Press release

New report warns of dangers of fast-food spread in developing countries

Published on 9 September 2016

Oxfam/IDS research reveals unhealthy eating habits, unsafe food and dangerous jobs are hidden cost of recent global food price crisis.

A new report published today by Oxfam and researchers at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) 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.

Precarious Lives: Food, Work and Care After the Global Food Crisis is the final report from four years of research by Oxfam, IDS and partners in ten countries: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

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. Many are increasingly turning to cheap, readily-available processed alternatives that are high in sugars, fats and salt.

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.  

Key research findings

  • 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.

Lead researcher and 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.

Oxfam’s Programme Researcher John Magrath said:

“This shows that the food price crisis has pushed many people – especially women – further into hard, insecure work, with uncertain hours and poor, unreliable wages. They are also spending less time with their families, such as preparing nutritious food and eating together. Many people feel anxious and fearful because of the increasingly precarious situation in which they find themselves and want their governments to play a role in preventing such exploitation.”

The report is available for download at www.ids.ac.uk/precariouslives from 9 September 2016.

For more information on the story, to request an embargoed copy of the report, interviews with the report’s authors or photographs, contact Sarah Nelson in IDS Communications team (+44 (0)7812 152044 or [email protected]).


Notes to Editors: 

  1. The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) is a leading global institution for development research, teaching and learning, and impact and communications, based at the University of Sussex. Our vision is of equal and sustainable societies, locally and globally, where everyone can live secure, fulfilling lives free from poverty and injustice. We believe passionately that cutting-edge research, knowledge and evidence are crucial in shaping the changes needed for our broader vision to be realised, and to support people, societies and institutions to navigate the challenges ahead. www.ids.ac.uk

  2. Oxfam is a global movement of people all working towards the same goal – an end to the injustice of poverty. Together we save and rebuild lives in disasters, help people earn a living, and speak out on the big issues, like inequality and climate change, that keep people poor. www.oxfam.org.uk

  3. Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility is a four-year collaboration between Oxfam, IDS and research partners in ten focus countries: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Vietnam and Zambia. www.ids.ac.uk/lifeinatime

    The research involved yearly return visits to 23 urban and rural communities, and analysis of national and international food data. 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.

    The project is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), Irish Aid, Oxfam and BRAC Development Institute.

  4. Methodology: The unique study accompanied people as they adjusted to a more marketised relationship to food, building up findings across four years in diverse settings to provide a grounded analysis of how social and economic changes interacted in everyday life to affect nutrition, wellbeing and development.

  5. About the food price crisis: The ‘global food crisis’ usually refers to the food price spike of 2008, when the international price of basic foodstuffs peaked at unprecedented levels. This spike was transmitted to a significant degree to national and local prices, and was associated with a wave of ‘food riots’ in low-income countries. World food prices spiked dramatically in 2008 and again in 2011, more than doubling in nominal terms compared to prices earlier in the decade.

    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. By one World Bank estimate, as many as 105 million more people in the low-income population of 2.3 billion worldwide might have moved (temporarily) into poverty; this would have amounted to a ‘loss of almost seven years of poverty reduction’ (Ivanic and Martin 2008: 415).

    Since 2012, world prices have been on a downward trend and real prices are now only about 10 per cent above pre-crisis levels in 2002–04 (nominal prices are about 50 per cent higher). Higher food production levels, reductions in stock-holdings by some governments, significantly lower oil prices and the appreciation of the US dollar have all contributed to this trend (World Bank 2015).