What the Rising Cost of Food and Fuel Can Teach Us About Justice

Price rises will leave the poorest and most vulnerable at risk.

food waste

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"Groceries are so freaking expensive right now," my wife muttered in shock recently while placing an order for online grocery delivery. And I’m sure it’s not exactly different for anyone on this site. 

Between pandemic-related supply chain challenges, the rising costs of fuels and fertilizer, and the exacerbating influence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the price of food has risen 9.4% in the past year here in the U.S. These price rises and disruptions are also hitting hard all across the world, including in countries where political instability is an issue. 

Scott H. Irwin, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, explained in a Time magazine piece that the problem with the most recent disruptions is not that we’ll run out of grains, but rather that price rises will leave the poorest and most vulnerable at risk of going hungry.

“As grain markets do their job of cutting demand in the face of smaller supplies, someone has to be priced out of the market," wrote Irwin. "Unfortunately, this usually falls most heavily on the poor in importing countries. This does not bode well for the well-being of millions of poor people around the world or political stability in many less-developed countries.” 

Food Waste by the Numbers

The U.S. wastes 133 billion pounds of food every year, which comes out to be worth $161 billion or 31% of the entire food supply. Meanwhile, 38 million Americans are food insecure.

This means governments have to get serious about food equity, overseas aid, and protecting the poor. But it also means that all of us—institutions, businesses, and individuals alike—have an added moral impetus to finally tackle food waste and stop throwing so much food away. After all, “someone being priced out of the market” is a rather sanitized metaphor for “people will starve to death.” We should all be doing what we can to stabilize prices and tackle the obscenity of waste. 

For some, that will mean more meal planning and shopping for a list. For others, it will mean questioning our strict adherence to “best before” food labels. But for all of us, these individual behavior changes should be paired with pushing grocery stores, cities, and legislative leaders to finally start taking this problem seriously. 

This would be good for stabilizing food prices. It would be good for each of our pocketbooks. And it would be a huge benefit in the fight against climate change too. As Treehugger senior editor Katherine Martinko noted in her recent post about her own food waste reduction efforts, Project Drawdown has identified food waste reduction as one of the top climate solutions available to us as a species.

This is particularly important for near-term climate goals because a significant portion of food waste emissions come in the form of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s 85 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it's emitted, but doesn’t hang around in the atmosphere too long. In fact, according to a coalition of groups pushing for a Global Methane Pledge, tackling methane could be the single most important step that humanity could take to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

None of this is unrelated to the other big driver of inflation right now—namely the soaring cost of oil and other fossil fuels. It’s true to say that if the price of fossil fuels truly reflected the societal cost, we’d all be using a whole lot less of them.

Indeed, the recent jumps in prices are in fact leading to demand destruction. But we have to match any price rises with efforts to address equity. Otherwise, the rich high emitters will keep consuming and emitting, and in doing so they will perpetuate a system where folks without money are priced out of many potential solutions. 

From walkable communities to cargo bikes, and from electric cars to solar power, we live in a society that places far too much emphasis on "consumer power" and voluntary behavior change. But as we can see from skyrocketing inflation—and who is hurt the most—relying on these strategies alone will neither deliver the emissions reductions we need nor create the kind of societal stability we’re going to need as we head into an unpredictable and increasingly unstable future.

So, next time we’re gasping in shock at the grocery bill, or the prices at the gas pump, sure, let’s use it as an opportunity to trim waste and cut consumption where we can. But then let’s also trim waste and cut consumption where it counts—meaning a system that throws billions of pounds of food away, while others go hungry, and that continues to push car-centric development to the detriment of public health, social cohesion, and quality of life for most of us.