The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) compiles and monitors food supply data for many developing countries. The estimates are typically based on food balance sheets supplied from each country's national records. The information is usually converted to per capita food availability and is presented for developing countries as a whole, by region, subregion, and for more than 100 individual countries. Information is also available for many countries (e.g., in Latin America—Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile) from national statistical institutes as well as regional statistical organizations (e.g., the Council for Statistics in Latin America). Much of this information can be accessed free of charge through local Internet sites.
Food supply data are essential to make comparisons between and across regions and to monitor trends. For example, according to the FAO food supply data, approximately 10% of the worlds' population now lives in countries where the food supply is low (<2200kcal/person/day). This is down from 57% in the mid-1960s. Nonetheless, according to 2001 FAO data, there are still 30 countries with low food supply. Ideally, this type of information should be used to promote agricultural policies that will enhance food supply.
Despite these important uses, these data should be interpreted with caution, particularly in the developing country context. Although many countries show national increases in food supply, this does not address the issue as to how food is distributed within the country. Increases in access among the most vulnerable groups may not parallel increases in national production. Thus, although food supply data are useful for trend analysis, they should not be used to assess changes in food consumption or food security.
Trends toward a decline in the food supply can also be identified using food balance information. This may be a reflection of an unstable political environment or some severe natural disease that influenced food production. Ideally, this information should be used to influence agricultural policy to stimulate higher levels of production. However, war or other political strife may impede this process. The data should not be used to predict food shortages or famine because it is not useful to identify vulnerable groups within a population and because vulnerable groups may already be experiencing shortages by the time that this information is available and processed.
The quality of data used to generate food balance sheets can vary greatly between countries. In general, the methods are thought to underestimate total per capita energy availability in developing countries. In some countries, particularly those where small-holder agriculture is still common, this may be related to underestimates of true production due to a less centralized economy.
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