In this wonderfully globalized world of ours, we take for granted just how varied and plentiful our food supply is (at least in the more developed and interconnected parts of the world). But so much of what we see on store shelves and restaurants would have literally been unheard of not long ago, let alone a significant and growing part of our staple diet.
NPR’s The Salt column reports on a study that has mapped out and traced where nearly all the world’s cultivated crops originated from. It found that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of the crops that form a key part of national diets — from Thai chilies to Italian tomatoes — in fact came from somewhere else.
Colin Khoury, a plant scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (known by its Spanish acronym CIAT) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is the study’s lead researcher. Khoury tells The Salt that “the numbers affirm what we have long known — that our entire food system is completely global.”
Previous work by the same authors had shown that national diets have adopted new crops and become more and more globally alike in recent decades. The new study shows that those crops are mainly foreign.
The idea that crop plants have centers of origin, where they were originally domesticated, goes back to the 1920s and the great Russian plant explorer Nikolai Vavilov. He reasoned that the region where a crop had been domesticated would be marked by the greatest diversity of that crop, because farmers there would have been selecting different types for the longest time. Diversity, along with the presence of that crop’s wild relatives, marked the center of origin.
For example, the fertile crescent, which spans northern Egypt through Iraq and southwestern Iran, had an abundance of wild grasses that would eventually become the source of now ubiquitous staples such as wheat and barley, and it retains its diversity of cereal crops. Central America is the source of the chilies typically associated with Indian and Thai cuisine, while tomatoes were first cultivated by the indigenous peoples of the Andes prior to their transmission to Italy and beyond.
Utilizing Vavilov’s methods, the researchers traced the origins of 151 different crops spanning 23 geographical regions, then looked at the diet and food production of 177 countries to determine the dominant crops with their place of origins. Covering over 98 percent of the world’s population, the study is the most extensive of its kind yet. The results can be viewed through a neat interactive graphic on the CIAT’s website.
You can find more interactive infographics, or download static versions of them, here.
The results are as interesting as they are vital, since they highlight the rate global interdependence in the food supply.
In the United States, diet depends on crops from the Mediterranean and West Asia, like wheat, barley, chickpea, almonds and others. Meanwhile, the U.S. farm economy is centered on soybeans from East Asia and maize from Mexico and Central America, as well as wheat and other crops from the Mediterranean. The U.S. is itself the origin of sunflowers, which countries from Argentina to China grow and consume.
Regions far from centers of agricultural biodiversity — such as North America, northern Europe and Australia — are most dependent on foreign crops. By the same token, countries in regions of diversity that are still growing and eating their traditional staples — for example, South Asia and West Africa — were least dependent on foreign crops. But even countries like Bangladesh and Niger depend on foreign crops for one-fifth of the food they eat and grow. Tomatoes, chilies and onions (from West and Central Asia), for example, are important in both countries.
Moreover, this trend has accelerated rapidly over the last fifty years, with dependence on foreign crops growing from 63 to 69 percent, which is a pretty fast rate for foreign foods to take hold and become prominent in established diets (it goes to show how cuisine, while deeply tied to its particular culture and history, is far from static).
Khoury says this was “a bit of a surprise.”
“Cultures adopt foreign crops very quickly after coming into contact with them,” he says, pointing out that potatoes were being grown in Europe just 16 years after being discovered in the Andes. “We’ve been connected globally for ages, and yet there’s still change going on.”
Crops grown for fats and oils have seen the greatest change: Brazil now grows soybeans from East Asia, and Malaysia and Indonesia grow oil palm from West Africa.
Global interdependence also extends to the future of crops — for example, to combat the threats of climate change and new pests and diseases. The genes needed to face those challenges are most likely to be found in the primary regions of diversity, but will be needed wherever those crops are grown.
Indeed, that is why there is the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, also known simply as the International Seed Treaty, which was launched in 2001 to guarantee global food security by facilitating the exchange of different plant varieties. This would allow countries to develop new and more adaptive crops that could be grown in the face of future challenges, such as climate change, soil degradation, or water scarcity.
While 120 nations have adopted the treaty, the majority have not been keen to provide access to their different plant genetics, coveting that knowledge for their own national interests.
For example, during the International Year of Quinoa in 2013, researchers attempted to compare as many different varieties of the Andean grain as they could, to see which might be best in different environments. Of more than 3,000 different known varieties, the researchers could obtain only 21, and none of those came directly from gene banks in the countries of origin.
In light of how interdependent the world has become in order to feed itself, countries may want to reconsider trying to draw clear lines between different crops and plant resources: like it or not, the food supply, like so many other human activities, is becoming globalized, and people everywhere have an obvious interest in feeding themselves regardless of which nation happens to be the originator of a particular source.