Three northern European countries enjoy the planet’s cheapest, healthiest and most plentiful diets according to a new Oxfam ‘Good Enough to Eat’ index, while three African countries have the worst.
The Netherlands is the best food performer in the global food table – followed closely by France and Switzerland – while at the other end, Chad is 125th in the rankings, below Ethiopia and Angola.
In fact, European countries occupy all but one of the top 20 places in the index – the 8th place being jointly occupied by Australia – while African countries make up 26 of the bottom 30 countries in a food-based snapshot of global inequality.
The other four countries at the foot of the table are Laos, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.
“With European countries occupying the majority of the top 30 spots, they run the risk of turning away from the suffering of the world’s one in eight going hungry each night,” said Natalia Alonso, the head of Oxfam’s EU Office.
“There is more than enough food to feed those people,” she added, “yet European leaders are failing to fix the policies that take it off their plates.”
The index measured the quality of people’s food by its diversity, their access to safe drinking water, and the extent of unhealthy outcomes such as diabetes and obesity levels.
Access to food were assessed by checking levels of malnutrition, while affordability was measured by food price volatility and price levels relative to other goods and services.
Interestingly, the study found that inequalities within European nations were beginning to be reflected in the statistics.
'Worst Western European performers'
For affordability, the UK is now branded “among the worst performers in Western Europe,” sharing 20th position with Cyprus. But the most expensive countries to eat in are Guinea, Gambia, Chad and Iran, where food costs people two and a half times more than other consumer goods.
Angola and Zimbabwe suffer the most volatile food prices, while the US has some of the cheapest and most stable food prices, even if the nutritional content leaves them outside the food table’s Top 20, along with Japan, New Zealand, Brazil and Canada.
Burundi, Yemen, Madagascar and India had the planet’s worst rates of malnutrition, although Burundi and Cambodia were also among the best performers for obesity and diabetes. The US, Mexico, Fiji, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia scored the most poorly.
Iceland’s obesity and diabetes levels pushed it down the table, even though it scored a perfect mark for food quality in terms of nutritional diversity and safe water.
To combat the overall inequality reflected in these figures, Oxfam has launched a GROW campaign, calling for more investment in small-holder agriculture and better infrastructure to boost crop production, prevent waste and improve access to markets.
Crucially, it wants better food price regulation, improved land rights for indigenous peoples, and an end to Europe’s biofuels targets, which EU studies have linked to high prices and food scarcity.
“By backing biofuels, Europe is not only fuelling land grabs but also contributing to the scandalous practice of fuelling cars with vital food products,” Alonso said. “Meanwhile, the EU’s declining performance on climate change – the greatest risk to food security – emphasizes the region’s blinded approach to global hunger.”
The report also highlights the the impacts of climate change and prohibitive trading agreements as key reasons for global hunger.
Soaring food prices in the UK
Despite a good score on malnutrition, undernourishment and access to safe water, the UK is at the bottom of the European “top table”, ranking 13th overall because of high food costs that have left Britons “finding it harder to eat well,” the report says.
Only Cyprus, which had to be bailed out recently, had a worse food accessibility performance.
Some 500,000 Britons are relying on food banks, a cause for concern at Oxfam. the group cite one real life example of a single working mother who “despite receiving tax credits to top up her salary, finds it increasingly difficult to feed herself and her son.”
“I might go almost all day without something to eat," she tells them. "Over the last three years specifically, I’ve noticed that my income hasn’t changed but my expenses have soared, so I’ve found myself going deeper and deeper into the red every month."
Expensive, scarce and unhealthy food
Further south, many African countries suffer some of the planet's poorest quality food, as well as high prices.
Food price volatility is highest in Angola, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, where people spend 75% of their income on food alone. In Angola, half of the population has no access to clean water making it impossible to cook food in hygienic and safe condition, Oxfam warns. More than half of Angolans’ diet is made of simple carbohydrates which can cause serious health issues.
In Sub-Saharan countries and Yemen, diets are dominated by nutrient-poor cereal, roots and root vegetables.
Burundi, Yemen, India and Madagascar face serious undernourishment challenges and child malnutrition. In Burundi, which scores the worst of all on this chapter, 67% of the people are undernourished and 35% of children and underweight.
Unhealthy diets increase
While the worst score for unhealthy eating is in Saudi Arabia – with 18% of the population suffering from diabetes and a third of the population being obese – high levels of obesity were also found in Mexico and Venezuela.
“904 million adults have been recorded as overweight or obese in developing countries compared to 557 million in the developed world in 2008,” the report stresses, attributing it “to changing diets and a shift from eating cereals and grains to more fats, oils, animal products and sugars.”
Obesity affects poor countries, too, Oxfam warns. In the relatively poor island of Nauru, 71% of the population is extremely overweight, while in developed countries, the poorest parts of the population have the highest obesity risks. In the UK, the poor eat more processed foods, and in the US, high fat foods are cheaper than fruits and vegetables, the report cautions.
The world obesity level, Oxfam concludes,” illustrates a broken global food system, in which consumers suffer from both under nutrition and obesity – often in the same countries or communities. It is clear that governments and the food industry need to address this.”
The EU imports 40% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural exports – including nuts, fresh-cut flowers, tea, coffee, citrus fruits and vegetables – Commission figures show. Trade has nearly doubled in the decade since Europe began forging closer economic ties with African nations under EU commitments to boost trade and aid.
But foreign commerce doesn’t necessarily lead to prosperity. A decade of economic improvement
and growing south-north trade “has not been translated into commensurate reductions in unemployment and poverty,” says the 2011 Economic Report on Africa.
With notable exceptions, many African countries offer uninviting climates for investment because of bureaucracy, protectionism, mercurial politics and primitive infrastructure. Rudimentary trans-national and trans-continental transport and banking also hamper commerce.