Thursday, 13 November 2014

Fieldwork reflections from the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project. Part I.

'All the good things are going out' (Todas cosas buenas estan yendo a fuera)

As part of the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, each year I try to visit one or two of the ten research countries, and meet our partners there. This year, at the onset of the third round of research, focusing on how food habits and customs are being influenced by processed foods and foods perceived to be unsafe, I got to go to Bolivia and Burkina Faso. Here are some reflections on the first part of my trip.

Over the course of the first two years of research, we have gathered a substantial amount of pictures from the research sites. As such during my visit in Bolivia, along with the team we decided to organise an informal meeting in the periphery of Cochabamba with some of the participants to show them pictures of the other sites, the people whom, like them, we disturb year after year asking the same old boring and obvious questions.

Part of what I enjoy about my role in this project, is the fact that I have both a general view of the overall trends, and at the same time I have access to the infinite number of anecdotes and stories that help make sense of some of those trends.

For example, in 2012, we found out that the sharp rise in coffee prices since 2008 has had deep cultural impacts in one of our research sites in Ethiopia. Indeed, prior to the shock, it was customary for people to make coffee with doors and windows open and for passers by to stop for a cup of brew before carrying on. Today, high and volatile coffee prices mean that for many it is no longer possible to make coffee every day, let alone every week, so now many doors and windows are closed. This has impacts on the wider social relations within the community our partners are working in.

When I told this story to the people who had gathered around the old ping-pong table used for most community meetings, the response was immediate: 'It’s like quinoa here!'

Quinoa, which contains almost double the amount of protein as rice has seen its popularity soar over the past few year (The UN has even named 2013 International Quinoa Year!). The unsurprising flipside of this increase in ‘global’ (although, it’s more global north, than global global) demand is that domestic prices have risen sharply, pricing out the local population.

One man explained that at the local women’s refuge, quinoa used to be on the menu at least once a week but has now been replaced by other –cheaper- cereals. Similarly, talking about her children, one woman explained ‘Before I could give them nutritious things like cereals, but not anymore’.

One after the other, the people who had gathered that night started telling stories of how their food habits were changing, starting with the disappearance of quinoa and moving on to other subjects.
A selection of seasonings

'We’re filling our bellies, but not feeding ourselves. This is not alimentation.', said one.

'When potatoes are expensive, I cook without potatoes. But what can you cook without potatoes?', added another.

'Cochabamba use to be the "grain attic" (granero) of Bolivia. We had wholegrain foods. Wholegrain bread stays in your belly for hours, in a way that white bread simply doesn’t', was one man’s reflection.

Of course this isn’t just about supply and demand. There are other complex factors at play, not least climate change and changing tastes. In fact, one woman compared changing food habits and the fact that more and more people prefer white wheat bread to roasted cereals (despite Bolivia importing 90 per cent of its wheat) because it is seen as more ‘sophisticated’, to young people not wanting to dress’ indigenous’.

In the past two years, we picked up on several stories relating to changes in food habits, food safety and quality. For that reason, this year the central theme is ‘fast foods and fake foods’. When we started, we assumed that the theme wouldn’t always make sense to people, that worries about the quality of food, hygiene and processed foods were an inherently middle-class thing. But sitting there in Kami, it became clear that people from the urban and the rural area alike had a lot to say about that. All knew about chemicals, bad oils, hygiene, what they should and what they shouldn’t eat. And interestingly to me, there was no way not to frame all of this as part of a wider, global context.

Talking about the global context, the only quinoa I ate during the trip was in a tiny cereal bar provided by the airline on my flight out of the country.

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert is researcher currently working with Naomi Hossain and Patta Scott-Villiers on the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project, a collaborative study between IDS and Oxfam.

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