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Where’s the most expensive plate of food in the world? The answer might surprise you

Where’s the most expensive plate of food in the world? The answer might surprise you. A new U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) tool is highlighting the true cost of food by presenting variation in the cost of food around the world. The tool, called Counting the Beans, includes a data-driven, open-access online interface to help both experts and the general public quantify the relative cost of food in nations worldwide. The tool presents price and affordability as very different measures.

Counting the Beans compares what food really costs to members of different societies, suggesting that nominal food price is not telling enough. Dramatic variation in incomes and market values around the world makes it difficult to understand difference in cost burdens of purchasing food.

For example, imagine spending US$322.07 on a simple plate of food. Then imagine that this same plate—a 600-calorie stew made from basic ingredients—is valued at US$1.20. The difference in cost is a representation of the difference in the burden for those in different populations buying the same plate of food. These numbers, for example, compare burden for residents of South Sudan with burden for residents of New York City.

To further emphasize the difference in burden, Counting the Beans incorporates countries’ average daily incomes.

In South Sudan, the US$322.07 price tag is equal to 155 percent of average daily income. Other countries have similarly striking food cost burdens: a plate of food for 115 percent of average daily income in the Deir Ezzor region of Syria, or for 121 percent in the north east of Nigeria.

The disparity of the food cost burden is understood to be in part due to natural disaster and conflict, which can limit both food supply and food access, and which many Counting the Beans countries disproportionately face.

Rather than focus on the product’s nominal price, we focus on the price as perceived by those meant to purchase the product,” say the tool’s developers. By calculating food expenditure as a fraction of average daily income, Counting the Beans emphasizes the difference between price and affordability.

Where do you think you would find the most expensive plate of food in the world? Tokyo? London? Switzerland? New York?

What if we told you the most expensive plate of food in the world was actually in South Sudan?

To each and every one of us, food comes at a cost. One that isn’t optional: we eat or we die. But while in the developed world the cost of staying fed is negligible to moderate, in the poorest countries it is often exorbitant.

Why? Because of conflict. Or disasters, human-induced or not. Bad roads. Wrecked ports. Waste. Ruined markets. The reasons stack up like those cans of beans.

Counting the Beans is a global index to pin down the relative cost of food, in various countries, against a single baseline.

A report detailing the project describes the first steps of developing Counting the Beans to involve creation of a standard meal and calculation of the costs of a single serving of that meal in each country. The standard meal consisted of a bean or pulse-based stew and an accompanying local carbohydrate. This meal was estimated to be 600 calories—between 25 and 30 percent of the daily calories adults require.

The developers then calculated a per-person average daily budget by country, based on each country’s GDP per capita.

Next, the developers derived the meal-to-income ratio. This ratio allows Counting the Beans to account for differences in purchasing power by country: a changing ratio between two consumers in two different countries represents affordability. The theoretical price of a plate of food is then created using this ratio in comparison with the reference location (originally, New York City).

“The results are, in many cases, staggering,” according to WFP Executive Director David Beasley. The Counting the Beans report shows that “the cost of ingredients for a simple plate of food in some countries exceeds daily income.”

To Beasley, Counting the Beans is “an opening salvo rather than a finite piece scholarship,” and one that he hopes “will trigger further reflection and spirited debate” on the true cost of food.

The tool is intended for experts in the food security and humanitarian sectors, as well as the general public. Understanding global inequities in the cost of food, and where the relative costs are most burdensome based on the meal-to-income ratio, might be helpful in guiding future humanitarian response or resilience-building techniques for food security.

Food insecurity affected 11 percent of the global population in 2016, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s State of Food Insecurity Report. It found that 815 million people worldwide are food insecure, a 40-million person increase from 2015, and the first increase in global food insecurity in a decade.

This publication is both an illustration of wild disparities in the affordability of food and an attempt to disentangle the factors behind them.

Read “Counting the Beans: The Cost of a Plate of Food Around the World” and stay tuned to WFP Facebook page for the latest updates. Read the PDF version.

You can interact with the data from Counting the Beans on an online platform presented by WFP and Mastercard. Choose where you live, then see what the relative cost of a simple plate of food is in another country. Try it out at wfp.org/plateoffood . Sources (FoodTank; WFP)