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Rural households remain food insecure due to high food prices and low staple grain harvests

  • Food Security Outlook
  • Guatemala
  • October 2023 - May 2024
Rural households remain food insecure due to high food prices and low staple grain harvests

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  • Key Messages
  • National Overview
  • Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
  • Areas of Concern: Baja Verapaz and Quiché Staple Food and Agricultural Labor Livelihood Zone (GT07)
  • Key Messages
    • Several climatic and economic shocks in recent years are still impacting poor rural households in the Dry Corridor and Alta Verapaz regions. In addition to these conditions, this year's El Niño climate phenomenon has reduced rainfall and increased temperatures, causing partial and even total losses of staple grain crops. As a result, households will rely more heavily on the market to purchase food earlier in the season than usual. The need for immediate purchase of staple foods and debt repayment will minimize the benefits from increased income generated during the high agricultural labor demand season (from October to February). Due to the lack of staple grain reserves, limited capacity to save money, the prolonged need to purchase food from markets, and higher-than-normal food prices, households will enter the lean season earlier than usual. To secure staple foods, households will be forced to adjust the amount of food consumed and use unsustainable negative coping strategies, facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes until May 2024. 
    • For poor rural households in the rest of the country, income and food availability will increase from October 2023 to January 2024 due to a seasonal increase in employment during the harvest of various cash crops and household production of staple grains. This year, high food prices and weather irregularities that affected staple grain yields will limit these improvements, so most of the country will experience heightened food insecurity and be classified as Stressed (IPC Phase 2). While most households will likely face Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes from February to May, poorer households in the Altiplano and eastern areas of the country with lower staple grain harvests will have to buy food earlier than expected at higher prices than usual. To guarantee their minimum food intake, households will be forced to adjust food portions and use negative coping strategies, causing them to experience Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes.
    • This year, the El Niño phenomenon caused a delayed start of the rainy season, reduced rainfall, and high temperatures. These climatic irregularities delayed plantings and affected primera and postrera staple grain crops, causing partial to total losses for subsistence farmers. Despite this, commercial maize production that utilizes irrigation is expected to be in the average range. El Niño conditions that are forecasted to continue through May 2024 will possibly delay the new crop cycle planting.
    • Irregularity in the staple grain harvest has caused staple grain prices to remain above the five-year average. Seasonally, prices begin to fall in October, but the irregularity and delay in crop arrival at market will keep prices high, especially for beans, which have already shown record high prices. The persistently high cost of food will continue to restrict household purchasing power.   

    National Overview

    Current Situation

    Staple grain production: This year, because of the El Niño phenomenon, the start of the first period of the rainy season was delayed. Some light rainfall in May encouraged some farmers to plant, but the rainfall quickly diminished, and plantings were lost. In most parts of the country, the rainfall settled in a little more regularly at the end of June, when farmers sowed. Others managed to reseed with reserve seed, seed borrowed from neighbors, or newly purchased seed. 

    The rainy season has been characterized by reduced and irregular rainfall and high temperatures, affecting crop development, resulting in stunted growth, underdeveloped small cobs, and partial fruit growth. Poor rural households that tend to plant on small plots and relatively infertile land were particularly affected. Several days without rainfall were reported in August, and some areas, particularly in the Dry Corridor, recorded 10 to 20 days without rainfall in September (Figure 1). These dry periods were interrupted by light rainfall, but it did not compensate for the dryness of the soil, given the high temperatures. By October, rainfall improved but failed to compensate for the lack of rainfall at critical stages of crop development. Due to delayed and staggered plantings, staple grain harvests are atypically late.

    Figure 1

    Maximum number of consecutive dry days in the last 30 days through September 30
    Maximum number of consecutive dry days in the last 30 days through September 30

    Source: FEWS NET

    These unfavorable conditions have resulted in crop losses for the primera cycle, which accounts for approximately 60 percent of annual maize crop production. According to data shared by key informants and observations made by FEWS NET during field trips to areas in Oriente, Baja Verapaz, and Quiché in August and September, primera cycle maize losses for subsistence farmers could be around 25 to 30 percent overall. In addition, subsistence farmers in the Dry Corridor will likely suffer even more significant losses, at least 50 percent. Most commercial production utilizes irrigation and is in areas with favorable rainfall. Despite some delay in planting due to the late start of the rainy season and marginal damage in some rainfed surplus areas, volumes produced will be close to average, similar to last year. 

    In addition, during the primera 2023 cycle, low rainfall and soil moisture again caused damage and losses to bean crops, which are planted in association with maize. In different regions of the country, subsistence farmers reported losses from 60 percent up to total losses, limiting seed availability for the next planting. The delay in primera harvests and the lack of regular rainfall during the second rainy season has caused farmers not to plant the postrera cycle at the usual times. 

    Bean production has progressively declined over time due to its limited resilience to different shocks. According to FEWS NET analysis, based on data available from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food (MAGA), in the Regional Market Supply and Supply Outlook to be published in November/December 2023, local black bean production is estimated to have declined by more than 40 percent between the marketing year 2018/19 and 2022/23 due to losses associated with the recurrence of weather events—such as hurricanes, irregular rainfall, droughts—and rising production costs caused by the increase in international fuel and fertilizer prices. These events have negatively affected bean cultivation due to the high investment required and the levels of uncertainty regarding production volumes. 

    Cash crop production and labor demand: October is the most crucial month for generating income for rural households, thanks to the harvest of crops for commercial export, such as coffee, sugar, cardamom, fruits, and vegetables. Stability in these sectors is essential for the seasonal employment of rural households that depend on this source of income. One of the largest sources of employment for poor households is coffee cutting, given its broad geographic coverage in 21 of the country’s departments. However, production is concentrated in four departments. Some workers are employed locally, but many take advantage of the harvest season from October to February/March to migrate within the country, to Honduras, or to Mexico for more extended employment periods of two to four months. 

    For the 2023/2024 cycle, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that coffee production could be reduced by 2 percent compared to the 2022/2023 season due to high production costs that have impacted mainly small producers. In addition, through August 2023, the value of coffee and sugar exports decreased by 19 percent and 38 percent, respectively, compared to 2022, while the value of bananas and cardamom increased by 2 percent and 39 percent, respectively. Even with a decrease in volume produced, the employment of seasonal workers on commercial plantations will remain in average ranges, as continued migration to the United States and seasonal migration to Mexico and Honduras have caused a greater demand for available labor. The increased demand for seasonal workers has increased the value of daily wages by approximately 25 to 50 percent. However, the overall need for day laborers is lower in local smallholder coffee farms, and those who do not migrate or who return after migrating for work tend to be employed for only a few days. Moreover, since last year, due to the high costs of agricultural inputs, smallholder farmers who hire locally have reduced the amount of outside labor and are increasingly using family labor. 

    Food prices: Inflation has slowed in recent months, but high food prices are an essential contributor to inflation (Figure 2). In September, the price of white maize was similar to last year but showed a 43 percent increase above the five-year average (Figure 3). Meanwhile, beans increased 26 percent and 65 percent above last year and the five-year average, respectively (Figure 4). An interruption in the flow of goods in early October caused by protests and blockades due to the political situation drove additional increases in staple grain prices, which returned to the levels observed in September. Prices remain high due to the high cost of agricultural inputs and fuel, previous seasons’ low yields for small producers, damage to subsistence farmers' crops caused by reduced rainfall during the first rainy period of 2023, and the delay in the primera harvests this year.

    Figure 2

    National annual inflation, September 2022 to September 2023
    National annual inflation, September 2022 to September 2023

    Source: Elaborated with data from INE

    The current primera cycle is prolonging household purchase of staple grains in the market. Likewise, the late flow of fresh grain to the market has kept prices high and limited the seasonal declines expected since September. In much of the country, it was not until mid-October that new crops from surplus and commercial production began to flow to the markets. The decline in domestic black bean production is also driving up prices, which have reached record levels in 2023. 

    Fertilizer and fuel prices directly influence the cost of food. In the international market, fertilizer prices have shown a downward trend. Although reductions can be perceived at the national level, prices for the month of September remain between 70 and 100 percent above 2019 and 2020. Diesel and gasoline prices, which directly influence freight transportation costs, are 35 to 46 percent above the five-year average. 

    Figure 3

    White maize prices, wholesale, Terminal Market, Guatemala City, GTQ/100 lbs.
    White maize prices, wholesale, Terminal Market, Guatemala City, GTQ/100 lbs.

    Source: DIPLAN/MAGA data

    Figure 4

    Black bean prices, wholesale, Terminal Market, Guatemala City, GTQ/100 lbs.
    Black bean prices, wholesale, Terminal Market, Guatemala City, GTQ/100 lbs.

    Source: DIPLAN/MAGA data

    Economic activity: Economic activity remains stable due to moderate growth in several productive sectors. In the second quarter of 2023, Banco de Guatemala reported an economic growth rate of 3.8 percent, driven by the favorable performance of construction, professional, scientific, technical, and real estate activities (9.2, 6.1, and 4.1 percent, respectively). Agricultural and commercial activities showed more moderate growth rates (2.4 and 3 percent, respectively) but remained positive. Likewise, the Monthly Index of Economic Activity (IMAE) registered a cumulative growth of 3.8 percent as of August 2023, slightly below the same period of 2022 (4.4 percent). Tourism activity has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, showing an increase of 11 percent compared to August 2019 and 41 percent versus August 2022. This recovery benefits households whose sources of income are linked to this activity. Likewise, in September, the upward trend of remittances continued with an 11 percent increase compared to last year; these are used to purchase goods and services, particularly at the local level, boosting the local economy through informal employment. 

    Current Food Security Outcomes

    Currently, most of the country is classified as Stressed (IPC Phase 2), while the Dry Corridor and Alta Verapaz are experiencing Crisis (IPC Phase 3). 

    At the national level, poor households continue to be affected by high food and transportation prices. Despite a stable labor market and overall average wages, the continued rise in the cost of food causes poor households to spend more than 50 percent of their total expenditures on food staples. Due to the delayed staple grain harvests, rural households that traditionally have maize and beans for this season are forced to depend on the supply market amid high food prices. This situation puts pressure on dietary patterns and livelihoods, with households facing Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes and resorting to coping strategies such as adjusting the quality of their diet, cutting back on medical expenses, and going into debt. 

    Poor rural households, especially those in the Dry Corridor and Alta Verapaz, have depended on food purchases for an extended period. Insufficient subsistence production of staple grains in 2022 left them without reserves ahead of time, and this year, they lack their own primera-season staple grain harvests due to crop damage from climatic irregularities. As a result, these households have had to reduce the amount of food included in their daily consumption. To meet their basic food needs, they employ coping strategies consistent with Crisis (IPC Phase 3), such as atypical migration of additional household members or the sale of productive assets, putting their livelihoods at risk. Although the high demand for labor begins in mid-October, income is not immediate as laborers receive their earnings weeks after starting work. Consequently, households will continue to resort to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) strategies to feed themselves. 


    Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
    Seasonal Calendar for a typical year

    Source: FEWS NET

    Assumptions

    The most likely scenario from October 2023 to May 2024 is based on the following national-level assumptions:

    • The persistence of El Niño conditions throughout the period covered by this outlook would mean rainfall with erratic distribution in time and space and high temperatures during the second rainy season 2023 (September–November). This would affect the development of postrera staple grain crops, especially beans, as it was prioritized among staple grain producers for this period. 
    • Despite the possibility of a slight reduction in rainfall between December and March, it is expected that the harvests of staple grains produced in commercial plantations in the north (postrera tardía) would be in normal ranges due to the use of irrigation, mechanization, and better-quality seeds. However, their arrival to the market would not significantly impact price reductions due to late and irregular planting.
    • Domestic maize production is expected to be in average ranges, thanks to the commercial volumes. However, delayed planting and reduced rainfall could mean a slight reduction in domestic production volumes of postrera beans, as the crop is susceptible to drastic changes in weather, high temperatures, and humidity. 
    • National production estimates are based primarily on commercial production, but subsistence farmers' production prospects are significantly lower. Due to crop damage and losses, subsistence farmers' primera and postrera season staple grain reserves are estimated to be about 25 percent below average. In the Dry Corridor, the most affected area, stocks could be 50 percent (maize) to 75 to 100 percent (beans) below average. 
    • Based on the long-term climate analysis of FEWS NET's scientific partners and the probability of the persistence of the El Niño phenomenon until April to May 2024, an erratic start of the first rainy season of 2024 is expected, which would imply a delay in the planting of staple grains in the primera season and the only cycle of the Altiplano
    • Subsistence farmers, especially those in the Dry Corridor, may lack the usual quantities of creole seeds for the 2024 planting (due to past crop losses).
    • According to FEWS NET's price behavior analysis, maize prices could stabilize in ranges similar to the same period in 2023 but remain 30 to 40 percent above the five-year average. However, bean prices would remain high at 15 to 25 percent above 2023 levels and 50 to 60 percent above the five-year average. 
    • According to BANGUAT, the inflationary trend is expected to be contained. However, according to the analysis of supply and price trends at the regional level, food prices are expected to remain above the five-year average. Following international trends, fuels, transportation, and essential services (electricity, propane gas) are expected to stay above the five-year average. 
    • Despite a possible slight impact on domestic production due to weather and economic shocks, markets will remain supplied with domestic and imported maize and beans, both formally and informally (from Mexico), but at prices above the five-year average. 
    • Labor demand and income in cash crops such as sugar, African palm, bananas, and coffee (nationally and in plantations in Mexico and Honduras) are expected to be in average ranges. However, local labor demand in small and medium coffee or staple grain production (postrera 2023 and primera 2024) will be below average due to production cost cuts and climatic conditions. 
    • According to the trend of the last 10 years and BANGUAT's projection, remittances could continue upward, above last year and the five-year average. 
    • Currently, FEWS NET does not have sufficient information on planned and likely food assistance deliveries between October and May. As such, this scenario does not incorporate any assumptions about food assistance.

    Most Likely Acute Food Security Outcomes

    For the entire period covered by this outlook (October 2023 to May 2024), most of the country is expected to show generalized Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes, while the Dry Corridor and Alta Verapaz will remain in Crisis (IPC Phase 3). However, at the end of the high-demand season, starting in February, some areas of the Altiplano will be classified as Crisis (IPC Phase 3), and the number of people in this phase will increase as the lean season progresses.

    The first period covered by this outlook (October–January) is the season of high demand for labor, where hiring is expected to remain in average ranges. Although production is slightly below average, households do have greater availability of staple grains during these months compared to other parts of the year. This will alleviate dependence on the market for a few months. Some of the rural population will benefit from these two seasonal events; however, high food prices will limit access, so that they will be classified as Stressed (IPC Phase 2). Despite average incomes and the increased value of the daily wage compared to average, this improvement will not compensate for high food and transportation prices. Food access, limited in previous months, will improve as households allocate a significant portion of their income to food purchases. To maintain minimally adequate consumption, households will sacrifice other non-food expenditures and will have to adjust the quality and diversity of their food. In addition, they will employ coping strategies such as utilizing savings, increasing indebtedness, and prolonged migration in search of work. 

    Many poor households located in the Dry Corridor, Alta Verapaz, and Altiplano areas have suffered diverse climatic and economic shocks that have limited any sustained improvement in their food security. As a result, these households will be classified in Crisis (IPC Phase 3). These households have not recovered from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in subsequent years they were impacted by excessive rainfall and floods and high food, transportation, and fertilizer prices. This year, climatic irregularities caused by the El Niño phenomenon destroyed more than 50 percent of their maize crops and up to 100 percent of their bean production. As a result, these households will not have the usual reserves of staple grains for consumption, forcing them to rely on year-round market purchases. While households will be able to earn higher incomes through seasonal employment in coffee harvesting and various fruit and vegetable harvesting and production, this will not be sufficient to improve their food security conditions. Due to premature dependence on the purchase of staple grains, high food and transportation prices, and the repayment of debts that they have maintained during the year to purchase food and agricultural inputs, these households will only partially improve their diet and will be classified in Crisis (IPC Phase 3). They will continue to reduce the diversity and quantity of food consumed. Traditionally, the rural diet has been based on maize and beans, but in recent years, bean consumption has been reduced considerably due to high prices and the decline in subsistence production. In addition to continuing to borrow money to buy food, households will have to use Crisis (IPC Phase 3) level coping strategies such as migration of more household members or selling productive assets to guarantee basic food needs.

    In the second period, beginning in February, the supply of temporary employment will decrease as cash crop harvests end. Rapid depletion of income, as well as continued reliance on the market for food, will force the poorest households in the Dry Corridor and Alta Verapaz to intensify adjustments to their diet and the use of negative coping strategies. These households will remain in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) until May 2023. Poor households work locally for primera-season clearing, land preparation, and staple grain planting between February and May. However, income from this source of employment will remain below average this year due to delayed rainfall, reduced seed availability, and cutbacks in production costs for local farmers who demand labor within the same community. Reduced local employment opportunities, lack of staple grain reserves, and the continued purchase of food at high prices will cause these households to enter the lean season prematurely. 

    Due to the high pressure on incomes, lower staple grain reserves, high food prices, and scarcity of employment opportunities, many of the rural households in the Altiplano and Eastern areas of the country that had Stressed (IPC Phase 2) outcomes in the previous period will begin to decrease the amounts of food consumed and engage in different negative strategies to acquire food, thus moving to Crisis (IPC Phase 3). In the rest of the country, poor households will continue to experience Stressed (IPC Phase 2) due to improved income and the possibility of increasing savings. However, they will continue to face high living costs, so to guarantee a minimum diet, they will have to adjust the quality of their food, sacrificing diversity and protein-rich foods. 

    Events that Might Change the Outlook

    Table 1
    Possible events over the next eight months that could change the most likely scenario
    AreaEventImpact on food security outcomes
    NationalSecond period of average and regular rainfallThis would result in average staple grain harvests, improving food availability for subsistence farmers and allowing for a reduction in the number of households in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) between October and January.
     Passage or impact of a hurricane or tropical storm during the hurricane season (through January) that coincides with the postrera and Altiplano harvests.

    Heavy rainfall could cause damage to postrera and postrera tardía staple grain crops, which could raise prices and leave small farmers without harvests; damage to coffee plantations, resulting in less labor and income for seasonal workers; and damage to access roads, affecting the transport of goods and movement of people to their workplaces, increasing food prices and reducing earned income.

    This would affect the availability of and access to food, leading to population increases in Stressed (IPC Phase 2) and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) during the first period of this outlook.


    Areas of Concern: Baja Verapaz and Quiché Staple Food and Agricultural Labor Livelihood Zone (GT07)

    Baja Verapaz and Quiché Staple Food and Agricultural Labor Livelihood Zone (GT07) (Figure 5)

    Figure 5

    Baja Verapaz and Quiché Staple Food and Agricultural Labor (GT07)
    Baja Verapaz and Quiché Staple Food and Agricultural Labor (GT07)

    Source: FEWS NET

    Current Situation

    The basis of the local economy is the production of subsistence crops (maize and beans). The primera staple grains are traditionally planted between April and May at the beginning of the rainy season and harvested between September and December. A second planting is carried out in very few areas for beans. Due to delayed rainfall this year, households sowed maize and beans between June and July; for some, it was the first sowing, and for others, crops were replanted after losing the first sowing on the typical dates. The rainy season was irregular and insufficient, with high temperatures that affected soil moisture. Between June and early August, crops did manage to grow. However, rainfall was drastically reduced between the end of August and September, with about 20 days without rainfall, which affected the critical period of fruiting as grains began to form. Due to the irregular weather, many households have reduced or abandoned bean planting in the past two years. Those who planted this year lost almost all their production. For the poorest households, losses were above 50 percent for maize and 75 to 100 percent for beans. These households have limited access to land. Many rent land at high costs, paying around 150 to 200 GTQ per acre or with part of their harvest (usually half of what they get) and purchasing expensive fertilizers. 

    Most of the population depends on the sale of agricultural labor for work either locally or outside their area of residence. Locally, they manage to get a few days’ wages during the season of preparation and planting of staple grains (a two-to-three-month period, where they tend to get 5 to 10 days of work per month). However, due to high production costs since last year, this source of employment has diminished, as those who hire have cut back on this expense. Combined with bad weather conditions, farmers have lost investment in planting. During the season of high demand for labor in cash crops, an important source of employment is the harvest from October to May, when many heads of families migrate to the southern coast for the season. The daily wage ranges from 75 to 1,25GTQ/day. The daily wage has increased by about 25 percent as the labor supply for agricultural work has decreased within some communities because of migration to urban areas and the United States.

    Households are experiencing severe food cost pressures. Since the pandemic, expenses have doubled, including transportation costs, so households are going to the market less frequently and buying only the most basic and necessary items. Many households have opted to buy locally, as they purchase retail, because of low disposable income. For example, at the local level, the price of creole white maize per quintal (which is local and preferred) was 375 GTQ/QQQ at the end of September (compared to 160–175 GTQ/QQQ in 2021); Costa or Mexican maize was 225 to 250 GTQ/QQQ (compared to 157 GTQ/QQQ in 2021), and black beans were 810 GTQ/QQQ (compared to 454 GTQ/QQQ in 2021). The poorest households maintain a minimum diet consisting mainly of maize. Less frequently consumed are beans, sugar, oil, herbs, tomatoes, and onions. Animal protein consumption is usually eggs, which are consumed once or twice a week with only two to four eggs for a whole family. Chicken meat is sporadically consumed, generally once or twice a month. Some households’ chickens, and others purchase the meat in the market. To mitigate the high cost of food, families have opted to consume fewer beans, buy maize by the pound, and avoid the market in favor of local stores, where they can get a few days’ worth of credit. Due to the prolonged purchase of staple grains in the market at high prices, households are resorting to cutting back on the amount of food in their diet and reducing portions. 

    Migration out of a household’s primary residence is usually due to the availability of employment. However, community residents and authorities indicate that increased migration to the United States is motivated by the search for better economic opportunities.

    Assumptions

    The outlook from October 2023 to May 2024 for this area of concern is based on the same national assumptions as above.

    Most Likely Food Security Outcomes

    The poorest households in this area will not have staple grain reserves due to crop failures during the maize and bean season, forcing them to prolong their dependence on market purchases, marking an early start to the lean season. The demand for agricultural labor will allow households to increase their incomes starting in late October/November. However, high staple food prices will not allow households to improve their diet substantially, and they will be forced to resort to coping strategies to meet their minimal food needs, facing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes during the entire period covered by this outlook. 

    Households will continue to incur debt and employ diverse and combined coping strategies. These could include intensifying the sale of backyard animals, selling productive assets, migrating for longer periods to unusual locations, and migration of household members who did not previously migrate. 

    Recommended citation: FEWS NET. Guatemala Food Security Outlook October 2023 - May 2024: Rural households remain food insecure due to high food prices and low staple grain harvests, 2023.

    To project food security outcomes, FEWS NET develops a set of assumptions about likely events, their effects, and the probable responses of various actors. FEWS NET analyzes these assumptions in the context of current conditions and local livelihoods to arrive at a most likely scenario for the coming eight months. Learn more here.

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