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.