As experts have been suspecting for a while, and as many of us have certainly noticed, people’s diets around the world have become very similar. So much so that in the past 50 years the whole world has come to rely increasingly on just a few crops for most of its food supplies – including old favorites such as wheat, rice, maize, and potato but also more recent ones like soybean, sunflower oil and palm oil – along with meat and dairy products. Many local crops that used to be important in Africa or Asia such as sorghum, millet, rye, sweet potato, cassava, and yam are failing to keep up.
While we generally eat more calories, protein and fat than 50 years ago, the lack of diversity in such a “standard globalized diet” may deprive us from the micronutrients our body needs. It may also increase the occurrence of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, even in countries that are struggling to make enough food available to their people.
The other danger of relying upon just a few crops is that this makes agriculture and the global food system more vulnerable, and increases the risk of food crisis. Similar to the concept of portfolio diversification in finance, a diversified agriculture is more resilient to major threats like drought, insect pests, and diseases, all expected to worsen with climate change.
Reversing this trend towards a standard globalized diet is hard to conceive, especially due to the very powerful underlying socio-economic forces, including urbanization and rising incomes but also trade liberalization, improved commodity transport, multinational food industries, and food safety standardization.
What’s happening in Northern Europe gives some hope though, as consumers – maybe more aware of the benefits of a diversified diet – care for more cereals and vegetables rather than meat, oil and sugar.
Healthier habits and the promise of on-going and future research aiming to make those major crops more nutritious may reduce health risks; but this won’t protect us against the risks of failure of the global food system. Only strong measures to boost the genetic diversity of the major crops and the conservation of locally grown, but currently neglected crops, will.
- Study: Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security
- Press Release