For decades, governments in developing countries sought to keep food prices low to depress wages and attract investment in manufacturing. Cheap food also kept a lid on urban discontent, while ensuring a steady supply of cut-rate labour fleeing rural penury.
Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Oxfam and others long argued against this logic. If most hungry people live from agriculture, surely battling hunger requires measures to ensure farmers receive a decent return from the market.
The debate turned on its head in 2008 when the price of staple foods suddenly rose all over the world, doubling or tripling in a matter of weeks, sparking food riots and for the first time pushing the number of chronically undernourished people over one billion.
High prices, not low, were now causing hunger. Coping mechanisms common to every humanitarian crisis became rife: eat less, replace a varied diet with filling staples, borrow money, sell off assets, migrate and take on any work you can find, no matter how poorly paid, risky or undesirable.
When prices finally plateaued in 2012, concern about the “food price crisis” waned. But how have people fared in the age of expensive food?
A new study by Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies examines this question through in-depth interviews in ten countries across the developing world. Higher food prices, the study concludes, have wrought a permanent transformation, with important implications for aid policy.
The report, titled Food, Work and Care After the Global Food Crisis, conveys good news of higher incomes and greater consumption: global poverty is definitely falling. High food prices encouraged investment in farming and a consequent rise in rural wages, typically the wages of the poorest. Farmers with access to capital found new opportunities, and many rural women started businesses trading vegetables or selling cooked food.
But the story is not all good. Higher food costs sparked intense pressure to earn cash. People now work longer hours, travel farther for work and migrate in much greater numbers. Women, in particular, spend more time and effort earning money and fewer hours caring for families or themselves. People eat a less nutritious diet and they take on more debt.
In sum, the coping mechanisms born of crisis became the new normal. Incomes are up, but people’s lives are much more ridden with anxiety.
At the same time, higher agricultural wages have not stemmed the exodus of young people to cities. Most express relief to be off the farm, even though the paid work they find is no less precarious. Jobs are short-term and often involve dangerous or back-breaking work with unstable earnings.
In each of the 23 communities studied, seasonal and temporary migration increased: Ethiopian women to the Persian Gulf, Vietnamese men to Laos, Guatemalans to the United States and Canada, Kenyans from the hinterlands to coastal tourist resorts.
Even those not migrating incur new ongoing expenses. People have to travel to work, while younger people frequently mentioned needing mobile phones to learn about jobs. Credit too has become crucial, not only for emergencies but for any investment likely to pay off, whether sowing cash crops or hiring migration brokers. Loan sharks are making a killing.
People have less time to prepare food or care for family members, and their ability to pay for care is as variable and uncertain as their employment. Displacement has undercut support from family, neighbours, the mosque or temple. Not surprisingly, people have ended up changing their diets, opting for faster but less nourishing foods.
Yet on the whole, the people interviewed don’t regret the moves they’ve made. True, they had few options, but they insist the new work and social environment is exciting and contains an element of possibility. For young people, in particular, the job market spells hope, even if few find their lives any easier.
Higher food prices have indeed raised incomes. But the process entails costs that generally go uncounted. The report’s authors conclude by calling on governments and aid providers to acknowledge this, and move beyond traditional safety nets of emergency food or price supports to things like basic labour provisions, financial and migration services, school lunch programs and public daycare.
Welcome to a more complex era for development.
Mark Fried worked for Oxfam Canada for many years. He lives in Ottawa.