Governments in developing countries sought for decades to keep food prices low so that they could 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.
The Canadian Foodgrains Bank and other groups have 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. This sparked food riots and pushed 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 study by Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies examines this question through in-depth interviews in 10 countries across the developing world. It concludes that higher food prices 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.
However, the story is not all good.
Higher food costs sparked in-tense 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 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.
People also 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.
Despite this, 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 day care.
Welcome to a more complex era for development.
Mark Fried worked for Oxfam Canada for many years. He lives in Ottawa. This article was supplied by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.