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Interconnected diets: Two thirds of crops we consume are result of ‘food globalisation’

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Gone global: 'Foreign crops' dominate the diets of most countries, but what is happening to crop diversity? ©iStock
Gone global: 'Foreign crops' dominate the diets of most countries, but what is happening to crop diversity? ©iStock

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'Foreign' crops dominate national food consumption patterns and farming practices, according to new research that finds nearly 70% of fruit, vegetables, legumes and grains in an average country's diet originate somewhere else.

The wide-ranging report, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B​, marks the first time scientists have calculated the level of interconnectedness of national diets and agricultural economies – and aims to provide a greater understanding of how globalisation has affected, and continues to affect, the way people eat in different countries, said the authors.

Led by Colin Khoury from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and United States Department of Agriculture, the research team analysed the consumption and cultivation of 151 crops in 177 countries, covering 98% of the world’s population. The team found, on average, that more than two-thirds of the food grown and eaten in each country are ‘foreign’ crops that were originally domesticated in other parts of the world.

“It’s fascinating to see the extent to which so many plants have become synonymous with traditional diets in countries many thousands of miles from where those plants first appeared,”​ said Khoury.

“If you’re eating tomatoes in Italy or chillies in Thailand, you’re consuming foods that originated far away, and that have reached those places relatively recently.”

Food globalisation

The international team behind the study​ noted that previous efforts to identify the origins of food plants has led to the recognition of specific geographic regions which are important in terms of historical crop biodiversity and the development of specific agricultural crops.

Khoury and his colleagues related current dietary patterns and crop production in 177 countries back to these ‘primary regions of diversity’ to estimate how different countries use ‘foreign crops’ from other regions of diversity.

“Now we know just how much national diets and agricultural systems everywhere depend on crops that originated in other parts of the world,”​ he said – noting that foreign crops make up an average of 68.7% national food supplies and 69.3% of crops grown in food production systems.

“The most important primary regions of diversity contributing to a country’s modern food system are more often to be located elsewhere around the planet,”​ the team added, reporting that the use of foreign crops in national food supplies and production systems was highest (up to 100%) in countries that are geographically isolated, or located at great distance from primary regions of diversity for major staple crops.

world on a plate, global food

This includes Australia and New Zealand, the Indian Ocean Islands, the Caribbean, southern South America, North America, southern Africa, and northern Europe, said the team.

For example it was found that foods of Mediterranean and West Asian origin dominate diets in the US due to the importance of crops like wheat, barley and grapes. However, the US’ agricultural output and economy “are significant beneficiaries of ancient farmers in East Asia, where soybean originated, and Central America and Mexico, where maize (corn) and other important staples were born,” ​said the team.

“Given this homogenization in global food supplies, the geographic decoupling of agricultural production and food consumption, and greater consumption of packaged and processed food products, it is increasingly feasible to imagine not only mistakenly attributing the origin of potatoes to Ireland, tomatoes to Italy, and chili peppers to Thailand, but indeed losing the connection of crops with a geographic origin entirely,”​ Khoury and his colleagues warned.

Food security challenges

In addition to revealing the vast and complex impact that globalisation has had on our food supply, Khoury suggested that the findings also have important implications for efforts to improve food security and face challenges such as climate change.

“The results provide a novel perspective on the ongoing globalisation of food systems worldwide,”​ said the research team – noting that as we increasingly come to depend on each others plants the identification and protection of key regions as the birthplace of our most important foods will be vital to ensuring long term food security.

“The increasing use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for considering the underlying genetic diversity of important food plants as a global public good,”​ said the team – who warned that if the world waits too long to conserve crop diversity, its potential to benefit the world could be lost forever.

“Traditional crop varieties and their wild relatives found in one small part of the world could potentially be of use all over the world. That means we need to steward them in their natural habitats, and also collect them, conserve them in genebanks, and share widely to help make our food system more resilient,”​ said study co-author Luigi Guarino of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Khoury added that he hopes a better understanding of our continued connection to the primary regions of crop diversity will also help change the way we think about food and farming: “As we’re all deeply connected to other parts of the world, our scientific research, our policies and our institutions need to reflect that,”​ he said.

Source: Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Published online, Open Access, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2016.0792

“Origins of food crops connect countries worldwide”

Authors: Colin K. Khoury, et al

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