The slow burn of food prices is squeezing the world dry

A new Oxfam report reveals the crushing effects of roller-coaster food prices.

The G8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland next month is likely to witness the usual awkward moment as global leaders sit down to groaning dinner tables and discuss global poverty and hunger. Assuming our political masters don’t have time to go and sit with poor people beforehand to see how their lives have changed in the last five years, they might at least consider skimming some new research from Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies into exactly that.

It reveals that a profound (and largely unrecognised) shock is transforming the lives of poor people around the world. In 2007, the world’s food system went into a prolonged spasm, as thirty years of steady and falling prices came to an end, and an era of high and roller-coaster prices commenced (with no end in sight). The findings are published today, under the title Squeezed.

Squeezed finds that the angry riots in 30 countries that characterised the first days of the food price spike have given way to a cumulative "slow burn" effect, as food price volatility has permeated almost every aspect of poor people’s lives: how they select, buy, grow and prepare food, how much and what kind of food they eat, their future dreams, and the relationships that bind families and communities together (or drive them apart).

Most families have reacted to high prices by eating lower quality food – fewer ingredients, replacing the fresh products that give flavour to staples with a stock cube or instant noodle seasoning: less nutritious, but at least it stops the kids complaining. That shift to cheaper food has raised horsemeat-type fears of adulteration – dodgy food chains are a universal concern.

Poor people are also trying ever harder to grow, gather and process their own food, as well as (in the case of women), find yet more ways to earn a few extra cents by going out to work, often in the so-called "informal economy". That has squeezed women’s time in the home so much that in many countries, free time is in danger of becoming an exclusively male concept. That produces knock-on effects, notably on elderly relatives (often women) who are required to take over part of the work of cooking, cleaning and raising children. Not surprisingly, exhaustion and anxiety are undermining many relationships – between old and young, husband and wife. Stories of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence are commonplace.

The food price spike also seems to be a tipping point in a shift away from relationships built on reciprocity (help me and I’ll help you in return, when you need it). People too ashamed to ask for help from friends and neighbours, and wary of not being able to return the kindness, are increasingly turning to the state to provide "social protection", for example through giving money so people can buy what they need and food for work schemes.

Communities’ ritual cycles of births, marriages and funerals are also being undermined, as families unable to afford the celebrations put them off for an ever-receding "better year". In the words of one woman from Bangladesh "only the rich arrange birthdays and marriages. We are busy just to win our bread."

Every sign suggests that this era of food price volatility is now the "new normal". Governments and aid donors need to respond in three key areas: social protection, wider policy and the care economy. On social protection, the key is to get schemes in place before the next big shock hits – crises are terrible times to introduce new laws and institutions. These should include automatic triggers so that when a price spike hits, poor people do not have to wait for decisions from parliaments or presidents before receiving help.

More broadly, governments need to tackle some of the structural causes of food price volatility, building up food reserves and dismantling grain trading cartels. Above all, they need to invest in small farmers both as producers and consumers of food, as climate change disrupts farming in more and more countries.

Finally, policy makers need to recognise that the unpaid economy of the home is profoundly affected by all this, and needs to be taken into account, for example by supporting both women and substitute carers to cope with the increased pressure on their waking hours.

As for those dinner conversations at the G8, Squeezed highlights the need to tackle some of the underlying drivers of chaos in the global food system. The big powers need to address the "land grabs" that are diverting land away from food production in many poor countries, adding to price pressures. Cracking down on tax evasion and tax havens would help curb capital flight and boost poor country government revenues. A shock as profound as that to the food system requires action from every quarter if there’s to be enough food for everyone.

Dr Duncan Green is Strategic Adviser at Oxfam.

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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