The worldwide spread of a ‘standard globalized diet’ is putting more food on the dinner table, but at the expense of the cultivation and consumption of many local crops. Therefore this global uniformity heightens the risk of food crises. This is shown in a comprehensive study of global food supplies published by Colin Khoury, PhD-candidate at Wageningen University and scientist at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) of CGIAR. Human diets around the world have grown more similar by a global average of 36 percent over the last five decades. This trend shows no signs of slowing, with major consequences for human nutrition and global food security.
More calories, proteins and fats
“More people are consuming more calories, protein and fat, and they rely increasingly on a short list of major food crops, like wheat, maize and soybean, along with meat and dairy products, for most of their food,” says lead author Colin Khoury. “These foods are crucial for combating world hunger, but relying on a global diet of such limited diversity obligates us to bolster the nutritional quality of the major crops, since consumption of other nutritious grains and vegetables declines.”
The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, suggests that growing reliance on a few food crops may also accelerate the worldwide rise in obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Colin Khoury, supervised during his PhD studies by Paul Struik, professor Crop Physiology at Wageningen University: “These are strongly affected by dietary change and have become major health problems, even within countries still grappling with significant constraints in food availability.” The study calls for urgent efforts to better inform consumers about diet-related diseases and to promote healthier, more diverse food alternatives.
Threat to food security
“Another danger of a more homogeneous global food basket is that it makes agriculture more vulnerable to major threats like drought, insect pests and diseases, which are likely to become worse in many parts of the world as a result of climate change,” said Luigi Guarino, a study co-author and senior scientist at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, headquartered in Germany. “As the global population rises and the pressure increases on our global food system, so does our dependence on the global crops and production systems that feed us. The price of failure of any of these crops will become very high.”
The dietary changes documented in the study are driven by powerful social and economic forces. Rising incomes in developing countries, for example, have enabled more consumers to include larger quantities of animal products, oils and sugars in their diets. Moreover, urbanization in these countries has encouraged greater consumption of processed and fast foods. Related developments, including trade liberalization, improved commodity transport, multinational food industries, and food safety standardization have further reinforced these trends.
Protect food supply
International agencies have hammered away in recent years with the message that agriculture must produce more food for over 9 billion people by 2050. Khoury: “Just as important is the message that we need a more diverse global food system. This is the best way, not only to combat hunger, malnutrition, and over-nutrition, but also to protect global food supplies against the impacts of global climate change and other external threats like pests and diseases.”