So how many crops feed the world anyway?

I am conscious of the fact that in my recent short post on the paper “Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security” I did not actually provide the answer to the question that the lead author, Colin Khoury, asked four years back on this blog, when he began thinking about doing the study. And that is: How many plants feed the world?

Well, of course, almost 25 years ago Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen (1990) said that “85 species commodities and 28 general commodities contribute 90% of national per capita supplies of food plants.” Because of changes in the way agricultural statistics are recorded, it’s difficult to make exact comparisons, but here’s the money quote summarising the changes:

The total number of important crop species we identified remained relatively consistent in comparison with a previous point estimate based on national-level data from 1979 to 1981 (Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen, 1990), but the spread and abundance values of these crops have changed measurably. The rate of movement toward homogeneity in food supply compositions globally continues with no indication of slowing. This trend implies a likely deterioration in importance of unreported minor and geographically restricted food plants, along with the measured cereal, oil, starchy root, and other crops that displayed significant declines in abundance in national food supplies. Thus, even as the number of measured crops available to the consumer in a given country has increased over the past half-century as a global trend, the total diversity of crops contributing significantly worldwide has narrowed.

So, if you must know, it’s about 94 plant species that largely feed the world. To be more precise, according to the analysis of Colin and his colleagues, we can now say that 50 crops, or 94 species, contribute to 90% of food supplies at national level. If you want to know what they are, you’ll need Table S1 in the paper. Because FAOStat, which is the dataset which both Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen (1990) and this paper uses (and for which, therefore, despite all its faults, we should all be grateful) records only a particular set of (52) relatively big crops, it’s not easy to know what’s happening with consumption of other, more local crops. We do know from many local studies that a lot of them are declining in both cultivation and consumption. But also that something can be done about it. Look at quinoa. History is not destiny. So maybe 95 species feed you if you’re Bolivian or a hipster. And Henry Hargreaves and Caitlin Levin need to re-think their food maps.

6 Replies to “So how many crops feed the world anyway?”

  1. There are efforts here in Burundi, at the R-D levels, to promote maize and rices that are not local. At the same time, efforts to further identify and enhance sorghum varieties and indigenous rice varieties are given scant attention. Of course, figures at the national level may show that, e.g., sorghum production is increasing but this may represent sales to commercial beer producers, rather than being linked to local food and sorghum beer production.

    1. I am not suggesting the promotion of indigenous crops because they are indigenous – a current trend – but suggesting that attention to both use and problems with indigenous crops needs to be better considered, by all parties and especially incorporating the views and activities of smallholders growing these crops.

  2. I am curious whether this paper investigated the role of trade in homogenization of food systems. Were they able to distinguish, for example, between homogenization of agricultural production across countries versus a “sameness” due to high-volume circulation of an increasingly slim portfolio of grains and produce? These need not be exclusive, of course, but they aren’t the same either.

    Relatedly, just because food supply is growing more homogenous across nations, doesn’t necessarily imply a reduction in “how many crops feed the world.” If every country, for example, began growing the full complement of available crops, there would be great within nation diversity (alpha diversity) little between-nation diversity (turnover, or beta diversity), yet no aggregate (global) loss of species richness.

    To take a simple example, if the US produces crop A and Japan produces crop B, and both nations begin growing crops A and B, the food supply at the national level has become more “diverse” (A and B) yet more homogenous between the two countries (less spatial turnover in diversity) – and there is no reduction in diversity at the global level (supply consists of A and B). If, on the other hand, the US floods Japanese markets with crop A or Japan switches to crop A production, then within-nation diversity would remain constant (still only one crop type) yet would between-nation diversity would increase (both only have/grow A); and this time, there would indeed be an aggregate decline in how many crops feed the world (supply consists mostly of A)

    In other words, there are multiple ways of configuring within and across nation diversity, which may or may not coincide with an aggregate global index of “number of crops that feed the world.”

    Any thoughts on this?

    thank you!

  3. I’m Bolivian and I can assure you that most people here don’t use 95 species in their diets. It is mostly rice, potato and wheat for pasta. Average person uses 10 species and that is being generous.

  4. 13 – according to the Gates Foundation RFP for the Program for Emerging Agricultural Research Leaders. The only crop projects eligible to apply are ones that involve: maize, wheat, rice, millet, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, beans, cowpeas, chickpeas, groundnuts, and banana.”
    Wouldn’t it be nice if they included all of the crops in Annex 1 of the ITPGRFA?

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