‘Squeezed’: how are poor people adjusting to life in a time of food price volatility?

May 23, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Ace IDS researcher Naomi Hossain introduces the first results of a big Oxfam/IDS research project on food price volatilityNaomi_Hossain photo

If the point of development is to make the Third World more like the First, then we aid-wallahs can pack our bags and go home. Job done.

The most striking finding of Squeezed, the first year results from the four year Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project, is how like the people of the post-industrial North the people from the proto-industrial South now sound:

  • Stressed and tired
  • Juggling work and home
  • Surrounded by selfish individualists, led by uncaring politicians
  • In strained relationships
  • Constantly pressed for time
  • Never enough money, even for the basics.

‘Squeezed’ is how the UK has been describing its middle classes, beset by austerity and recession. But the countries in our research have high growth rates and apparently a lot of poverty reduction.

So what’s squeezing them? The accumulation of five years of cost of living – particularly food price – rises, is the short answer. The early research results suggest price rises are bringing about social change by stealth, as people and their relationships to food (and each other) are being commodified faster than ever before. Policymakers seem oblivious to these changes, obsessed as they are with changes they can measure.

What does it matter if food prices rise? Economists tell us it doesn’t, at least not in the long run. Wages adjust, they say. High food prices mean more people will grow food, is the theory. People substitute cheaper alternatives for newly expensive foodstuffs.

lemonWell, yes, wages adjust, people grow more food and substitute. But these are not costless adjustments. Wages are rising, for most people, but at a price: more dangerous jobs (work in a Bangladeshi garments factory, anyone?), less reliable work, more competition as women flood the informal sector. People don’t feel better off. Home life is less harmonious, with the unpaid work of care left undone or shouldered by harassed working mothers, tired grandparents or children. People see their wages rise but know this is a mirage: they are not, in fact, getting any better off. It is more difficult to save and so also more difficult to hope or aspire. Small wonder the period since 2008 has been replete with global disgruntlement: riots, protests, even the odd revolution.

Higher prices should mean people try to grow more food, but returns are unpredictable even while input costs rise. No sane young person wants to be a farmer when they grow up. The only appetite for growing more food seems to be in kitchen gardens: wherever people have a patch of land and the time, they are trying to avoid food markets by growing their own.

And yes, people substitute. They eat more tasteless food, protein-less staples tarted up with monosodium glutamate and e-numbers, cheap and cheerful sauces that the food companies are selling more of. They eat more dangerous food – smelly rice, broken eggs, fish of uncertain origins, pesticide-sprayed vegetables.

In these days of food price volatility, food is further from being a right than it has ever been. The change in how people relate to food – and each other – is one of kind more than quantity: uncertain and relatively high prices mean prioritising earning the cash needed for food above all else.

The squeeze is tighter in Nairobi than in London, true, but in both places, price rises force people onto the uncertain mercies of charity – NGOs and aid FoodRiots227102010in Nairobi, food banks in London. Global food policy makers need to check their assumptions about adjustments to food prices, and decide whether they want the kinds of societies where cash matters above all else.

Pushing back against the squeeze on everyday lives means policies that protect people – stabilising prices for farmers and consumers and developingemergency ‘spike-proofing’ cash or food subsidies. It means policies that ensure everyone has the right to eat well and to be part of decisions about the food they eat, rather than relying on faceless global markets.

Ignoring the squeeze on everyday life that rising and volatile food prices create for people in poverty everywhere is dangerously short-sighted, and not only for people in the poor South. In the long run, we are all commodified.

And here’s Naomi introducing the report (6m video)

May 23, 2013
Duncan Green