A Narrowing Global Food Supply Will Make Us All Fat, Sick And Less Safe, Study Says

Mar 06, 2014 | Updated Mar 06, 2014
Dwight Eschliman via Getty Images

The world's reliance on narrow range of foods will lead to an increase in diseases like diabetes and a food supply that is more vulnerable to environmental changes like global warming, a new study warns.

Human diets around the globe have become more and more similar throughout the past five decades, to the point that people currently get 90 percent of their calories, protein and fat from the same 50 crops, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This is due to increasingly modernized agriculture, urbanization and the rise of supermarkets and processed foods, among other factors.

More and more people, the study found, are consuming a "Westernized" diet of animal meat, dairy, sugary drinks and oils. Meanwhile, local grains and vegetable crops, from sorghum and rye to yams and sweet potatoes, have declined.

"People are eating more fats, more calories and more protein," lead author Colin Khoury, a scientist at the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture, told HuffPost over the phone Wednesday. "The sum total is, we're heading toward a more homogenous diet."

Specifically, notes the research -- which analyzed national per capita food supply data from 152 countries comprising 98 precent of the world population from 1961 to 2009 -- people were found to eat more energy-dense foods, such as soybean, wheat, sunflower oil and palm oil, even in areas where they were previously unavailable.

But perhaps most alarming is how the growing reliance on a smaller number of crops will affect our health: The report says it will accelerate a worldwide rise in obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes, especially in developing countries.

And aside from the health risk, the study notes, having a global preference for a narrower range of foods presents an environmental danger.

"It makes agriculture more vulnerable to major threats like drought, insect pests and diseases, which are likely to become worse in many parts of the world as a result of climate change,” study co-author Luigi Guarino, a senior scientist at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Germany, said in a press release.

So, what can be done to reverse the trend?

Khoury suggests implementing strong government policies that encourage food diversity and nutrition. This could include making food stamps available at farmers markets, or increasing funding for research and development of alternative crops to diversify the global food supply, he said.

"We have learning techniques and tools and agriculture that we could apply to other crops to make them more competitive and productive, if we had the energy and we wanted to," Khoury said. "But right now the overwhelming majority private and public research funding in crops is going to soybean and maize and wheat and rice."

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture is a Colombia-based nonprofit research and development organization devoted to reducing hunger and poverty and improving human nutrition in the tropics by increasing the eco-efficiency of agriculture. It is a member of the CGIAR Consortium, a global research partnership working for a food secure future.

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