Squeezed: living with volatile food prices

Posted by Richard King Policy Researcher

23rd May 2013

Florence Kitonyo owns Amani Café in Lango Baya and is struggling with high food prices. Credit: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam

Food prices have been rising globally for over five years. As we launch Squeezed, our new research report on food price volatility, Richard King explains how food price pressure is affecting people's wellbeing and development around the world. 

Squeezed. This one word encapsulates how many people across the world are feeling on a daily basis as a result of the cumulative effects of five-plus years' worth of food price rises. 

High and rising food prices no longer come as a surprise, and prices have not been sufficiently volatile over the last year to trigger a serious shock in global markets (even if some indices did reach record levels), but make no mistake: people's lives are being affected in profound ways by prices that have been haywire since 2007.

FAO food price index

How do we know? 

Squeezed is also the title of a new report by Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies that summarises the first year results from a four-year study considering Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility

We are working with researchers in ten countries, visiting 23 urban and rural communities and asking these communities about their everyday lives in the context of food price volatility. The report finds important changes in people's wellbeing and development.

Less food, more anxiety

International food prices were not as volatile in 2012 as in recent years, and we don't yet have a full and clear understanding of how price movements in global markets affect local markets, where people actually buy their food. Yet, even in the absence of dramatically unstable prices, both the spectre of uncertainty and the reality of high prices have been plaguing people's lives in a multitude of ways.

Families have reacted by eating lower quality food with less protein, fewer fresh ingredients and more dangerous ingredients (raising food safety fears), by cutting back on quantities and by resorting to cheap and heavily processed flavour enhancers. 

Squeezed report download

But the effects also stretch way beyond the dinner table, driving social changes that must be better understood in order to be addressed. People are trying ever harder to grow, gather, and process their own food. They are working harder over longer hours, and seeking out new ways to make ends meet. In many cases wages are rising, but only in nominal terms - more take-home cash buys less food in the market.

Anxiety is commonplace. Some men perceive that they are failing in their masculine roles as providers; parents are worrying about their children's poor nutrition, particularly as it undermines their school performance and future.These changes are corrosive, wearing down people's resolve, changing their priorities. Life at home is less harmonious, time is less abundant. Working mothers have less time and energy to undertake unpaid care work (cooking, cleaning, raising children), with the responsibilities often falling to older daughters or elderly parents, or going undone. 

Community life is also under threat. Events that typically bring communities together - weddings, funerals - are having to being postponed until 'better years' when, and if, finances and time permit. 

Many feel that governments should curb the local speculators and tackle the regulatory failures that are widely believed to be pushing prices up.

Traditional reciprocal agreements are becoming strained and offers of help becoming fewer, and more contingent on payment. The rising stigma and uneasiness of turning to neighbours for help (in the knowledge that the same will be expected in return) means that formal 'social protection' schemes are in increasing demand, although complaints about targeting, responsiveness and quality of assistance persist. 

Although many people understand that global markets influence local prices, people expect their governments to protect them. Many feel that governments should curb the local speculators and tackle the regulatory failures that are widely believed to be pushing prices up.

How can we reduce the pressure?

So how to reduce the pressure on those who are squeezed? Well, listening to them and enabling people to participate in policies to tackle food price volatility would be a good place to start. 

Monitoring the real impacts on people's lives and wellbeing will also be critical. Crucially, we need to address the structural causes of food price volatility. This means investing in small-scale farming to make it an aspirational profession and to buffer farmers from the vagaries of markets and climates. Social protection policies will need to consider how best to build on people's own informal social assistance and care work; formal social assistance will also need to be widened so it reaches the most vulnerable. 

Finally, before the next, almost inevitable price shock, we need to make sure there are measures in place, with automatic triggers built-in, to protect against temporary price shocks. This will mean that people won't have to wait on politicians' decisions before new laws and institutions are put in place - they will be able to receive timely support in their hour of need.

More on this...

  • DownloadSqueezed report.
  • Watch a short summary of the research below. 

 

  • Visit our project page for more information and an interactive map of research sites and food price data.
  • Keep in touch - for all  our latest blogs and publications you can follow @OxfamGBPolicy on Twitter and sign up to our monthly newsletter. 

Blog post written by Richard King

Policy Researcher

More by Richard King

Richard King