The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Is food safety a casualty of high and volatile food prices?

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In recent months food scandals have hit the headlines across the globe with horsemeat being passed off as beef in Europe, rat dressed up as lamb in China and fish being sold as, well other kinds of fish. These may just be the tip of the iceberg. Today’s high and volatile prices mean that concerns […]

In recent months food scandals have hit the headlines across the globe with horsemeat being passed off as beef in Europe, rat dressed up as lamb in China and fish being sold as, well other kinds of fish. These may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Today’s high and volatile prices mean that concerns about food safety are on the rise too. More people are having to buy cheaper and poorer quality food to make ends meet. In Bangladesh for example people in rural and urban areas are growing their own vegetables because they’re worried that cheaper vegetables have been poisoned by pesticides.

Concerns about food safety are just one of the issues highlighted in new research published today by Oxfam and the Institute for Development Studies. The report, called ’Squeezed’, explores how five years of high and volatile food prices have affected 23 different urban and rural communities in ten countries across the globe. We’ll be updating the study by returning to these same communities over the next three years to see how they’re coping.

’Squeezed’ shows how high and volatile prices are not only changing what we eat but also how we work and relate to others. For instance, where men are struggling now to fulfill their traditional role as breadwinners for the family, we find there is often an increase in domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse.

We also found that community life can begin to disintegrate in the face of higher food prices. People are being forced to put on hold expensive social events, such as weddings, in order to save money. Or else they’re having to leave home to find work in cities or abroad.

We see people leaving their farmlands too, to go into riskier but better paid occupations such as gold mining. And we find that more and more women are entering into the workforce and their grandparents or older daughters forced instead to step in to help with childcare.

This first report is a snapshot of a problem that reaches well beyond the dinner table. As our researchers follow the communities over the next three years we will build up a much better picture of what this new era of high and volatile prices means for people and for society. But there are answers to be had already, especially if policy makers start looking at the bigger picture.

Governments need to start tackling high and volatile food prices by better managing our food stocks and better regulating the global grain markets. Here in the US that will mean finally rethinking the corn-ethanol mandate which is failing to deliver on its promises and contributing to high and volatile prices. Over the long term it will also mean getting serious about climate change which is expected to lead to drastic spikes in food prices over the coming decades.

Ultimately, all governments and donors will need to start investing far more smartly in small holder agriculture and into social safety nets to help the poorest and most vulnerable.

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