Globalization offers us a huge choice of foodstuffs — but we’re not having it

Globalization hasn’t changed our dietary habits as much as it has other areas of our lives, a new paper published Wednesday.

Image credits NeilsPhotography / Flickr.

Visit a well-stocked grocery’s produce aisle and you’ll see a generous selection of imported fruits and veggies to go with traditional domestic items. Given the huge range of available choices, you’d expect that people living in temperate areas would have expanded their diets, including these varieties readily — after all, we all love food.

A new study published yesterday found that globalization has a much smaller impact on what types of food we grow and eat. The biggest factor influencing what a person eats is still his or her birthplace, they found.

“The diversity of the food we eat hasn’t changed as much as we expected it would with globalization,” said study co-author Jeannine Cavender-Bares, associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, who led the working group together with Regents Professor Stephen Polasky at the University of Minnesota. Both are fellows at the Institute on Environment.

“We still tend to tend to eat based on the biodiversity around us even though we could eat anything.”

Although we have access to an unprecedented variety of produce, each country’s production and consumption patterns “are still largely determined by local evolutionary legacies of plant diversification.” As the tropics have a much larger pool of genetically-distinct plants naturally available, countries in those areas produce and consume a greater diversity of produce than temperate countries.

“In contrast, the richer and more economically advanced temperate countries have the capacity to produce and consume more plant species than the generally poorer tropical countries, yet this collection of plant species is drawn from fewer branches on the tree of life,” the authors note.

The game (theory) is afoot

The results were a surprise even for lead author Erik Nelson, an applied economist at Bowdoin College and former University of Minnesota graduate student advised by Stephen Polasky. According to game theory concept of comparative advantage, if each country would focus on crops they could most efficiently produce then trade with each other for the stuff they can’t grow cheaply, everyone would eat more in terms of quantity and diversity.

When considering the manufacturing or services sectors, globalization has pushed countries to focus on what they can produce or offer best, then trade for the rest of what they need. As countries become richer, this particular industry or industries develop rapidly, outclassing the others. So Nelson expected to see each country becoming increasingly more specialized in what it produces and more diverse in what it consumes, aligning to global trade practices. But he found that when it comes to the food we eat, the economy hasn’t followed suit.

“We have not seen a lot of increased specialization in agriculture around the world like we have in other economic sectors areas such as manufacturing, finance and technology,” said Nelson.

Consumption patterns have adapted to increased trade and wealth, but diversity hasn’t — for example, people who traditionally eat apples consume more varieties of the fruit thanks to trade, but don’t eat papaya regularly even though they have access to it.

Nelson cites the persistence of domestic agricultural subsidies that play a huge role when farmers decide what to plant, traditional culinary habits that rely heavily on locally available foodstuffs, and the fact that growing a wider range of crops shields households in developing countries from food price shocks. The paper warns that while a wider range of crops makes farms more resilient to pests, shifting climate, and social perturbations, it also lowers global production efficiency — which means more resources used and a greater environmental strain by our farms.

“We need to become more efficient in agriculture to meet demand,” said Nelson, “but food may be different than other commodities as it turns out, so we should think about the implications and whether it a good or bad thing in terms of food security.”

“The more a team is interdisciplinary, the greater the chance to bring new insight on old theories,” said Matt Helmus, assistant professor of biology at Temple University who co-led the study. “What excited me about working with the applied economists on our team was that they introduced me to these long-standing economic theories, that together with my knowledge on biodiversity statistics, we were able to finally test.”

The full paper “Commercial Plant Production and Consumption Still Follow the Latitudinal Gradient in Species Diversity despite Economic Globalization” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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