the dataset included many categories of information that may provide some data on the issue, one category was particularly explored. The category of food availability per capita, or in other words, how many kilograms of food is available for an individual during an entire year. Grabbing the years as the X-axis, and the values of the food availability per capita as the Y-axis, a bar chart was made for the country’s information.

Two more countries were recorded for the purpose of comparing and contrasting the information between Guatemala and the other two candidates. Those were Peru, a third-world country in South America that has seen large economical growth and development throughout the years, and Haiti, a Caribbean nation that has also seen economical stagnation, mainly due to its available resources and the recent tragedy of the earthquake it underwent in 2010.

In the end, the final bar chart was made:

From the graph, there are some interesting ideas to note here.

  1. In 1980 (while Guatemala was still in the civil war), the food availability per capita is not so significantly different for the three countries.
  2. In 1996, around the time the Guatemalan civil war ended, the food availability per capita for the country stops fluctuating up and down as much as before and instead begins staying relatively around the same area (between 80 and 100 kgs in grain equivalent).
  3. Peru, which has seen massive economical growth throughout the 21st century, has had it’s food availability per capita increase consistently throughout those years.
  4. Haiti, although stricken in 2010 by a massive earthquake, did not have its food availability drop significantly (mainly due to the large amounts of foreign aid the country received after the disaster).

So, why is Guatemala not seeing a betterment in its food availability? By the documentation of the dataset, the food availability per capita was recorded in how many kilograms of food, in grain equivalent, a person would theoretically receive a year (theoretical since the value is made from dividing the actual food availability amount by the population of the country).

Based on that, considering there are 365 days a year, that would result in an average of 0.22 kilograms for the average Guatemalan to get every day. Considering that one kilogram of the grain-equivalent measure is 3200 calories, that is an estimated 700 calories that are available for the average Guatemalan.

Of course, there are things to consider, women, the elderly, and children need less than the average 2000 calories required for a healthy male. At the same time, it is not as if every person is only consuming 700 calories every day. The reality is that while people in a better economical standing may be getting a healthy amount of calories, if not more, those people that belong to the groups economically devasted by the civil war may be consuming far less than 700 calories, averaging the data to around the amount.

The data drew some interesting insights, so further investigation was required. Another dataset, this one from the humanitarian data exchange, was used to obtain more information about Guatemala’s food crisis.

To the left, you can see a chart comparing the number of undernourished people and the food availability per capita. It would be easy for one to say right away that the two factors should go hand in hand with one another, but after certain tests, it resulted that both aspects had a linear correlation of -0.01.

In other words, these two aspects had near to no correlation. Why is it that food availability had no influence on the number of undernourished people? Well, although the data on the food availability per capita details how much food should be theoretically available for each person, that does not mean that the distribution of this food is equal for everyone. That is to say, even if the amount of food available for the country increased, it is entirely possible that a large percentage of this food goes to a particular group inside the country.

As Guatemala’s urbanized areas grew and modernized, they would have required a greater amount of food. Even so, the secluded groups that have been economically struggling do not enjoy the benefits of the increased food supply, and as their population grows, so does the number of undernourished people (since they do not have enough food available to properly nourish all their population).

How can this idea be proven? Well, one can take a look at the GDP per capita, and compare it to the food supply per capita for those years.

This chart had a linear correlation of 0.46, also known as a significant positive linear correlation. This meant that the change in the GDP per capita for Guatemala is somewhat influenced by the change in the Food Availablity per Capita and vice versa. However, what does this mean?

GDP per capita is also a theoretical value, it is represented as the GDP of a country divided by its population. Therefore, if GDP per capita can also suffer from the idea of not being able to properly showcase the real distribution of the feature (in this case, the GDP) in the population, it can at least serve to show that the GDP of the country has increased.

If the GDP of Guatemala has increased throughout the year, then the country becomes capable of producing and importing more food. In other words, it’s food availability grows, but if the number of undernourished people is not changing from this growth, then that means that the distribution of this growth and development is not serving to the improvement of this issue.

Let’s take a look at another comparative chart, this one comparing the GDP per capita and the number of undernourished people in Guatemala.

the chart here showed that both the number of undernourished people and the GDP per capita in Guatemala had a linear relationship of 0.7! In a literal sense, that would mean that the increase in GDP per capita in Guatemala has led to a direct increase in the number of undernourished people in the country!

Now, this may not be the case. The graph is very likely to have noise within it, and the sampling of a relatively small timespan may have resulted in the coincidental correlation. That is why it’s important to remember, correlation does not always mean causation. It’s very doubtful that the increase in GDP per capita for Guatemala is resulting in more people being malnourished, but it at least shows that the increase in GDP per capita is not helping reduce the problem.

That is to say, neither the increase in food availability in Guatemala nor the increase in the nation’s GDP per capita is helping solve the problem of malnourishment. If the country is growing economically, and if it’s food supply (as seen from the bar graph) has not changed significantly, why is the malnourished population still increasing?

The allocation of these resources, both the economical power showcased from the GDP per capita, and the food availability are the reason why. As the population increases and economically struggling groups in Guatemala continue to procreate and grow in size, the failure of a proper distribution of resources fails to respond to the increasing need for food from these groups. As the urbanized areas grow in size and continue consuming ever so increasingly, the economy grows, but the benefits of this growth are only enjoyed by those particular individuals in those urbanized areas.

So in summary, we learned that:

  • Guatemala has not seen a large growth in its food supply, and the lack of distribution in its supply has resulted in many people inside the country still struggling to find reliable sources of food.
  • Guatemala’s economy keeps improving and developing, but because the allocation of these new resources has not been properly established, there are still many within the country that have not seen any personal economical growth, and continue being incapable of properly nourishing themselves.

As Guatemala keeps developing and growing, it’s important to always keep an eye out for its current issues. With the right information and analysis, it becomes possible to tackle large problems and help steer the country towards a more developed future.

I’m a Guatemalan student at lambda school focusing on data analysis and machine learning.

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