How connected are you to the food you eat? Technology has made it possible for us to eat food in and out of season and from all over the world. But between shopping at varied grocery stores, ordering online, and eating at restaurants, it can be hard to really know where your food has originated.
For the first time, a study has exposed the globalization in our food supply in full view. It reveals that more than two-thirds of the crops present in national diets originated somewhere else, and typically that location is far away — a trend which has heightened over the past 50 years.
Colin Khoury, a plant scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the study’s lead researcher, says that “the numbers affirm what we have long known — that our entire food system is completely global.”
In the early 1900s, Russian plant explorer Nikolai Vavilov took on extensive travels and expeditions to collect germplasm resources from around the globe. He used the materials he collected to determine eight geographical centers of origin for economically important crop species, drawing centers of origin around areas where the most species had been discovered.
Khoury and his colleagues furthered Vavilov’s methods to find the origins of 151 different crops across 23 geographical regions, and then reviewed national statistics for diet and food production in 177 countries. This covered 98.5 percent 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,” explains Khoury.
The researchers also examined what farmers were growing in each country and if those crops were foreign in origin. What they discovered was that globally, foreign crops comprised 69 percent 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 notes.
So where is your food from? In the U.S., diet relies on crops from the Mediterranean and West Asia, while the U.S. farm economy depends on crops from East Asia, Mexico, and Central America, as well as the Mediterranean.
Countries from Argentina to China gather sunflower seeds from their origin in the U.S., however.
“Professionals are aware of global interdependence, but this is not something most people have thought about,” says Paul Gepts, a plant breeder and professor at the University of California, Davis.
An interactive graphic was also created by CIAT researchers to further explore the results, which Gepts says could help people understand where their food originates.
Over the past 50 years, the world’s dietary dependence on foreign crops has hit 69 percent. It’s an interesting concept to think that the food we’re eating is from some place we’ve perhaps never even been to.
“Cultures adopt foreign crops very quickly after coming into contact with them,” Khoury explains, and says potatoes, for instance, were being grown in Europe just 16 years after being found in the Andes. “We’ve been connected globally for ages, and yet there’s still change going on.”
And then there’s future challenges to be considered, like combating the threats of climate change and new pests and diseases. The genes required to face those threats are likely in the primary regions of diversity, but are also necessary where the crops are grown as well.
“That means we need to start behaving as if we are interdependent,” explains Cary Fowler, former executive secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and an author of the paper.
According to Fowler, most countries aren’t providing the “facilitated access” promised by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which is supposed to be ensuring countries have access to plant diversity necessary to face future challenges. Countries ignore the shared access as a means for keeping any potential benefits to themselves.
Fowler believes this attitude undercuts the positive deliberations put forth by the treaty. “It’s time for the International Treaty to be observed and enforced,” he says.
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