Globalized diets paper globalizes

by Luigi Guarino on March 22, 2014

photo (10)You may, unless of course you’ve been visiting Mars, have come across in the past couple of weeks coverage of Colin Khoury’s (along with co-authors) paper on “Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security.” That’s Colin to the left in his office at CIAT, when I visited him last week. The paper has really caught the imagination of the media, and is now one of PNAS’s most attention-grabbing articles ever, in the top 5% of all articles in fact. One of the better write-ups was in NPR, but there’s lots, lots more, in multiple languages. Including a brief mention by World Bank VP Rachel Kyte and CGIAR Fund Council Chair at a Wageningen University event. But where did the idea for the study come from? Well, we are not prone to boasting here at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, but please forgive us on this occasion if we point out that it is a post by Colin in these very pages about four years ago that marks the beginning of his journey to superstardom. From little acorns…

And let us not forget that we can do something about these trends.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Wood March 22, 2014 at 6:55 pm

I am still having problems with this paper. While it is big on the `globalization’ of food supplies it ignores the significance of introduced crops in this globalization. Yet the dramatic role of soybean, palm oil and sunflower (and wheat) show that it is introduced crops that are the big hitters. Why is this thought to be a problem? We know from the classic 1977 paper by Jennings and Cock (Centres of origin of crops and their productivity. Econ. Bot. 31:51–54) that yields of introduced crops are around double compared to region of origin. Higher yields, greater profits, higher production, and higher exports = more globalization of food supplies. These introduced crops are both escaping co-evolved constraints in their regions of origin (good!) and spreading to diverse regions of production (soybean, North and South America; oil palm, tropical Americas and South East Asia; wheat, all over the place = good). The fact that some crops are better than others increase research and genetic resources collections – look at wheat, maize and rice genetic resources.
By being blind to the importance of crop introduction – and the almost certain corollary of massive exports – the paper misses a huge current threat to crop genetic diversity (I do not challenge the ongoing need for that). Back to Jennings and Cock – “Within centres of origin crops are usually grown in primitive agricultural systems…”. Yet it is these `primitive’ systems that we look to for most of our crop genetic resources. Except in the case of rice, homogenization of diets is not coming from an expansion of the `primitive’ systems in regions of origin of each crop. Rather, it is coming from production in other continents (with a relatively narrow genetic base) of introduced crops that are then exported back to the region of origin (soybean from the Americas to China; wheat from South and North America to Iraq; maize from the USA to Mexico – and lots more examples).
So the take-home message for me is that homogenization of diet [substantially caused, I claim, by the massive trade in introduced (alien) crops] is closely associated with putting `primitive’ farmers in centres of origin out of business. Bang go native crop genetic resources and all that continuing adaptation to climate change, pests, disease and whatever. Rice in Latin America could be the next success in crop introduction. Imagine what 150 million tonnes of rice exported to Asia each year (it’s happened with soybean) could do to Asian rice genetic resources.
Will somebody please write a paper for PNAS quantifying this global catastrophe caused by the `crop introduction effect’ and associated exports?

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Luigi Guarino March 23, 2014 at 11:06 am

I suggest you do.

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Dave Wood March 24, 2014 at 6:34 pm

Interesting suggestion. Let’s give it a title.
“The impact on indigenous varieties of soybean in Asia as a result of 100 million tonnes yearly soybean imports from the Americas”.
I won’t write it as I am not on a payroll; the Rome (or close)-based institutes won’t touch it as soybean is not in the Treaty; AVRDC can’t (not in the right place); NGOs not getting paid for this kind of thing.

The topic is many magnitudes more important for global food security under climate change than the loss of apple varieties in the USA (there were none in 1492) or of cloves (a statistic in the paper). We have to hope that nations in Asia are on to it already: has it been flagged as a problem?

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Luigi March 25, 2014 at 7:49 am

You just have.

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Dave Wood March 31, 2014 at 7:06 pm

I have just been sent (originating in emails from the DG of CIAT) “The Changing Composition of Global Diets and Implications for CGIAR Research” [I can’t find it on the CIAT web-site]. This is a more digestible report based on the Khoury et al. PNAS paper, but, as the title states, it makes policy recommendations for the entire CGIAR. I have fundamental disagreements both with the presentation and with the policy conclusions.
On presentation: it is claimed that:- “Since the inception of the CGIAR, diets in developing countries have shifted dramatically, including greater amounts of major oil crops…” The second figure in the report does not support this. Rice, wheat, maize and sugar (of unspecified origin) have maintained their dominance and a relatively minor component (of soybean and palm oil) have moved into the top 14 from `other crops’. Why is this thought to be a problem? Why is the CGIAR mentioned here: this is nothing whatever to do with the CGIAR as no CG institute works on oil crops?
On policy: a whole section (of only four) is devoted to oil crops, which recommends that the CGIAR should be: “Developing and promoting eco-efficient cultivation and processing methods particularly through engagement with major oil commodity actors to reduce environmental impacts through certification, round-tables and other policy instruments…”. This, getting involved unnecessarily with global vegetable oil disputes, is playing with fire. Anyone who has followed the attacks on Brazil over soybean or on Indonesia for oil palm will recognise the rhetoric. Attacks on tropical vegetable oil production can only benefit the other main player in vegetable oil exports – the U.S.A.
This oil crops section makes the odd claim – for a world awash with vegetable oils – that more research is needed on alternative oil crops such as coconut, sunflower oil, cottonseed oil, olives, rape and mustard, sesame, and shea nut.
The Conclusion recommends that the CGIAR should: `aggressively promote the development of resilient and nutritious regional crops’. This is CIAT ignoring the sound advice of two of its own eminent crop scientists, Jennings and Cock, in a paper of 1977 (Centres of Origin of Crops and their Productivity. Economic Botany 31, 51-54). Jennings and Cock have a section `Development of the Native Crops’ that explains why – unless introduced somewhere else – `regional’ crops expose the farmer to: “..the probability of crop failures at frequent intervals.”
CIAT is ignoring the reasons for its own successes – the introduced common bean in Africa, the introduced cassava in Africa and S.E. Asia, the African grasses introduced by the CIAT Pasture Programme as mainstay of Latin American pastures, and introduced rice in Latin America (the current success in Uruguay).
`Eco-efficiency’ is mentioned on each page. The very best eco-efficiency is to introduce crops to other continents, thereby escaping co-evolved pests and disease and what Jennings and Cock call: “…fewer and less intense yield restraints…”
Finally, what about pulses? They have fallen out of the top 14 crops yet deserve far more emphasis than minor native crops.

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