Diet diversity and food security

Diet diversity — or more strictly the lack of it — is a big risk to global food security.

You need a lot of food to feed 7 billion people. Roughly 17 trillion calories a day just to keep them from falling over. Feed them from just a few crops and huge trouble waits if just one of those crops fails.

Everyone knows that the best way to manage risk is to spread it out — don’t put all the eggs in one basket. But this is exactly what is happening with food. We are putting all our food eggs into just a handful of crop baskets.

Globally diets have become a third more similar in the last 50 years as wheat, rice, soybean and sunflower have spread and food of regional or local importance such as sorghum, millet and rye together with root crops such as sweet potato, cassava and yam have declined.  

This is a problem on many levels.

1| Over reliance

The big one is loss of diversity that means a reliance on just a few crops. Ask the Irish of the 1840’s what they thought of potato blight to get an idea of what this means in real life. 

A disease, pest or drought in the major production areas for wheat or rice especially would trigger high food prices and a food crisis. 

And when the crops are grown in uniformity across large areas with low genetic diversity the risk of pest and disease rises.

The only insurance we have against such events are stockpiles and a belief that any perturbation will be short thanks to our technological skill in meeting such a crisis.

Food riots in Africa during the 2008 wheat shortages demonstrated what could happen when one or more of the growing regions suffers a drought.

2| Some of these foods are not good for us

As diets get more similar they are also less healthy. 

People are eating more calories, fats and protein especially from meat and dairy products. Alongside and in combination with wheat, rice, maize and potato, energy-dense foods such as soybean, sunflower oil and palm oil are now mainstays of global food supplies. 

Human digestive systems did not evolve to eat wheat.

It was not part of the hunter-gatherer diet. Starch was there from roots, tubers and fruits but not in combination with oils, especially highly modified long-chain processed vegetable oils.  Think nachos, French fries and a host of “snacking” foods cooked in vegetable oils.

And all around the world as economies grow and people have more disposable income they are eating more of these fatty foods, meat and, significantly, sugary drinks. At the same time rates of obesity and heart disease are rising.

It is hard not to make the obvious connection. 

3| Habitat effects

Imagine you are in a wheat field on a summer’s day.

Now imagine kneeling down to put your hand on the soil. The sensation would be of dry heat. 

Now imagine walking a minute or two across into the nearby woodland. Before you kneel down to touch the soil you will know what your hand will feel — cooler and more moisture, especially beneath the fallen leaves.

It is true that agriculture is a necessity and it is also true that it alters habitat. Specifically exposing the soil to temperature extremes and dryness. Do this at scale and it can even alter local climate. The ancient Greeks noticed this effect when they drained swampland.

When we lower the diet diversity of food crops so the complexity of habitat declines as well for a kitchen garden might have 20 or more plants growing in combination. This is a much closer mimic of the natural vegetation than the monoculture of wheat as far as the eye can see.

The future for diet diversity 

The steady decline in diet diversity "continues with no indication of slowing" according to research from the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Wageningen University and the University of British Columbia published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

It makes sense that increasing proportions of the 17 trillion calories each and every day will come from those crops that are easiest to grow in intensive agriculture systems and on an industrial scale. And this means grains, vegetable oils and soyabeans. 

Yet the scientists urge diversification, including of crops that are falling from fashion, such as rye, yams and cassava.

They also would like to see preservation of genetic variety in all crops.

The really crazy thing would be to grow enough calories so that people did not starve, only for them to suffer diet related illness and diseases.



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