As Western culture continues to grow and expand, the diets of many large Eastern countries are beginning to shift away from their traditional staple foods, and over to more “modern” and processed cuisines.
This dietary transformation is largely due to the Big Food multinationals diversifying their range, and setting sights on unsuspecting developing countries, such as McDonald’s and Burger King heading for Africa.
The result? An explosion in the popularity of the Western diet, which is thought to significantly increase pressures on our global food system.
And now there’s data to prove it.
New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has confirmed and documented for the first time that over the last five decades, human diets around the world have grown increasingly similar, by a global average of 36 percent. With this trend expected to continue, there will be, without a doubt, huge ramifications for global food security and health.
A global cuisine
This potential food crisis is going hand-in-hand with the world’s population boom, with agriculture expected to produce food for over 9 billion people by 2050. To add fuel to the fire, non-Western countries are consuming an increasingly Westernized diet, much of which is in the form of processed or fast foods, such as Nestle floating supermarkets in the Amazon, Unilever’s door-to-door vendors in small villages of India, and Coca-Cola’s aim to double sales in South African townships.
Apart from the obvious ethical wrongdoings just listed, our booming population worldwide — coupled with demand for the same foods and the subsequent ingredients used to create those foods — is a sure-fire recipe for profound, agonizing global food insecurity. What’s more, the environmental impact of these trends can be clearly seen today; the gross over-farming of palm oil is the first example that comes to mind.
Our vulnerable agriculture
The emergence of a more homogenous global food basket increases our dependence on a particular food system. In turn, it also increases our vulnerability to that food system. Soybean, sunflower and palm oil use have all increased dramatically, whilst consumption of crops such as cassava and sweet potato have declined.
Luigi Guarino, study co-author and senior scientist at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Germany said, “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.”
Threats to an agricultural system — such as disease, pests and drought — and the consequences of each will become far more dangerous than we could have ever imagined. These threats only become more prominent when the worrisome effects of climate change are considered.
“Globesity“ in overdrive
The research also suggests that growing reliance on the same food crops could be accelerating the global rise in lifestyle diseases, which includes diabetes, heart disease and obesity. All closely interlinked, these medical issues are greatly affected by long-term dietary changes, such as regularly consuming unnatural, processed foods.
In populations where Western food consumption is on the rise, despite historically not being the norm, lifestyle disease is really taking off. In fact, the number of overweight or obese adults in developing countries has more than tripled to 900 million, while in high-income countries, numbers increased just half as much.
Help improve our global food security outlook
Researchers pointed out five actions we can all do to help improve global nutrition and food security:
- Actively promote the adoption of a wider range of varieties of the major crops worldwide to boost genetic diversity and thus reduce the vulnerability of the global food system in the face of challenges that include climate change, rising food demand, and increased water and land scarcity. This action is especially important for certain crops, like bananas, for which production is dominated by a very few, widely grown commercial varieties.
- Support the conservation and use of diverse plant genetic resources—including farmers’ traditional varieties and wild species related to crops—which are critical for broadening the genetic diversity of the major crops. Key measures needed are more vigorous implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to better safeguard and share these genetic resources internationally, and increased investment in crop breeding and related research.
- Enhance the nutritional quality of the major crops on which people depend—for example, through crop breeding to improve the content of micronutrients like iron and zinc—and make supplementary vitamins and other nutrient sources more widely available.
- Promote alternative crops that can boost the resilience of farming and make human diets healthier through research aimed at making these crops more competitive in domestic and international markets. Key measures include identifying and conserving nutritious locally grown ”neglected and underutilized” crops, fostering their production potential through crop breeding, and increasing their use through awareness raising and policy.
- Foster public awareness of the need for healthier diets, based on better decisions about what and how much we eat as well as the forms in which we consume food.
“A more diverse global food system 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,” said study co-author Andy Jarvis, director of policy research at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
By making environmentally-conscious dietary choices, such as purchasing organic products where possible, diversifying your food choices, choosing natural foods over processed/pre-made, and minimizing your food waste, we can all make a collective difference in promoting global food security.
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