Food crisis looms (again) as El Niño taking its toll on harvests

Published on 22 February 2016

Naomi Hossain

Research Fellow

The latest and most destructive El Niño the world has seen for years takes its toll on harvests after a year of droughts and floods and other crazy weather. A global food crisis looms once again – if it ever went away in the first place.

“Still banging on about food prices?” colleagues often say when I tell them what I am working on these days.

Well, yes, I’m afraid so.

And, I am not the only one growing very afraid about what has been happening with food prices, and what that means now that there are serious food shortages in southern Africa and Latin America on top of the slow-burn of cost of living rises.

When food prices appeared to stabilise in 2012 many felt it was no longer a concern

Quite a lot of very clever people thought the project I’ve been working on with partners all around the world, called Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility, was redundant once world food price rises dropped in 2012.

I myself worried that the rationale for the research might disappear as prices dropped and world attention shifted elsewhere.

But one Oxfam partner, Duncan Green, reassured me sagely, “don’t you worry, food price volatility is here to stay”, just before global food prices started to stabilise.

Duncan was essentially right, on two counts.

The first was that climate-related complications, such as the ferocity of the present El Nino, are not going away, and these will very likely disrupt food systems, leading to shortages and price rises which may, as we saw in 2008 and 2010-11, transmit easily across food items and regions.

Second, locally, many food (and other) prices continued to rise.

The real costs of feeding your family rose to levels the World Food Programme (WFP) considered dangerously high for people on low and precarious incomes, in 7 out of 10 of the countries we were working in. Burkina Faso, Bolivia and Viet Nam were the exceptions, and only in Viet Nam, an important rice exporter, had the cost of the basic food basket actually cheapened since 2012.

This table shows the cumulative impact of main staple food price changes on cost of the food. It uses WFP data, and is from the IDS-Oxfam report entitled “Delicious, Disgusting Dangerous: Eating in a Time of Food Price Volatility; Y3 Results].

Working harder just to eat in the face of food price volatility

What this means is that to keep eating at least as well as you used to in the early part of the century, you would have to

  • Get higher wages, immediately
  • Farm differently, and sell more of what you grow
  • Work more hours, possibly in riskier or more crowded occupations
  • Get more family members into the labour market
  • Get more value for money in what you eat – or grow or gather food where and how you can.

Our timing may perhaps never have been worse, or better, but we are just now wrapping up this long project.

Our final (forthcoming) report is called “Precarious Resilience”, because we conclude that people all around the world have been pushed and pulled into wage and food markets to be able to afford to keep feeding the family. There are pleasures to be had in the new foods that people eat and the new ways they work, but most people depend on cash incomes for which they work hard and in risky occupations, and on food prices not rising too fast.

Many of the people who have shared accounts of their lives in places in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Viet Nam and Zambia are already squeezed very tight. And now all they can do is wait and see if their Governments are going to step up and realise their right to food, or if they are going to have to help themselves.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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