Five surprising ways people’s diets have changed over the past 50 years

By Sara Kammlade and Colin K. Khoury

Newly released interactive infographics show how the so-called “globalized diet” has emerged. They unearth a number of surprises about the foods we eat across the world. Who’d have thought that Cameroonians officially consume the greatest variety of food crops, or that the global average diet looks a lot like what Cape Verdeans eat every day? These are just some of the nuggets you can explore in a new interactive website on the status and trends of the global diet.

This all started during a dive into global data about the plants humanity has eaten over the past 50 years. We were searching for evidence of the gradual disappearance of the variety of crops in people’s diets, on the hunt for evidence of the oft-repeated mantra that we have already lost 75% of our agricultural diversity. To our surprise, we didn’t find it.

What we did find was change, more change, and even more change. Massive change in the foods people eat. Crop winners and losers. And most of all, evidence of the increasing similarity of the food supplies of countries worldwide, thanks to economic development, urbanization, and other facets of globalization.

When we published our findings of increasing homogeneity in global food supplies, we hadn’t yet found a good way to make the large amount of country-level data readily visible to interested readers. This is why we are tremendously excited to announce the publication of our new website: The Changing Global Diet, which provides interactive explorations of changing food supplies for countries worldwide over the past five decades. Using Tableau visualization tools, you can compare countries, visualize trends over time, and explore how your country’s average diet compares with others’.

To give you a taster of what to look out for, here are five surprising ways that people’s diets have changed over the past 50 years:

 

1. Almost everybody eats a lot more food than their grandparents did. And it’s more diverse.

Okay, so the fact that almost everybody eats more food (on average more than 500 more calories per day) than did their ancestors wasn’t such a shocker. What did surprise us is that most countries’ food supplies have gotten a lot more diverse in the crops reported in global statistics. That means that countries reported consuming a longer list of plants, and also that each of these plants contributed more equally to the national food supply. We found that food supplies that were primarily based on single staples half a century ago, for instance rice in Southeast Asia, had diversified over time to include other staples such as wheat and potatoes. The same was true for maize-based diets in Latin America, sorghum- and millet-based diets in sub-Saharan Africa, and so on. Check out United Arab Emirates in the figure below, for example, which reported a 330% increase from 1961 to 2009 in the number of crops contributing to calories in the national food supply, diversifying well beyond its initial reported monotony of rice, wheat, sugar, and dates.

 

2. African, Asian, and small island countries have the world’s most diverse food supplies. Also the least.

Comparing the levels of diversity of the crops in countries’ current food supplies, we were surprised to find that both the most and the least diverse of these were largely nations in Africa and Asia, and on small islands. Looking both at the number of plants in national food supply data, and the relative contribution of each crop to the diet, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Grenada had the world’s most diverse food supplies with regard to calories. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Cambodia, meanwhile, had the least, with Afghanistan listing only 30 plants, and with 74% of these calories from wheat alone.

One big caveat, though – we were only able to assess crops reported in FAO national food supply data, which are currently limited to measuring 52 crop-specific foods. While these include the most important crops globally, they certainly don’t cover all the plants that people eat. Crops not explicitly listed are either thrown into general categories such as “cereals, other” or aren’t measured at all, especially if they are only produced on a small scale, for local markets or in home gardens. We need better statistics about what people eat (and grow) around the world, especially since studies have shown that many locally relevant crops are in decline.

 

3. Crop immigrants are the key to dietary diversity

 If there were crop “winners” over the past 50 years, among these would be the “mega-crops” (wheat, rice, maize, and sugar), which clearly defended their global importance. The biggest winners, though, were oils such as soybean, palm oil, sunflower and rapeseed, which progressed from regional significance to global dominance as contributors to calories and fat over five decades. As the winners came to take more precedence in food supplies around the world, traditional cereals such as sorghum, millets, and rye, and starchy roots such as cassava, sweet potato, and yam, were marginalized.

The diversification of countries’ food supplies over the past 50 years seems to have largely come about by introducing exotic plants that were originally domesticated in far flung regions of the world. Traditional rice-based food supplies in Southeast Asia diversified to include non-traditional staples such as wheat and potatoes. The same was true for maize-based diets in Latin America, and sorghum- and millet-based diets in sub-Saharan Africa. In related research on the origins of food crops, we found that about 69% of plants consumed around the world are “foreign” in the sense that they are originally from in distant regions of the planet. The trend of countries consuming crop “immigrants” significantly increased over the past five decades, especially in nations that developed new agricultural production industries based on these exotic plants. Brazil’s investment in the cultivation of soybean, a crop with origins in East Asia, increased the consumption of the crop in the Brazilian diet (and seems to have been a primary driver in increasing overall fat from plants in the diet), while marginalizing traditional foods such as groundnut (peanut).

 

4. The world’s average diet means eating like people do in Cape Verde, Colombia, and Peru

As countries’ food supplies became more diverse, particularly by increasing the consumption of exotic crops that originated in distant regions of the planet, the global food supply became much more similar. If we are what we eat, then it seems we are quickly becoming the same type of human being – modern people who eat a global cornucopia of plants.

Clicking through to modern times in the figure, the compositions of countries’ food supplies seem to be converging just above and to the left of the global average diet (center). This convergence is mostly toward European- and North American-type food supplies, with a few surprising additional countries in the mix.

African, Asian, and Pacific island countries remain the furthest distance from this convergence, and pull the current global average diet some distance away from the main cluster. In the current decade, the nations that most closely reflect the global average diet include Cape Verde, Colombia, and Peru. And while the figure clearly shows that there is no such thing, in reality, as a global average diet, the visualization through time bolsters the argument that the idea of a global average diet has more validity now than it did 50 years ago. More countries are closer to that center than ever before. See the bar chart to explore what the current global average diet is composed of.

 

5. Political unrest can lead to greater diversity in people’s diets, or less

Exploring the food supplies of countries such as Albania, Argentina, Cuba, Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, it’s pretty clear that periods of political unrest correlate with the disruption of people’s access to an abundant and diverse food supply. Nothing about that is surprising. But what happens in food supplies after the shock is.

In some cases, such as in Cuba’s Período Especial (early 1990s), the total quantities of food declined, and in fact still haven’t fully recovered. Yet, the diversity of crops within the Cuban food supply increased, for example with regard to fat, as the country consumed more soybean and palm oil in order to adjust to the declining availability of the sunflower oil that had previously been imported from the Soviet Union. In other cases, such as the fall of communism in Albania, disruption seems to have led to greater total quantities of food. At the same time, though, the diet became even more dominated by wheat.

These are just some curiosities in the data. We’d love to hear from you about other surprising patterns you find. Build your own infographics, and tell the story with the hashtag #changingglobaldiet

For a deeper exploration of change in the plants people have eaten around the world over the past 50 years, check out The Changing Global Diet website.

Read the published article on Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security in PNAS.

Look out for more big data driven analyses and visualizations through the newly established CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, co-led by CIAT.

The comprehensive study of changing diversity in national food supplies encompassed more than 50 crops and over 150 countries (accounting for 98 percent of the world’s population) during the period 1961-2009. A collaboration between CIAT, the Crop Trust, Wageningen University, and the University of British Columbia, the project was funded by the Crop Trust.

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