Friday, 24 June 2011

FOOD FOR THOUGHT?

Oxfam Cymru claim half of Welsh people have changed their eating habits in the last two years, with 39% having to do so because food prices have rocketed.They suggest that more people in financial distress are approaching food banks for free, short-term supplies (as previously blogged by Leanne Wood AM). The OXFAM survey, which is part of a global study into eating habits in the last two years, comes after the Office for National Statistics revealed rising food inflation was escalating the cost of living.

The hard statistics reveal that a range of foods have undergone sharp rises, with prices of meat up 5.1%, fish up 11.4%, bread and cereals up 5.8%, mineral waters, juices and soft drinks up by 10.3% and jams by 7.5%. Oxfam Cymru says only 60% of Welsh respondents reported having enough to eat on a daily basis – with 39% saying they got enough, most or some of the time. They pointed to global figures, which showed an average 61% getting enough to eat all the time, indicating the Welsh statistics were part of a global problem.

A number of issues are going to impact on food prices, here and in the rest of the world. There is Climate Change, which as temperatures rise, will lead to a fall in crop yields – potentially we are talking of up-to half of their current levels in some African countries. At the same time, extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts and floods will get worse and become more frequent, and the seasons that people rely on to grow crops will get even more unpredictable.

Across the world governments have dragged their feet for too long. We need to start dealing with a situation that's only going to get more urgent. The food price spikes of 2008 are partially related to and being aggravated by land grabs, as wealthy companies have invested heavily in cheap agricultural land in poor countries, often for commercial use. The land that is sold is actually being used by poor families to grow food in many cases.

Poor farmers and their families are often forcibly evicted with little or no warning or compensation, and to make things worse often the land is either left idle by investors who know it will only grow in value, or actually used in ways that reduce food production. So it's time for effective global rules to get land grabs under control – rules which ensure local communities see the benefits of investments and which help make sure that governments provide secure access to land for smallholder farmers, and especially women.

After decades of progress, the number of people without enough to eat is actually increasing, and food price spikes are a big part of the problem. That's because, when you spend up to 75% of your weekly income on food – as many poor families are forced to do – sudden rises have an especially destructive effect. Price spikes have many causes including the changing climate, oil prices, dysfunctional commodities markets, biofuels policies that turn potentially productive crop-lands into fuel for cars rather than fuel for people. Oxfam and a number of other agencies conclusions is that we are facing a whole new challenge.

It's time for governments to actually work together to deal with food price crises effectively and to tackle the problems that mean millions of people can't afford enough to eat. After the best part of one hundred years of so of crop yield increases, crop yields are beginning to flat-line partially because intensive farming can only go so far. We need to focus on the huge untapped potential of small-scale farmers in developing countries and especially of women, who often do most of the work for often scant reward.

The reality is that some 500 million small farms put the food on the plates of some two billion people (one in three of our planets population). With effective government support and a focus on sustainable techniques, productivity can soar. In Vietnam, for instance, the number of hungry people has halved in just 12 years – a transformation which was kick-started by government investment in small farmers previously disadvantaged by the old Soviet style collective farms. It's time to change the way that we in Wales and the rest of the world thinks about growing food.

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