Blog Post

Food Security and Incomes in Guatemala During Food Crises

Since early 2020, Guatemala has faced a multitude of food security shocks: from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions on movement and disruptions to agricultural trade to widespread flooding following several major tropical storms to skyrocketing staple food prices. A new article in World Development examines the immediate and longer term impact of these shocks on households’ incomes, diets, food security, and migration decisions, particularly in rural areas. The results provide evidence as to how smallholder farmers in the region fare in the aftermath of global crises.

The study utilizes panel survey data from over 1,600 smallholder farming households (commercial coffee producers and horticultural producers) in Guatemala’s Western Highlands. Data were collected in 2019, 2020, and 2021. By looking at responses both pre- and post-pandemic, the authors were able to determine how exposure to these multiple shocks impacted households at the time and to what extent those impacts have lingered.

Overall, household incomes from agriculture, non-agricultural labor, and remittances declined between 2019 and 2020. Households became more reliant on using savings and selling assets, as well as on assistance from government agencies and private donors, during this time. Episodes of mild and moderate food insecurity increased, with 82 percent and 57 percent of households reporting at least one episode, respectively, in 2020; in 2019, these rates were 57 and 35 percent. Consumption of diverse animal-source foods (meat, eggs, dairy) declined, while consumption of diverse fruits and vegetables increased. Ninety percent of surveyed households reported seeing a significant decline in food availability (dairy products, meats, fruits and vegetables, roots and tubers, and grains and cereals) in local markets during this time. Food prices also saw a significant increase across all food groups.

Between 2020 and 2021, incomes and food security saw general improvements. However, the study emphasizes that levels for all of these indicators remained below those seen pre-pandemic. Approximately six in ten households reported experiencing an overall decrease in income from one or more of the three income sources between 2019 and 2021. Many households have turned to informal borrowing to compensate for lower incomes. While episodes of mild and moderate food insecurity fell in 2021, the study finds that the prevalence of severe food insecurity episodes stayed at over 20 percent in 2021, compared to 11 percent in 2019. While local food availability was reported stable or improved in 2021 compared to 2019, food prices across all food groups in 2021 were significantly higher than their pre-pandemic levels. Overall dietary diversity continued to decline in 2021, with many households continuing to shift consumption away from animal-source foods toward fruits and vegetables.

In terms of migration decisions, the study found that households’ intention to emigrate increased three-fold between 2020 and 2021. This finding suggests that decreasing incomes, rather than direct exposure to COVID-19 and the resulting restrictions and disruptions, have had the largest impact on households’ migration decisions.

Importantly, households that were exposed to both COVID-19 pandemic and the tropical storms experienced higher food insecurity, less dietary diversity, and larger reductions in consumption of animal-source foods than those who were only impacted by the pandemic. This finding, the authors suggest, highlights the need for policies to focus on improving households’ resilience to climate shocks and empowering the adoption of climate adaptation strategies to help households mitigate the impact of compound shocks.