12 January - 20 June 2016

We're all eating the same - and that's risky

12 Mar 14

A study of global food supplies has highlighted a narrowing of crop diversity in the foodstuffs making up the majority of the world's diet. Over the last 50 years, global diet has become ever more rich in a small number of oil crops, as regional staples have decreased in significance.

It is a principle seen across many biological systems that diversity is a good thing, and too much homogeneity to be avoided. Just as species diversity aids resilience and stability of ecosystems, so we risk food security if the world relies too much on too few crops. As we depend more and more on a smaller range of foodstuffs, the potential impact of a particular crop supply failing becomes devastating.

An interesting aspect of this trend - that has perhaps contributed to its flying somewhat under the radar - is that locally, in most or all countries and regions, diversity in food crops has increased. The problem is that the range and variety of food supplies available at a national level has become ever more similar in composition on an international level. There is a heightened and growing interdependence between countries regarding food supply, as certain energy-dense crops (wheat, maize and soybean among them) predominate globally more and more.

As well as the impact on food security, the study authors also touch on the rise in non-communicable diseases - such as adult-onset diabetes and heart diseases - and the harmful reduction in diversity of human oral and gut microbiota, both due in part to wider availability of a limited range of energy-dense foods. They also discuss possible measures to safeguard against all these negative effects, from paying more attention to food production stability and cultivating varieties of staple crops with diverse genetic backgrounds, to promoting alternative crops, to taking measures to alter human consumption patterns with a focus on maintaining health. [Eurekalert], [FoodNavigator]

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