What percentage of your income do you spend on food (excluding snazzy eating out experiences that qualify as entertainment)? Americans generally spend not very much– on average less than 7%. In comparison, you’ll see in this infographic that Europeans spend double that and third world countries spend much, much more. The intial reaction to the graphic tends to be “we should spend more on food!” but that is overly simplistic. First, we need to think about what problems the graphic illustrates; second, what we can do to address them.
It’s easy to overlook, but the incomes vary more than the food costs. Portugal’s residents spend almost exactly what Americans do, per person. Canadians spend slightly less; in the United Kingdom, they spend a touch less than in Canada. Even in Turkey and Brazil, food costs are only about 30% lower per person than in the US*. The difference seems to be not in money spent on food, but on total income. While there are exceptions, mitigating factors (Japan is an island that depends heavily on imports) seems to suggest that we do not actually spend much less on food. A more sophisticated graphic would include the percentage spent on food in relation to income increments– for example, do people who make $30,000/yr spend a higher percentage closer to other nation’s means than those who make $150,000? How does our national income gap affect the statistic? Should the average Jane Doe spend more on food, or is the problem embedded more in total household income? I believe it lies in income (although we are excessively cheap about whole foods, while spending too much on processed junk).
Clearly, the graphic reveals which nations will be most affected by increased global food prices. Not just by the wheat prices mentioned, but also by future crop losses due to weather and climate changes from global warming. Malnutrition, famines, and wars over resources are all dramatic common outcomes from lack of food and are more likely to be experienced in nations where a high portion of income is spent on food. Women and children are particularly vulnerable in food shortages, typically suffering from higher rates of anemia, death during childbirth, and infant/child mortality. In a longer view, fewer girls will receive educations, more children will be stunted or suffer from deficiencies and related illnesses, and the cycle continues with each generation.
As individual ethical eaters, what can we do? Basically, reduce consumption of animal products. Our food system cannot sustainably produce the volume of meat consumed currently. Meat (beef especially) uses more resources to produce considerably less food than a vegetable-based diet. Creating a sustainable, stable food system requires that we decrease meat consumption. In the US, most of our stapes go toward feeding animals that we then eat. By reducing meat consumption, we increase the supply of staples, lowering the price, decreasing shortages and minimizing international price bubbles. Over time, the shift in consumption patterns would ideally lead to production changes that favor producing food for people instead of food for cattle, hogs, and poultry.
Start by switching two or more meals per week from meat and poultry to vegetable and legume dishes (one fun program called Meatless Mondays advocates and provides resources for diet transitions). Ideally, we would have started this process about 40 years ago. Unfortunately, it looks like it is going to take a culmination of tragedy upon tragedy to force change. Reversing damage is tougher than preventing it, but we can still reduce the negative impacts of global warming and shifting weather patterns on the pantries of our international community. Coincidentally, this shift will likely be good for your waistline and overall health as well, so consider it an effort to promote personal health as well!
*The stats nerd in me wonders what changes in the spending stats are statistically significant. Anybody want to play with numbers for me?