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Shrinking Portions: Visualizing Rising Food Prices



Rising Global Food Prices

The Global Food Price Index Continues Rising in 2021

Food expenditures as a portion of disposable income have trended downwards in the U.S. for more than 50 years, but the trend could be reversing as food prices have risen sharply over the past months.

Since June 2020, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food price index has risen for nine consecutive months, with almost every food group setting new three-year highs in 2021. If the trend continues, food prices could begin to outpace income growth and monetary support from governments.

The one outlier in changing food prices has been meat prices, which have lagged behind with a minimal increase since mid-2020.

This graphic tracks the FAO’s food price indices along with their year-over-year (YoY) changes, showing the rapid price increases many of our staple food groups have had over the past year.

The Rising Food Prices of 2020 and 2021

Over the past five years, the FAO’s food price index has fluctuated by a few percentage points, but the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic brought significant volatility.

Sugar and vegetable oils saw the largest changes, dropping by double-digit percentages (-19.2% and -12.4% respectively) in March of 2020, before recovering with the strongest overall price surges of the various food groups.

Food Price Indices Month-over-Month Change

DateFood Price Index MoM ChangeMeat Price Index MoM ChangeDairy Price Index MoM ChangeCereals Price Index MoM ChangeVegetable Oils Price Index MoM ChangeSugar Price Index MoM Change
Jan 20201.49%-2.81%0.29%2.40%7.09%5.42%
Feb 2020-3.02%-2.99%-0.87%-1.09%-10.21%4.46%
Mar 2020-4.33%-1.09%-1.36%-1.71%-12.40%-19.15%
Apr 2020-2.84%-2.52%-5.62%1.64%-5.03%-14.48%
May 2020-1.52%-1.55%-1.46%-1.81%-4.19%7.28%
Jun 20202.31%-0.63%4.13%-0.82%11.31%10.47%
Jul 20200.86%-2.74%3.56%0.21%7.62%1.47%
Aug 20202.02%0.00%0.29%2.17%5.90%6.71%
Sep 20202.19%-0.76%0.20%5.05%5.98%-2.59%
Oct 20203.37%0.33%2.15%7.31%1.72%7.22%
Nov 20204.15%1.63%0.86%2.51%14.57%3.31%
Dec 20202.94%1.61%3.61%1.31%7.55%-0.46%
Jan 20214.33%1.05%1.74%7.16%5.87%8.15%
Feb 20212.47%0.63%1.71%1.21%6.20%6.37%

The food price index increased by almost 17% YoY going into 2021, and while dairy, cereals, sugar, and vegetable oil prices all increased by double-digit percentages, meat prices rose less than 1% on average in 2021.

Surging Demand for Food at Home Drives Higher Prices

Although food prices have always fluctuated depending on weather conditions and global trade affecting food supply, this year’s increases were especially driven by a weakening U.S. dollar and increased demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic resulted in severe changes to the world’s eating habits, with restaurant walk-ins and reservations down by more than 60% while demand for food at home increased as people stocked up on essentials.

To go alongside this, trade and supply chain disruptions in essential agricultural materials like fertilizer resulted in an inconsistent output from farmers and food producers, causing issues right as demand surged.

Meat and Dairy Prices Aren’t Keeping Up

As other food prices rise, the lack of significant increases in meat prices could reflect the avoidance of more expensive food products during tighter times, a lack of supply chain disruptions and constraints compared to agricultural sectors, or a larger societal trend of reduced animal product consumption.

Although dairy prices increased by 10% YoY in 2021, this increase was less than half of the price increases of cereals and sugar (21.7% and 22.3% respectively), and less than a quarter of vegetable oils prices which rose by 44%.

Plant-based alternatives are rapidly growing in popularity as nearly one in four Americans are reducing their meat consumption while veganism is rising in select European nations. Interestingly, despite these trends, 2020 also saw U.S. meat purchases rise as 43% of Americans have been buying more meat since the start of the pandemic.

Fighting the Fear of Inflating Food Prices

Whether meat prices catch up soon or not, the general trend of rising food prices poses a new inflationary pressure upon people around the world.

With in-restaurant dining taking a backseat, the increased prices are felt by everyone as they stock their cupboards, and inflation fears have been brewing as nations make their way out of the pandemic.

Rising government deficits and an increasing money supply represent efforts by governments to support citizens and national economies, but could ultimately be a key factor fueling the rising food prices.

One thing is certain, if food prices continue rising by double-digit percentages in the coming months and years, incomes and government support will struggle to keep up.

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Visualizing the Material Impact of Global Urbanization

The world’s material consumption is expected to grow from 41 billion tonnes in 2010 to about 89 billion tonnes by 2050. This graphic shows the impact of urbanization.



Visualizing the Material Impact of Global Urbanization

Cities only cover 2% of the world’s land surface, but activities within their boundaries consume over 75% of the planet’s material resources.

With the expansion of urban areas, the world’s material consumption is expected to grow from 41.1 billion tonnes in 2010 to about 89 billion tonnes by 2050.

In today’s graphic, we use data from the UN International Resource Panel to visualize the material impact of global urbanization.

How Material Consumption is Calculated

Today, more than 4.3 billion people or 55% of the world’s population live in urban settings, and the number is expected to rise to 80% by 2050.

Every year, the world produces an immense amount of materials in order to supply the continuous construction of human-built environments.

To calculate how much we use to build our cities, the UN uses the Domestic Material Consumption (DMC), a measure of all raw materials extracted from the domestic territory per year, plus all physical imports, minus all physical exports.

Generally, the material consumption is highly uneven across the different world regions. In terms of material footprint, the world’s wealthiest countries consume 10 times as much as the poorest and twice the global average.

Based on the total urban DMC, Eastern Asia leads the world in material consumption, with China consuming more than half of the world’s aluminum and concrete.

Major Global Regions2010 Material Consumption (billion tonnes)2050P Material Consumption (billion tonnes)% total urban DMC change (2010-2050P)
Southern Asia2.78.6223%
South-Eastern Asia2.05.6180%
Central and Western Asia1.94.7151%
Eastern Asia9.019.2113%
South and Central America6.511.171%
North America7.79.017%

According to the UN, the bulk of urban growth will happen in the cities of the Global South, particularly in China, India, and Nigeria.

Consumption in Asia is set to increase as the continent hosts the majority of the world’s megacities—cities housing more than 10 million people.

However, the biggest jump in the next decades will happen in Africa. The continent is expected to double in population by 2050, with material consumption jumping from 2 billion tonnes to 17.7 billion tonnes per year.

A Resource-Efficient Future

Global urban DMC is already at a rate of 8–17 tonnes per capita per year.

With the world population expected to swell by almost two and a half billion people by 2050, new and existing cities must accommodate many of them.

This could exacerbate existing problems like pollution and carbon emissions, but it could equally be an opportunity to develop the low-carbon and resource-efficient cities of the future.

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Mapped: The World’s Next Megacities by 2030

Where will the world’s next megacities be by 2030?



map of projected megacities by 2030

What is a Megacity?

In 1800, less than 10% of people lived in urban areas. Today, more than 4.3 billion people or 55% of the world’s population live in urban settings.

Mass migration from rural areas to urban centers gives rise to megacities—cities housing more than 10 million people, which are often the centers of economic activity in a given country. New York and Tokyo were the first to be recognized as megacities in the 1950s. Today, there are 32 megacities across the globe, and this number is set to grow.

The above graphic uses data from UN World Urbanization Prospects (2018) to map cities that are projected to turn into megacities by 2030.

The World’s Next Megacities

In most high-income countries including the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, and those in the Middle East, over 80% of the population live in urban areas. By contrast, in many low-income countries, the majority still live in rural settings, and the potential for urbanization remains high.

Therefore, many of the up-and-coming megacities are in developing countries.

CityCountry2022 Population2030P Population% Increase From 2022
SeoulSouth Korea 🇰🇷9,975,70910,163,0001.90%
LondonUK 🇬🇧9,540,57610,228,0007.20%
ChengduChina 🇨🇳9,478,52110,728,00013.20%
NanjingChina 🇨🇳9,429,38111,011,00016.80%
TehranIran 🇮🇷9,381,54610,240,0009.20%
Ho Chi Minh CityVietnam 🇻🇳9,077,15811,054,00021.80%
LuandaAngola 🇦🇴8,952,49612,129,00035.50%
AhmedabadIndia 🇮🇳8,450,22810,148,00020.10%
Dar es SalaamTanzania 🇹🇿7,404,68910,789,00045.70%

The fastest-growing cities—Dar es Salaam and Luanda—are both in Sub-Saharan Africa. Luanda is the capital city of Angola and among the 10 wealthiest cities in Africa. Dar es Salaam is the largest city and financial hub of Tanzania, and by 2100, it’s projected to be the third-most populous city globally.

Furthermore, five of the nine projected megacities are located in Asia.

Chengdu, located in Southwestern China, has been an attractive destination for foreign investment. As of 2020, 305 of the world’s 500 largest companies had operations in the city. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the fastest-growing Asian city on the list. In 2019, HCMC accounted for roughly 23% of Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP), highlighting its position as the main commercial hub.

Upon comparing the per capita GDPs of the countries listed above, London and Seoul are the two outliers, located in the wealthiest countries.

CountryGDP per capita (2020, current US$)
UK 🇬🇧$41,059.2
South Korea 🇰🇷$31,631.5
China 🇨🇳$10,434.8
Vietnam 🇻🇳$2,785.7
Iran 🇮🇷$2,422.5
India 🇮🇳$1,927.7
Angola 🇦🇴$1,776.2
Tanzania 🇹🇿$1,076.5

Source: World Bank

Both South Korea and the UK have a higher GDP per capita than the rest of the countries combined, and more than 80% of their population live in urban areas. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that Seoul and London have the lowest growth rates among projected megacities. By contrast, cities in Angola and Tanzania—the two lowest-income countries—are projected to grow by over 35% from 2022 to 2030.

The Urbanization Megatrend

The global urban population has been climbing for decades, while the rural population has started stagnating.

In 2007, the number of people living in urban areas eclipsed that of rural areas, and the gap is expected to widen. The UN projects that by 2050, 68% of the world will live in urban areas. Only a few countries are expected to have more people living in rural areas than urban settings, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Where will the new megacities beyond 2030 be?

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