In my recent articles dealing with the controversy surrounding GMOs, I discussed the idea of food security and touched briefly upon the subject of monoculture and the issues that arise from this practice. In this article, I intend to expand upon that topic and take a look at the related issue of decreasing diversity in the human diet worldwide and the impacts of this trend. A recent study entitled “Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security“, which was published in the journal PNAS, has prompted a flood of articles about this very topic. This study examines changes in the global diversity of the major crop species upon which humans have relied for roughly the last fifty years. The primary finding is that: “As a global trend, national per capita food supplies from both plant and animal sources consistently increased over the past 50 y for all variables, with animal foods becoming increasingly important in contribution to protein and oil crops dominating fat food supplies.” In other words, we are getting more protein from meat and more fat from crops like soybean, sunflower, and palm oil. Not only that, but the diversity of the most ubiquitous commodity crops is decreasing. Humans around the world are consuming more wheat, rice, and maize (corn), while crops such as millet, rye, sorghum, yams, cassava, and sweet potatoes, which have historically been staples throughout Africa, parts of Asia, and the Pacific, are all on the decline. Essentially, diets are becoming increasingly “Westernized”, which I will talk about later in this article.
This finding should not be especially surprising to anyone. This trend represents selection pressure on a global scale. Throughout history, humans have sought to ensure their food security by seeking out sources of calories that are reliable, portable, and have a long shelf life. How else do you survive the winter, make a long trek on foot across harsh terrain, or cross countless miles of ocean in a small boat? Though we may feel that we have a greater understanding of nutrition than our distant ancestors, the backbone of our diet is composed of starches that come from grains like wheat and corn, proteins that come from animals and some grains, and fats that come from animals and oils like palm and soy. As the human population continues to grow at an alarming rate, the demand for food sources that are efficient, travel well, and last a long time will continue to grow. As demand increases, growers compete to produce more and there is an increasing shift towards larger-scale production, industrial agriculture, and multinational corporations. Not only do we see a lack of species diversity, as fewer species are planted, but the genetic diversity within those few species decreases as well. There are certainly advantages to industrializing our system of agriculture, such as reduced costs, consistency in the quality of the product, and ease of distribution. While this may result in more streamlined production, and increase our ability to feed more people, this approach is the proverbial double-edged sword.
The problem with decreasing species diversity and genetic diversity is that we become very reliant upon those few species. We put all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak. We humans like to believe that we are in control of our surroundings and the masters of our destiny, but when it comes to agriculture, we are still subject to the whims of nature and weather. A rainy and wet spring can delay planting, while a lack of rainfall in the summer can stunt the plants and reduce your yield to almost nothing. A rainy fall can delay or even prevent harvest, while warm winters can lead to an early and intense assault from weeds and pests the next spring. Repeatedly planting the same crops leads to an increase in pests that prey on those crops. Combating increased populations of pests by spraying pesticides or planting resistant varieties increases selection pressure on those pests to evolve ways to develop resistance to the chemicals or to overcome the resistance of the crop. Concentrating production in certain geographical areas means that insect pests, diseases, droughts, and other disasters all take a larger toll. Extensive concentration and consolidation of production requires a distribution network for food products. Our dependence on the use of fossil fuels links the price of food to the price of oil. Relying on such wide distribution means that our food supply at the national level can be interrupted by shortages of fuel, labor disputes, inclement weather, natural disasters, and more. Apply these issues to a global scale, where you must also factor international politics and trade, civil unrest, wars, and the like, and you have a very fragile system that can tumble like a house of cards.
So what do we do about it? I find it surprisingly difficult to imagine a solution, given the direction that humanity is moving. A seemingly simple response that many espouse is a movement to/return to smaller farms, organic practices, and local production. I certainly love this idea, and dream about someday having a house in the country, gardening, and buying local meat and produce from the nearby farmer’s market. Unfortunately, I do not really see this as a viable answer to the problems that we are examining. The idea that humans would be able to abandon intensive agricultural practices and rely entirely on local, small-scale production runs counter to the direction in which we are collectively moving as a species. We are dealing with:
- tremendous population growth
- an increasingly urbanized society
- a universal desire for upward mobility and higher standards of living
- increasing globalization and interdependence
These issues make us ever more reliant upon intensive agriculture, and make the majority of us rather far removed from the source of the food that we eat. The rapid growth of the human population quite simply means that we have to find ways to do more with less. There is only a finite amount of land on this planet, and only a fraction of it is suitable for agriculture. As the human population increases, the amount of available land per person decreases and land becomes increasingly more valuable. Anyone who grew up in a rural setting can likely think of multiple examples of farmland that was sold for development. There is often far more money to be made (at least in the short term) from dividing land up into parcels and selling it for real estate than there is money to be made from selling or renting it to farmers. This is one of the many challenges of modern farming. It is difficult for small farms to compete with real estate prices, and typically farmers must take on sizable loans to purchase land outright. This is a scary prospect when your crop can be wiped out by unfavorable weather, insects, or disease, and you are left with no option but to sell the land or default on loans. Renting means a lot less cash up front, but does not offer a lot of security, as land that you farm one year can just as easily be rented to someone else the next. This gives an advantage to cooperatives and large-scale farming operations, as they are more likely to be able to acquire land.
The second and third issues are closely related and strongly influenced by the first. Most people looking to improve their quality of life, or climb the socioeconomic ladder in order to reach a higher income tax bracket, migrate to urban areas where they are more likely to find jobs or pursue higher education. We have already passed the point where the urban population of the world has surpassed the rural population (see the graph below). This push towards urbanization translates into an increased demand for affordable and portable food products with a long shelf life. As lifestyles change in the pursuit of a higher standard of living, people also spend less time preparing food. Time is another limited resource, and the more time that people spend working, the less time that they devote to activities like growing food, shopping for food, preparing food, engaging in long meals, engaging in routine exercise, spending time with family, etc. In the balancing act that is time management, an easy way to save time is by decreasing the amount of time spent obtaining and preparing food. Food is much more likely to be obtained from a supermarket than it is a farmer’s market, and very few urban residents will be growing much of their own food. Fast food presents a cheap, quick, and readily available source of calories, contributing to what we know as the “Western diet”.
The Western diet is high in refined carbohydrates, animal products, fast food, and sweetened beverages, and low in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. While we may understand at some level that this is not a very healthy diet, this is the norm here in United States, and its prevalence is directly related to socioeconomic class. Higher-quality diets (consisting of whole grains, lean meats, fish, low-fat dairy products, and fresh vegetables and fruit) are more common among people of higher socioeconomic status. More energy-dense diets (consisting of a lot of refined grains and added fats) that are nutrient-poor are more common among people of lower socioeconomic status with limited resources. Another factor is limited access to higher-quality food sources, as we see in the case of “food deserts“. According to the USDA: “Food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.” Naturally, these issues are not limited simply to urban areas, as one can have limited financial resources and live in a rural setting. Urbanization exacerbates the issue because the effects of these problems are intensified due to the higher population density of urban versus rural environments.
This problem with the American diet is not exactly new, though hopefully people are becoming more aware of it, nor is it limited just to the United States. Increasing globalization has resulted in an expansion of the Western diet, or (my new favorite phrase) Coca-colonization. “Globalization” may seem like a bit of a buzzword, but it is a word that comes laden with meaning. It means a growing exchange of goods through international trade, an exchange of ideas and culture through modern communication technology and travel, and a growing interdependence as countries and their economies rely more and more on these exchanges and become inextricably intertwined. Unfortunately, this can lead to a sharing of both beneficial and harmful ideas and practices. Health issues that have become associated with the American diet, like diabetes and heart disease, are now becoming global issues as well, especially in poorer or less-developed nations. If nothing else, this should serve to point out how dependent humans are on intensive agricultural practices, and how strong the allure of a low-cost, high-energy diet. Unless small, organic, local production of food can somehow be as cost-effective as large-scale, intensive agriculture, then I expect that there will always be a socioeconomic gradient when it comes to the quality of the human diet.
Just to clarify, I am not speaking against these practices. I would prefer that my cows and chickens not receive antibiotics every day in their feed, and I would like it very much if my vegetables had not been sprayed with countless chemicals. I like the idea of buying from local farmers, and knowing that there is some consideration for animal welfare. I also like the ideas put forth by the “slow food movement“. These are good practices, but they do not really solve the bigger problem. These practices are really only available to a privileged fraction of the human population that possesses both the means and the will to support them. When I say will, I mean that you may actually be able to afford such food products, but why pay that much when you can buy cheaper meat at Walmart, or just eat at McDonald’s, and then have more money in your budget for higher rent/mortgage, more clothes, new electronics, or whatever else you want or feel is important? With so many trade-offs in life, it can be very difficult to justify spending more money and setting aside more time to prepare food, at the expense of other necessities or luxuries in life, when the benefit seems so intangible. Being poor often means that long-term plans and considerations are a luxury, and one that does not really seem to offer much return.
So if our love affair with organic produce, free range chickens, grass-fed beef, and locally-sourced food is not the answer to the global problem, then what is the answer? Ugh..I was afraid you would ask that. I wish I knew. If I did, I bet I would belong to a socioeconomic status that did not have to worry about such things. First, the low-hanging fruit:
- I think it is clear that this is a global problem, and not one that we here in the United States will just solve for ourselves.
- I think it is also clear that this is a cultural problem, which makes it inherently challenging to solve.
Any solution must take into consideration the importance of genetic diversity. We must reverse the trend of becoming overly-dependent on only a narrow range of species. This means cultivating and consuming a wide variety of plant (and to some extent animal) species, and also ensuring that we maintain genetic diversity within those species as well. Finding ways to promote and support local production of these foods would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels for food distribution. Alternatively, we could protect our distribution by developing cleaner, cheaper sources of fuel and electricity and reduce reliance upon fossil fuels. Changing our eating habits to incorporate a wider variety of food sources, to consume fewer animal products, and to rely less on refined carbohydrates and processed foods would have tremendous impacts on human health, animal welfare, and our environment, but how do we make this economically feasible for everyone? How do we go about changing cultural habits? We are not just talking about convincing more people to go out and try sushi, or to eat quinoa once in a while. We are talking about changes to our daily eating habits, changes to our food-buying habits, changes to the way we prepare and consume food, as well as changes in how food is produced and distributed. Most of the focus right now is on changes that are really only options for those of higher socioeconomic status, as it they tend to require both financial resources and time. The only way that we can even begin to consider implementing such practices as a species is if the vast majority of our species enjoys a high enough standard of living to make these issues both worth addressing and capable of being addressed. That is where the root of this problem lies, and in my opinion that is the only place to begin if we really want to tackle the related issues of food production, food security, and global diet with any seriousness. That is a lot to think about, but I hope that you will give it some thought.
I am going to finish this piece with a very pertinent book recommendation. Some time ago, I read an excellent work of science fiction entitled “The Windup Girl“, by Paolo Bacigalupi. I have seen it referred to as both biopunk and speculative fiction, as it features a dystopian future in which fossil fuels have become depleted, ocean levels have risen, and the universal currency is the calorie. Food production is controlled by giant corporations that are using biotechnology and corporate espionage to (barely) stay one step ahead of rapidly evolving mutant pests and rampant superdiseases, while giant springs that are compressed by manual cranking are used to store energy. This is the backdrop for a thought-provoking story that ultimately revolves around genetically-modified humans. It is a wildly compelling read that paints a fascinating picture of a future that we would never want, but seems entirely probable. It is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.