The homogenized global food system puts people and the planet at risk

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Despite having 14,000 species of edible and nutritious plants to choose from, 75% of the food we eat comes from just 12 plant and five animal species.

Only 30 plants feed 95% of the calories consumed worldwide, of which 60% come from just three staple crops: rice, wheat and corn.

This homogeneity is increasing, with a report showing that similarities in the types of food consumed between countries increased by 36% between 1961 and 2009.

The world’s current main sources of calories—rice, wheat, and maize—have supplanted earlier regional preferences, such as cassava and sweet potatoes. These crops, along with increased amounts of meat, dairy and sugar, are part of a global shift to a Westernized diet that favors high-energy foods. Oil crops such as soybeans, sunflowers and palm oil have also increased their yields.

As these select few crops become dominant, many others are inevitably left behind.

In the last hundred years, 90% of crop varieties in agriculture have disappeared. There are now efforts to preserve or restore crop diversity, such as through seed vaults either return to traditional farming methods.

Another analysis of the data showed how staple foods overlapped between countries. In The Guardian’s analysis, what is eaten in the US and China became more similar over time, with wheat, soybean oil, sugar, beef and beer among the overlaps.

But how do we get here?

Industrial agriculture is one of the main culprits of the homogenization of food worldwideas it continually adapts to meet high demand by producing higher yields with fewer staples and growing them more intensively.

“Agricultural subsidies are a major factor behind food currently being produced for human and livestock consumption,” explained Modi Mwatsama, head of climate and health interventions at Wellcome and a registered nutritionist, a key factor that sustains this unsustainable cycle.

“In most countries, these farm subsidies go to a small number of crops. These are mainly starchy staples like wheat and corn, sugar crops like sugar beets and sugar cane, and crops oilseeds like palm oil and sunflower oil. Significant subsidies also go into raising livestock, in part because that’s where the most money is made in the system.”

Globally, about $540 billion goes to agriculture, and 87% of these subsidies go to food production processes that harm people’s health and the environment..

We know that our food systems account for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, the main driver of climate change. the Most of these food system emissions come from land-use change (such as deforestation) for industrial agriculture, raising livestock for animal-based food, and excessive use of artificial fertilizers on poor-quality soil to grow crops. a small selection of crops to feed the cattle. and people.

These industrial food systems that are driving climate change are also entrenched with it. The more difficult conditions become, the more industrial agriculture intensifies, worsening its impact on the climate and our health.

How does homogenized food affect human health?

The lack of diversity in what we eat can make our food systems vulnerable and affect our health in a variety of ways.

We are getting insufficient nutrients for our bodies.

The limited selection of mass-produced foods means, according to Mwatsama, that we are missing out on vital minerals, vitamins and other nutrients that come from a truly diverse diet.

For example, we are missing out on millet, a nutrient-rich coarse grain, which is another crop losing ground to wheat and rice.

According to the EAT-Lancet report, we also currently consume about half of the fruits and vegetables needed for a healthy diet and, particularly in high-income countries, we consume twice the recommended amount of meat and foods of animal origin. Rebalancing what we eat would benefit health and dramatically reduce emissions from food systems.

We have already seen an increase in malnutrition (such as malnutrition, micronutrient deficiency and obesity) in many communities. This is particularly true among vulnerable people when climate hazards lead to a sudden loss of access to food that is compounded by “decreased dietary diversity”. according to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in March 2022.

The impacts can be long lasting.

Lack of access to enough food can have long-term effects spanning several generations. Low birth weight babies born to malnourished mothers are more susceptible to diet-related diseases in adulthood”, said Mwatsama.

“The nutrient shortages these babies are exposed to in the womb programs their bodies to make the most of every calorie. Throughout their lives, this puts them at higher risk for conditions like obesity, diabetes and disease. are more likely to die young compared to healthy babies born to healthy mothers.”

Food insecurity is an imminent threat

A global food system that relies on and produces only a few types of food is vulnerable to disruption by deadly crop and animal diseases and pests. Climate change is creating conditions in which these pests and diseases are more likely to thrive.

Banana is an example of a crop that was intensively selected to favor the industrial food production system and has become vulnerable due to its lack of diversity.

There are hundreds of varieties of banana, but it had been grown on a dominant species of Gros Michel, which eventually succumbed to a soil fungus that nearly wiped it out in the 1950s. Gros Michel was replaced by the Cavendish spice that many of us now eatwhich again is at risk of disappearing due to another fungus spreading.

If the major crops that feed the world suffer from a major disease or pest-related incident, we will have few options to turn to. These risks add to the direct impacts that climate hazards such as droughts, fires and floods are already having on agricultural yields.

All of these factors have unintended consequences on access to food and, ultimately, on our health.

Food systems must prioritize health

We need a transformation of the global food system to make it environmentally sustainable and prioritize health.

1. Rethink food subsidies

Assessing how countries subsidize food is vital, with more support for small subsistence farmers.

2. Invest in resilient food

Investment is needed in more resilient crops and animal species that can withstand the impacts of climate change.

This implies diversifying crops and moving away from an over-reliance on monocultures and monocultures. It also means moving away from unsustainable industrial farming practices that continue to drive climate change.

For example, there are efforts to prepare coffee for the future with the rediscovery of a forgotten species called Coffea stenophyllawhich was found to have better climate resilience compared to current species that dominate global coffee consumption.

3. Raise awareness to help enable political solutions

All of these solutions will only be possible if an environment exists that allows the necessary policy changes to succeed.

Mwatsama believes that politicians must be empowered to introduce such policies and push them through. That can happen if there is an awareness among the public of the two-way impacts of our current food systems on human health and climate change.

This is why food systems have been included in Wellcome’s latest Climate and Health call. Wellcome is awarding up to £2 million to collaborations between researchers and policy and implementation partners in G7 countries to find climate mitigation policy solutions that have co-benefits for health. Real change can happen if it is backed by policy.

Feeding a population of eight billion people and counting sustainably is not an easy task, but it is not impossible either. In fact, it is critical.


How changing your diet can help fight the climate crisis


Provided by Wellcome Trust


Citation: Homogenized Global Food System Puts People and Planet at Risk (Aug 5, 2022) Retrieved Aug 6, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-08-homogenized-global-food- people-planet.html

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