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The slow burn of food prices is squeezing the world dry

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

PHotograph: Getty Images

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.