Geneva, 16 May 2014, by Colin Khoury
Fifty years ago palm oil was virtually non-existent in the Colombian diet. Now over 25% of the fat in national food supplies comes from the crop, making it the single most important plant for the provision of this macro nutrient in the diet.
Along with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Nigeria, Colombia has become one of the world’s largest producers of this African oil crop, contributing to the industrial production of inexpensive cooking oil distributed around the world.
This trend is not unique to palm oil, nor Colombia. Food products made from major crops such as wheat, rice, maize, soybean, sugar, and potato are now available worldwide – symptomatic of the globalization of our diets, where what we eat across the world is becoming more and more similar and is linked ever more tightly to a small list of crops. Over the last five decades, human diets have grown 36% more similar.
What is the impact of the increasing standardization of our global food supplies on the resilience of our food systems?
Well, actually, it could be fairly significant.
Health-wise, greater homogeneity in global food supplies fits within a broader trend of increased total food energy, protein, and fat in diets, with greater proportions composed of energy dense (high fat and sugar) foodstuffs.
The focus on increasing the availability of a select number of highly productive crops has likely contributed to reducing hunger by making adequate calories, protein, and fat more available worldwide. It is unclear though how the dominance of major crops is affecting the sufficiency of vital micro nutrients such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc in regions where deficiencies are significant. Global urbanization may exacerbate negative effects by making micro nutrient dense food sources, such as wild plants and garden vegetables, less a possibility for the urbanizing poor. A further effect under the nutrition transition has been a global rise in obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, which are strongly affected by dietary change.
In terms of the stability of food production, the homogenization of global food supplies, and therefore of agricultural fields, makes agriculture more vulnerable to major threats like drought, insect pests and diseases, which are likely to become more severe as a result of climate change.
Furthermore, an ever more integrated, interdependent global food system implies that shocks effect an ever greater number of people worldwide. Civil strife in production regions, for instance in Ukraine, one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat and maize, or natural disasters like typhoons, for instance in the Philippines, the world’s largest coconut producer, bring instability to the global food system, by raising food prices, threatening stable trade systems, and ultimately making adequate food availability less certain in those regions most in need.
With food security ever more linked with global trade, the achievement of a sound balance between local/national production and importation of food has never been more important. As the need for greater quantities of food grown in a more ecologically appropriate manner increases in the future, the ‘sustainable intensification’ of production areas has been identified as a component in strategic agricultural research. This intensification is likely to focus significantly on the major crops that feed the world, potentially furthering homogeneity in global food supplies.
Given the concerns raised by the homogenization of global food supplies, and the deep complexities of the underlying drivers of these changes, many steps are likely to be needed to engender a more robust global food system. These include:
- Actively promoting the adoption of a wider range of varieties with distinct genetic characteristics of the major crops worldwide to boost genetic diversity and reduce the vulnerability of the global food system, especially in the face of challenges like climate change, rising food demand, and increased water and land scarcity.
- Supporting the conservation and use of diverse plant genetic resources—including farmers’ traditional varieties and wild species related to crops—which are critical for broadening the genetic diversity of the major crops.
- Enhancing the nutritional quality of the major crops on which people depend—for example, through crop breeding to improve the content of micro nutrients like iron and zinc—and make supplementary vitamins and other nutrient sources more widely available.
- Promoting alternative crops that can boost the resilience of production systems and make human diets healthier through research and advocacy aimed at making these crops more competitive in domestic and international markets.
- Developing national and regionally appropriate food security strategies which describe a sound balance between local/national/regional production versus import, and which are cognizant of the value of diversification in agricultural fields and in diets.
- Fostering public awareness and enacting policy in support of healthier diets, based on better decisions about what and how much we eat as well as the forms in which we consume food.
The future is not fixed – diets are changing, as our study revealed. For example, some countries are moving away from animal products and other energy dense foods towards more diverse cereals and vegetables.
Food systems will always encounter challenges that make them vulnerable. It’s how we respond to those challenges that will build their resilience – through the choices scientists and farmers make on the crops they work on and grow, by policymakers in the research they fund and the laws they enact that impact the price and availability of different foods, and by consumers in what and how they eat.