Food Prices Changing Diets, Oxfam-Backed Survey Says

High Food Prices Changing Diets, Survey Says
Corn, wheat and soybean futures on the Chicago Board of Trade were all up at least 49 percent in the past year as of yesterday. Photographer: Nadine Hutton/Bloomberg

Almost two-fifths of consumers surveyed in 17 countries said high food prices have changed their diets, with people in poorer nations hit hardest by increased costs.

More than half said they eat different food than two years ago, mainly for cost and health reasons, according to the survey of more than 16,000 people by Globescan Inc., a Toronto-based researcher, for Oxfam International. Global food prices have increased 37 percent in the past year, the United Nations says.

“Huge numbers of people, especially in the world’s poorest countries, are cutting back on the quantity or quality of the food they eat because of rising food prices,” Raymond Offenheiser, the president of the U.S. affiliate of Oxford, UK-based Oxfam, said in a news release. The results of the survey were released today.

The world’s population is forecast to jump to 9.3 billion in 2050 from an estimated 6.9 billion in 2010, requiring a 70 percent increase in food production, according to the UN. In February, when the rise in food prices peaked, the World Bank said the increased costs had pushed 44 million people into “extreme poverty” in a little over half a year.

Costs or Health?

Corn, wheat and soybean futures on the Chicago Board of Trade were all up at least 49 percent in the past year as of yesterday. The U.S. is the world’s biggest exporter of all three crops.

Oxfam’s survey, which included wealthy nations such as the U.S. and Germany, rising powers like Brazil and poorer countries including Kenya and Ghana, asked whether people were eating the same food as two years ago. If there was a change, respondents were asked whether it was prompted by costs or health reasons.

Worldwide, of people who said they’d changed their diets, 39 percent said it was because certain foods were becoming too expensive, and 33 percent said they were trying to eat more healthily.

In the U.S., where food prices have risen 3.1 percent in the past year, almost half of the 56 percent who said they changed diets cited health reasons, while 31 percent pointed to costs. In the U.K., where 46 had adjusted their eating habits, 36 percent attributed the change to health and 41 percent credited costs.

Tanzania, Mexico

In Tanzania, 47 percent of respondents had changed diets. Cost was important to 49 percent and health to 21 percent. In Mexico, where 65 percent had adjusted eating patterns, 54 percent attributed the change to higher prices and 26 percent to health. Kenya had the highest percentage of people changing diets, 75 percent, and the biggest proportion citing costs, 79 percent. In India, 59 percent cited health reasons, the highest among all countries surveyed.

Prices for staple foods including corn will jump by 120 percent to 180 percent by 2030, with as much as half of the increase caused by climate change, Oxfam said last month in a report. The world’s poorest people, who spend up to 80 percent of their income on food, will be hardest-hit, it said.

Lower food intake and nutrition quality can lead to health problems and less-productive populations in poorer nations, according to the UN. In Kenya, the higher prices are leading to fewer fruits and vegetables on dinner tables, according to Marie Brill, an analyst in Washington at ActionAid International, which is studying changing diets in poor countries.

People “are reducing to one meal a day. Many families are required to take children out of school and put them to work,” she said earlier this week in a teleconference.

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