Every 10 years, most countries of the world cooperate to conduct their censuses of agriculture under FAO’s World Programme for the Census of Agriculture. The latest round – covering the period 2016-2025 – was kicked off last year with a series of regional roundtables involving national statistical staff from each country. The roundtable for Europe and Central Asia will run from 3 to 7 April, in Budapest, Hungary.
FAO senior statistician Jairo Castano spoke recently with regional communication officer Sharon Lee Cowan. In this interview, Castano illuminates the agricultural census process, highlights what’s new in the current round, and paints a compelling picture of why the data are needed.
The world is about to carry out a census of agriculture. What kinds of data will be collected?
In addition to the obvious structural information – such as number and size of farm holdings – countries will be collecting data on the environmental impact of agricultural practices like ploughing, crop rotation, or sources of greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions. Information on land tenure, land use, methods of irrigation, sources of water, aquaculture, capture fisheries, livestock, and much more will be collected and analyzed.
How does it work – door-to-door visits to farms?
Yes, mainly. But we are advocating intensive use of new technologies in all census-related operations – from collection to processing and dissemination as well as the use of registers. Mobile phones and tablets, global positioning systems (GPS) and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) provide new opportunities to speed up the data collection process, improving data quality. The use of online questionnaires is being used more and more for commercial farms. Satellite images can also assist where holdings and land plots are clearly demarcated.
Why is it important to collect this information?
Information disclosed by an agricultural census is crucial when formulating evidence-based policies and plans related to agriculture and rural development. Using specialized statistical methods, it is possible to better understand the reasons why farmers make certain decisions, and what their likely response would be to a particular policy action. It’s also essential for the private sector to make informed agribusiness investments. Comparing the data at different points in time helps us monitor environmental and other changes. National censuses will be a critical help to countries in monitoring progress towards the internationally accepted Sustainable Development Goals.
It sounds like a massive undertaking. What could go wrong?
A census of agriculture is a large-scale statistical operation and thus it is demanding in terms of planning and resources. However, more and more countries are conducting a census. During the 2010 census round, which covered the period 2006-2015, 132 countries conducted censuses of agriculture, a new record surpassing the earlier record of 122 countries in the 2000 census round. But as public sector budgets tighten, many governments and donors demand more census data with limited resources. Adopting the guidelines will help countries use cost-effective methodologies and tools, and user-friendly dissemination of census data for informed policy and private decisions in the sector.
Who are the major players in this effort?
First and foremost, countries are the protagonists in conducting their national censuses. But they are not alone with the task. FAO has been supporting countries in carrying out national-level censuses on a 10-year cycle since 1945, through the World Programme for the Census of Agriculture. As part of the World Programme, FAO publishes a set of guidelines that help FAO member countries harmonize their census results and make them nationally and internationally comparable. We are organizing regional roundtables to disseminate the new guidelines and help countries gain a deeper understanding of the new approaches and methodologies for census data collection.
What would be your advice to countries conducting national censuses?
The main thing is for all countries to get involved in this effort, dedicating the necessary time and energy to a national census of agriculture. Then, it is absolutely crucial to become familiar with and use the FAO census guidelines. Because by using the standards, concepts and definitions promoted in the guidelines, countries will ensure the compatibility of data across countries. Adopting the guidelines will also help countries develop an integrated census and survey programme, use innovative and cost-effective methodologies, and broaden the dissemination for census data for informed strategic decisions.
When will we start to see results?
For the 2020 census round, 84 countries so far are conducting or planning to conduct censuses of agriculture. At this pace, this round may see a new record. Preliminary results for the new census round would be available by 2020.
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