Risky jobs and domestic violence - new report reveals ‘hidden’ social costs of today’s high food prices

“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. ”
Richard King
Oxfam’s researcher
Published: 23 May 2013

A new era of high and volatile food prices is causing life-changing shifts in society, according to Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in a joint report published today. 

The report, entitled 'Squeezed', highlights how the failure of wages to keep pace with five years of food price rises is putting a strain on families and communities including: increased incidences of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse; dramatic changes in the workforce as agricultural jobs are abandoned in favor of riskier but better paid work such as mining; and a breakdown in community life as expensive social events such as weddings are put on hold. The report also highlighted that people are skipping meals or relying on cheaper, lower quality and sometimes contaminated food to make ends meet.

'Squeezed' is the first of four annual reports that will assess the how high and volatile food prices are impacting on the wellbeing of urban and rural communities in ten countries: Bolivia, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia, Indonesia and Vietnam.  

The era of high, volatile food prices

Oxfam’s 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 is occurring 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.
  • Heightened family tensions are revealed in increased incidences of domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse as many 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.
  • The squeeze on family budgets is causing women to enter the workforce in ever greater numbers, and grandparents and older daughters are being forced to step in to help with childcare.
  • Families also report skipping meals, foraging or growing their own food.  In Bangladesh people are turning to hunger recipes such as ‘pantabhat’, a watery fermented rice dish. 

The ground-breaking research comes in a new era of high and volatile food prices, which began with the global food crisis in 2007/08. Food prices remain extremely high and volatile and it is the world’s poorest people, who spend up to 80 per cent of their income 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 people, 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

'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.  

Download the report: Squeezed: Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility, Year 1 Results

Read the summary: Squeezed: Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility, Year 1 Results - highlights

Photographs and testimonies from Pakistan: http://wordsandpictures.oxfam.org.uk/?c=13922&k=83d19500c7

Photographs and testimonies from Kenya: http://wordsandpictures.oxfam.org.uk/?c=13898&k=83691c0f3d

Information on UK households from a survey by the consumer group, Which: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22417334

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 www.ids.ac.uk for more information.  

Oxfam is a global confederation of 17 organizations working together to find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice. Oxfam is campaigning for action to fix our broken food system through the GROW campaign: www.oxfam.org/grow

Contact Information

For more information or interviews contact 

Anna Ratcliff, Oxfam, anna.ratcliff@oxfaminternational.org or +447796993288

Carol Smithyes, IDS, +44 (0)1273 915638 or c.smithyes@ids.ac.uk

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