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Report warns of dangers of fast-food spread in developing countries

Published on 8 September 2016

A new report published today by the Institute of Development Studies and Oxfam finds that the global food crisis of 2007-11 brought about lasting changes to the relationship between the work people do and the food they eat – the costs of which have gone uncounted by global policymakers.

When food prices spiked in 2008, the international price of basic food items peaked at unprecedented levels, bringing a wave of food riots in low-income countries. Subsequent price volatility and peaks had huge impacts on millions of people who struggled to feed their families nutritiously.

The price spike was undoubtedly experienced as a crisis by the many people who were already spending half or more of their earnings on food. The research finds that many people are increasingly turning to cheap, readily-available processed foods that are high in sugars, fats and salt.

Precarious Lives: Food, Work and Care After the Global Food Crisis is the final report from Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility, a four-year research project led by IDS, Oxfam and partners in ten countries: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

The project aimed to explore how well people are living after the global food crisis left food prices higher and more volatile than they had been for a generation.

Key research findings:

Through yearly visits from 2012–15 to 23 urban and rural communities, and analysis of national and international food data, researchers observed rapid changes in people’s eating habits and – alongside accelerated urbanisation – a move to more dangerous, demeaning and insecure jobs as people worked longer hours to raise the cash needed to put food on the table.

  • As people worked harder and longer, and migrated to towns, other regions or countries to find work, more turned to heavily-marketed convenience fast food, particularly unhealthy processed items with high fat/sugar/salt content – a more ‘Westernised’ diet.
  • People in all communities had concerns about food safety and quality. Many called for regulation to protect children from the advertising and marketing strategies that encourage poor eating habits from the earliest years.
  • The impact was particularly great for women, who are working harder – especially in informal employment – while at the same time maintaining the household and caring for children. Their time and energy are being squeezed as never before.

IDS research fellow Naomi Hossain said:

“Our research found that in addition to cutting down on pricey items, replacing nutritionally-rich food with filling staples and borrowing cash to buy food, people in all research sites are turning to unhealthy fast food. Governments in developing countries need to pay urgent attention to these changes, and implement appropriate food safety and advertising standards regulation, in order to guard against a global epidemic of unbalanced nutrition and obesity.”

The report also found that official statistics are masking the true costs of the food crisis on people’s lives – particularly women, who often go uncounted in national and international data sources. The researchers are calling for better data on unpaid care work, irregular, short-term, dangerous and illegal work; and on changing diets to allow policymakers to make better decisions about social protection policies and programmes.

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