Interactive graphics show the origins of our food crops

June 15, 2016

For the first time, a new study reveals the full extent of globalization in our food supply and has found that more than two-thirds of the crops that underpin national diets originally came from somewhere else — often very far away. According to the study, this trend that has accelerated over the past 50 years, confirming that our food system is completely global.

Colin Khoury, a plant scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with his colleagues, began their study by first looking for the origins of 151 different crops across 23 geographical regions. They then examined national statistics for diet and food production in 177 countries, covering 98.5% of the world's population.

"For each country, we could work out which crops contributed to calories, protein, fats and total weight of food — and whether they originated in that country's region or were foreign," Khoury explained in an article.

Separately, the researchers also looked at what farmers were growing in each country and whether those crops were foreign in origin. They found that globally foreign crops made up 69% of country food supplies and farm production.

"Now we know just how much national diets and agricultural systems everywhere depend on crops that originated in other parts of the world," Khoury said.

In the U.S, for example, 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.

Paul Gepts, a plant breeder and professor at the University of California, Davis, called the findings very important. "Professionals are aware of global interdependence, but this is not something most people have thought about," he says.

The researchers produced an interactive graphics that allows you to explore the results — Gepts says this could really help people understand where their food comes from.

Regions far from centers of agricultural biodiversity 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 instance, are important in both countries.

Furthermore, over the past 50 years, the world's dietary dependence on foreign crops has increased from around 63% to the current 69%, Khoury said.

"Cultures adopt foreign crops very quickly after coming into contact with them," he explained in the article, 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.

However, having such a global food system also has its potential problems. To combat the growing threats of climate change and new pests and diseases, for example, plant genes will be needed from specific crops so new varieties can be developed. While this should be made possible by The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the article explains that this has been difficult, as problems (usually political) have caused some countries to ignore the treaty and not share their resources.

During the International Year of Quinoa in 2013, for example, 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.

Other researchers who have conducted deliberate tests of the treaty concluded that, "after nearly 10 years, 'facilitated access' is not straightforward."

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food map

Category: Food Safety, Agriculture