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Food prices squeezing poor people and driving social change by stealth

Posted by Lucy Brinicombe Senior Press Officer

23rd May 2013

A new era of high and volatile food prices goes beyond affecting what people can afford to eat and is causing life-changing shifts in society, experts warn today. 

The report, Squeezed*, reveals a global snap-shot of how the failure of wages to keep pace with five years of food price rises is putting a strain on families, communities and society, including increased levels of domestic violence and alcohol and drug abuse. Roles and social needs are changing as women who once remained at home are entering the job market and agricultural jobs are being abandoned for more lucrative jobs in an attempt to afford higher food prices.  

The research is from international development agency Oxfam and research charity the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and is the first of four annual reports which will assess the wider implications of high food prices and volatility in 23 urban and rural communities in ten countries: Bolivia, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Indonesia and Vietnam.  

Oxfam's policy researcher Richard King said: "Poor people across the globe are feeling the strain in this era of high and volatile food prices - from the nurses in Zambia who are forced to moonlight as street vendors to make ends meet to low-income households in the UK who are borrowing money, dipping into savings or turning to food banks to have enough to eat.  

"The implications of high and volatile food prices go way beyond the dinner table and are driving social change that must be better understood and addressed if communities are going to survive intact."

Research findings include:

· Food safety is a growing concern as families are forced to turn to cheaper, poor quality and sometimes contaminated food to stretch the budget. 

· Increased migration as people leave rural homes for the city or other countries for more economic opportunities. In Ethiopia, food prices were blamed for people moving to the Middle East, abroad.

· Heightened family tensions are revealed in increased incidences of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse as men struggle to fulfil their traditional role as the 'breadwinner'. 

· Unpredictable profits and higher costs mean a new generation of farmers are turning to riskier occupations, including gold mining in Burkina Faso and jungle fishing in Bangladesh.

· Community life is breaking down as families cut back on important community events such as weddings and funerals in an effort to save money.

· With the squeeze on family budgets women are entering the waged workforce in ever greater numbers and grandparents and older daughters are forced to step in to help with childcare.

· Families also report skipping meals, foraging or growing their own food, or turning to hunger recipes such as 'pantabhat' (a watery fermented rice dish) in Bangladesh. 

The report shows the human cost of high and volatile food prices in a world where one in eight people around the world already go to bed hungry. Oxfam is a member if the 180-member Enough Food For Everyone If coalition, which is calling on G8 leaders meeting next month in Northern Ireland to take action to tackle global hunger.

The ground-breaking research comes in a new era of high and volatile food prices since the global food crisis in 2008. Food prices remain at extremely high and volatile and it is the world's  poorest people, who spend up to 80 per cent of their incomes on food, who are hardest hit. 

Naomi Hossain, IDS research fellow, said: "As families increasingly struggle to earn enough to eat we are seeing how money is becoming more important than relationships, to the point that the social implications are potentially alarming. Policy-makers need to catch up."

Recommendations include improved social protection policies to address the vulnerability of the poorest, including cash transfers or subsidies. Improved management of food reserves and regulation of the international grain trade is also needed, while steps to make agriculture a more credible vocation by investing in training, technology and sustainability should also be taken. Recognition of the need to design and support a growing number of child-carers, particularly grandparents and older daughters, whose health and education may suffer, is also needed.

Notes to Editors:

For more information, to see the report or to arrange interviews contact Lucy Brinicombe, Oxfam, +44 (0)7786 110054 / or Carol Smithyes, IDS, +44 (0)1273 915638 /

* Squeezed is the first research report of a four-year research study: Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility. The research involves tracking food security indicators around the world, yearly return visits to 23 urban and rural communities, and analysis of national survey data, to give a bigger picture of how people across the country are being affected.  

For photographs and testimonies from Pakistan and Kenya, click here:


Enough Food for Everyone IF is a coalition of more than 200 organisations, including Oxfam, which have joined together to campaign for action by the G8 on the issue of global hunger. The last time we worked together at this scale was for Make Poverty History. Now that the G8 group of world leaders are returning to the UK, we are demanding they take action on hunger. 2013 won't be the end of hunger, but it could be the beginning of the end. Join us at

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is a leading global charity for research, teaching and communications on international development. Our vision is a world in which poverty does not exist, social justice prevails and economic growth is focused on improving human wellbeing. We believe that research knowledge can drive the change that must happen in order for this vision to be realised. See for more information.

Blog post written by Lucy Brinicombe

Senior Press Officer

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