Food Insecurity in Guatemala Reaches Crisis Levels

Jun 15, 2017 · 9 min read

Adapted from Tracking Promises: Analyzing the Impact of Feed the Future in Guatemala

Despite its lower-middle-income status, Guatemala grapples with some of the most alarming food-security challenges in the western hemisphere. The United States is partnering to improve the health and livelihoods of some of Guatemala’s most disadvantaged people despite this barrage of challenges, or perhaps as a direct result of it. Feed the Future programming supports food and nutrition security in 19 countries globally, including three in the Americas: Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti. Guatemala is home to the largest Americas program and is also overwhelming the wealthiest focus country.

Representatives from the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Food Security Project met with a diverse group of food and nutrition security experts in both Guatemala and Washington in the fall of 2016. The following excerpt is Chapter 1 of the five-chapter report which emerged from these conversations. This chapter outlines the complexities of the Guatemalan food and nutrition security context.

The Guatemalan Food and Nutrition Security Context

The government of Guatemala declared a food security state of emergency in September 2009 in response to the coalescing contributions of the global economic and food price crises, a 10 percent reduction in remittances, and climate change that drove $23 million in crop losses between January and September of that year. The L’Aquila Joint Statement on Food Security was signed at G-8 meetings just months before, and Guatemala came to be the largest recipient of U.S. food security investments in the Americas in the years to follow.

Of the 19 countries targeted by the U.S. government’s Feed the Future Initiative, Guatemala is overwhelmingly the wealthiest, with per capita GDP in excess of $3,900 in 2015 and steady annual growth rates in the range of 4 percent (see Figure 1.1).

And yet, recent data show poverty trends on the upswing. A 2014 survey found over 59 percent of the population living in poverty, up from 51 percent in 2006, with a growing concentration classified as “extremely poor” (23 percent). Indeed, Guatemala has one of the world’s most unequal wealth distributions: the top fifth of the population accumulated nearly three-fifths of all income in 2014, whereas the bottom fifth captured just 3 percent of it. The average income of the top 20 percent was over 17 times the average income of the bottom 20 percent.

And so, despite its relative overall prosperity, Guatemala has made underwhelming development progress over the two decades since the end of its multigenerational civil conflict. Of the 24 measurable human development targets it committed to achieve by 2015 as a partner in the Millennium Development Goals, it reached only six. It aimed to reduce the proportion of people living in poverty to 9 percent, but over half of Guatemalans still fell below the poverty line in 2015. Indigenous households comprise over three-quarters of that group despite numbering less than half of the overall population. Guatemala’s child stunting prevalence of 46.5 percent is comparable to rates recently observed in Yemen and Malawi (Feed the Future’s poorest country).

Inequality in wealth corresponds to inequality in land distribution, which has only been further concentrated in the hands of elites as global demand for sugar cane and palm oil have spiked in the past two decades. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 2 percent of commercial producers use 57 percent of the country’s land while 92 percent of smallholders share just 22 percent of it. “Democratization” of land structures was a component of the 1996 Peace Accords, but by 2013, nearly half of the small-holders granted titles no longer held them. Farmers may sell their land due to debt or crop failure, an increasingly prevalent risk in the country’s volatile and changing climate, and larger sugar cane or palm oil companies are taking advantage of the bargain.

Population Overview

At the time of the 1996 Peace Accords, Guatemala’s population was estimated at 10.6 million people, already the largest country in Central America by a significant margin. But with a total fertility rate of 5.1 in 1995 (6.8 among indigenous women) and still 3.1 in 2014–2015 (3.6 among indigenous women — a notable decline), the population grew to 16.7 million by 2016. In 2030, the target year of the UN Sustainable Development Goal to eradicate hunger completely, Guatemala will need to provide public services and economic opportunities for over 21 million people.

Food and Nutrition Insecurity Profile

Poor and vulnerable Guatemalans lack economic access to food within their local marketplaces. In an 18-month period between 2006 and 2008, the nominal cost of a basic food basket rose by over 22 percent, a starker increase than observed in either Honduras (13 percent) or El Salvador (17 percent). The jump is particularly notable given that over half (54 percent) of the calories accounted for come from basic, locally produced staples: beans and maize. The World Food Programme estimates that increased prices resulted in a 6 percent reduction in food consumed over that period. Since many households spend over half of their income on food, it also led to an estimated 229,000 non-poor Guatemalans falling into poverty in 2007 alone.

The cost of a basic food basket in January 2017 was estimated at 4.079 Quetzales, up 11 percent from the previous year given protracted drought. The overall food price index rose over 16 percent in 2016 (see Figure 1.2), a proportional increase more than four times greater than that observed in other sectors of the economy.

The basic food basket is now estimated to cost 4.079 Quetzales, over 70 percent of the 5,750 Quetzal extreme poverty line below which nearly a quarter of the population lives. Maize, grown for household consumption by most rural smallholders, is therefore a main source of both calories and protein in the diet. White maize is more heavily consumed than yellow maize, which is often used as poultry feed.

Despite is apparent ubiquity in production, even maize has become much more expensive in recent years. The uptick was driven by increased international prices and resulted in a total nominal maize price increase of 63 percent in a single year around 2011. As Figure 1.3 reflects, seasonable maize price volatility often approaches or exceeds its inter-annual variance.

Agricultural Profile

In 2015, agriculture contributed $6.7 billion to Guatemala’s economy, or 11 percent of gross domestic product.

While not a high-value crop, maize production still dominates cultivated land areas. In 2014, the National Institute of Statistics estimated that nearly 820,000 hectares were used for maize production. Land allocations to primary annual and permanent crops in 2003 and 2014 are compared in Figure 1.4. The second most prominent annual crop and an important source of nutrition, black beans, now takes up just 56,000 hectares despite the crop’s earlier prominence. Nearly 15 times as much land is allocated to maize as to beans but productive output diverges even more starkly: maize output is now about 44 times that of beans.

While the economy has diversified somewhat in recent decades, agriculture is still the country’s largest employment sector, now accounting for about a third of the active labor force. But national data suggest that poverty rates are nearly twice as high among agricultural workers (74 percent poor) as among those working in industry (44 percent), and over three times higher than among those working in commerce (23 percent poor).

The stark poverty among farmers and farm laborers is explained in part by inadequate systems of transit, irrigation, energy supply, and other infrastructure in rural areas, which thwarts both productive capacity and potential linkages to aggregators, processors, and markets. The CSIS team was repeatedly told that poor road quality results in substantial damage to fresh produce in transit. One informant explained that there are 186 speed bumps between two major trade areas — Quiche and Los Encuentros. A lack of cold storage similarly hampers agricultural market interconnectivity.

Despite such challenges, agriculture dominates the export market with a different set of food commodities: over a fifth of all Guatemalan exports in 2015 were accounted for by just the top three agricultural products: raw beet and cane sugar, bananas and coffee. The United States is overwhelmingly Guatemala’s largest trading partner, as depicted in Figure 1.5.

Weather Hazards and Climate Change: An Escalating Threat

In September 2009, the government of Guatemala declared a food security state of emergency amid the worst drought in 30 years on the heels of the global economic crisis. Crop losses in parts of the dry corridor were estimated in the range of 80 to 100 percent, affecting 2.5 million Guatemalans.

Changing climate conditions over the longer term pose an even greater, if less immediately apparent, risk to rural populations. The Central American region produces less than half a percent of total global carbon emissions, but it is one of the areas most threatened by climate change. A range of forecast scenarios predict that, by 2050, temperatures in Guatemala will increase by between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Celcius, a reduction in precipitation will severely impact agriculture, and the resulting expansion of semi-arid areas could prove devastating for smallholder livelihoods.

At a meeting convened by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on June 30, 2016, experts from FAO, the World Food Programme, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development reported that an esimated 3.5 million people across the northern triangle needed humanitarian assistance related to the drought. In the face of food security crises mounting in both frequency and severity, FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva proclaimed:

“We need to change the traditional response strategy and tackle the structural causes of poverty and food insecurity in Central America’s Dry Corridor, and not settle for simply mounting a humanitarian response every time an emergency situation occurs.”

Food and Water Safety Concerns Undermine Nutrition

Maize is a staple in the Guatemalan diet, particularly among the rural indigenous poor. But levels of aflatoxin, the most potent known liver carcinogen, are 10–50 times higher in Guatemala than global averages and likely to increase with warming temperatures.

The provision of effective potable water and sanitation services is required by Guatemalan law, but few municipalities are able to meet this requirement and have no strong incentive structure to do so. While estimates vary, it has been reported that 40 percent of the rural population lacks access to a hose-hold water connection, compounding their vulnerability to the increasing frequency of droughts. The majority of community water sources are contaminated with E. coli and several other bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Over a fifth of children under age 6 living in poverty had recently suffered from diarrhea in 2014. This frequent of illness compromises children’s physiological ability to absorb the critical vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients they need to grow, develop, and thrive. Across all cases of diarrhea, treatment rates have not improved in recent decades. In the year 2000, 67 percent of diarrhea cases received medical treatment. In 2014, 66 percent did.

The most recent Demographic and Health survey (known by its Spanish language acronym ENSMI) found that 46.5 percent of Guatemalan children under five years old are stunted- one of the highest ratios in the world. Among the poorest fifth of the population, two-thirds of children are stunted. The national prevalence of stunting has shown alarmingly slow improvement in over 20 years of peace- it stood at 55 percent in 1995 after the country had been embroiled in civil war for decades. The persistent lack of clean water and adequate hygiene and sanitation infrastructure and practices is cited as a primary driver of stunting outcomes.

Government services to address such systemic problems are consistently inadequate and underfunded, tantamount to willful neglect of the population’s most basic needs. Since the end of the war in 1996, Guatemala has regularly captured only about 11 percent of GDP in tax revenue, peaking at 12.8 percent in 2007 and falling back to 10.8 percent in 2015. The national health budget has consistently fallen below 2 percent of GDP in recent years, sinking to just 1 percent in 2010, when Feed the Future was introduced.

Download the full report here.

Written by Reid Hamel

Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

Curated content from the world’s top international security think tank. Founded in 1962.


Written by


Center for Strategic & International Studies is the source for bipartisan foreign policy news, analysis, & solutions to the world’s top challenges since 1962.

Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

Curated content from the world’s top international security think tank. Founded in 1962.

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