Two dollars for an avocado, eight bucks for butter, four greenbacks for orange juice—food prices in the United States don’t always seem cheap. But compared to the rest of the world, we don’t know how good we have it.
Amidst the amber waves of grain and fruited plains, we spend less of our income on food than any other country. In a seemingly twisted world order, poorer countries spend a much higher percentage of their income on food products than wealthier countries, which enjoy a relative cheap and abundant supply. And although much of the world still suffers from malnutrition and food insecurity, an overabundance now threatens our health, though not our pocketbook.
Eating, By the Numbers
According to the Economic Research Service, a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States has it easy—we spent only 5.7 percent of our total household expenditures on food in 2007. In comparison, people in the UK spent 8.6 percent on food, residents of Denmark spent 10.7 percent, and in Hong Kong, China, residents used 12.5 percent of their income for food.
In fact, most wealthy countries use a small percentage of their household expenditures on food and top the list of rankings. Those countries that spend the most on food compared to other items are countries where consumers have less disposable income and most of their money goes to the bare necessities. Food shortages and higher relative food prices also account for a greater percentage of money spent on eating. In Jordan, for instance, they spend a whopping 40.9 percent of their money on food; in Indonesia it’s 45.7 percent, and in Azerbaijan, they use the greatest proportion of money on grub—50.4 percent.
The Real Cost of Cheap Food
It hasn’t always been this way. For Americans, food prices as a percentage of our disposable income has been dropping for decades. In the 30s, we spent around 21 percent of our disposable income on food; in the 50s, it was 17 percent, and on down, hovering around 6 percent for the past decade or so.
Why has food become relatively cheap? One of the main reasons has been improved efficiency in agriculture. For instance, corn yields in the U.S. averaged less than thirty bushels/acre prior to the 1930s. But with the introduction of hybrid seeds around 1935, the intensified use of fertilizer and herbicide (in 1972, nitrogen fertilizer was added to 96 percent of corn acreage), insecticides, and genetically-modified seeds, by 2008 the average corn yield reached 155 bushels/acre and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Livestock production has also greatly increased in efficiency; instead of grazing on open pastures, many industrialized countries now have factory farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (cafos), growth hormones, and antibiotics.
Of course, these advancements haven’t come without major health and environmental costs that aren’t factored in to food costs. These externalities rear their heads in outcomes like obesity, pollution, food that’s cheap but nutrient-deficient, antibiotic resistant microbes, and the slew of problems that call to question another price-dropping practice—subsidies.
Our government, like many others, gives subsidies to farmers, whose livelihood depends on unpredictable factors like weather and crop infestation. We currently subsidize over two dozen commodities, which effectively makes domestic food cheaper, and has loaded our diet with refined grains, sugars, and processed foods.
Fruits, Vegetables, and Cookies
It’s evident that cheap food means greater supply per person and the calories show it.
According to the World Health Organization, consumption of food, measured in the available kilocalories (kcal) per capita per day, is steadily on the increase. Worldwide, we’ve moved from an average of 2,358 kcal available per person in 1965, to 2,803 kcal in 1999, to a projected of 2,940 in 2015. However, these aren’t distributed evenly. Developing countries had 2,681 kcals available to them per day in 1999, while industrialized countries, such as the U.S. and the UK, had 3,380 kcals available to them, well over the 2,000-calorie average recommendation.
Calories aren’t consumed in the same way, either. Looking at food consumption across the globe shows absolute prices reflecting economy and availability. In their 2005 book, Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio document the weekly expenditures and food choices from twenty-four families around the world. In Italy for instance, a family of five spent $260.11 a week; their table is loaded with foods like fish, pasta, bread, and bananas. In Cuernavaca, Mexico, a family spent $189.09 buying avocados, chicken, Coke, and oranges, among other items; a large family in Cairo, Egypt spent $68.53 on foods like okra, mutton, bell peppers, and tomatoes; a six-member family in Chad spent $1.23 for grains, rice, and spices. A family in California spent $159.18 on cereal, bagels, bananas, and corn dogs, while a family in North Carolina spent $341.98 on pizza, chips, fast food, and grapes (their high costs might be attributed to their two teenage boys). Moving from developing to developed countries, it’s easy to see a transition from grains, whole foods, and vegetables to packaged consumer goods and ready-to-eat foods, and in greater quantities.
Of course, eating outside the homes adds to our food costs and can make even a food-cheap country like the U.S. expensive. But the next time I’m griping about how expensive a whole chicken is ($2.99 a pound at Safeway), I’ll remember that in the grand scheme of things, that’s one cheap bird.
Updated on April 7, 2011