A food trend started around 60 years ago and hardly anyone noticed, apart from food producers.
In 1961, most of the daily calories in the United States – 504 calories – came from wheat, wheat-related products, and sugar (just over 450 calories). People in China obtained most of their calories from rice, around 450 calories.
Wheat accounted for less than 200 calories a day for the Chinese. People in China hardly ate any sugar then, and they also rarely ate beef, or other animal proteins. Other items commonly consumed in the United States include milk, soybean oil, animal fats, beef, butter, corn, sweeteners, and alcoholic beverages, but these are seldom eaten regularly in China.
The data continues to 2013, when diets in the United States and China have significant overlaps, with both countries eating more of the same groups of foods, such as wheat, soybean oil, milk, sugar, poultry, pork, beef, corn, alcoholic beverages, potatoes, animal fats, eggs, rapeseed/mustard oils, apples, and other fruits. The major divergences are that the Chinese were still eating more rice and various vegetables than the United States.
The above data is a reflection of the general increase in wealth in China, allowing more food and dietary choices to become available.
Also, there is always the curiosity factor in Western-style diets in the Far East, and such foods are also continually marketed to consumers. In Malaysia, I was bemused to see a packed pizza house in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown when there were so many good Chinese restaurants all around it.
However, this article is not a criticism of the availability of choice, but a comment about the homogeneity of foodstuffs now supplied around the world. Because this “choice” comes at a price, and it is a price a world undergoing significant climate change may not be able to afford for long.
The reason is because the production of food is increasingly reliant on monocultures (single species crops) of identical high-yield varieties of staple crops such as wheat, corn, and rice.
Throughout the planet’s history, life on Earth depended on the ability to adapt to changes in environmental conditions. Evidence of this is the extensive varieties and sub-species of plants, which are based on a diversity of genes.
So if some parts of the world are cold, the species more adapted for colder climes will thrive and other strains will fade away. Similarly, if a region is warmer, then the species most adapted to heat will survive better.
The problem is much of the world’s crops are now effectively only a single species. These monocultures are extremely high-yield, and most are derived from specialised hybrids and, sometimes, genetic engineering.
The problem lies exactly in their specialised genes, for this means that they thrive only in the conditions for which they have been bred. They have little ability to adapt to changing environments, such as higher temperatures, dryer conditions, wetter weather, or new diseases/pests. Often, these hybrids also achieve their optimal yield only with accompanying specialised fertilisers and pesticides.
Let’s start with a history of maize, more commonly known these days as corn. The original maize plant came from South-West Mexico and its ability to adapt and evolve to tolerate different climates and altitudes made it, over time, an important crop which is now the staple food for 1.2 billion people in Latin America and Africa.
The spread of maize from its origins is a classic study in natural adaptability. The original farmers took maize seeds with them to different parts of the world where they were crossed with other wild and cultivated varieties. From the resulting crops, the farmers retained the seeds of the most bountiful plants to replant for the following year’s crop.
These locally adapted varieties are called landraces (or sometimes heirlooms), and by the beginning of the 20th century, there were thousands of distinct maize landraces stretching across North America, South America, Africa and Europe, with each landrace adapted to the local ecosystem.
Each landrace has its own quirks, and not necessarily the same yields or even the same taste, but they suited their own environments well and provided nutrition for their farmers.
In the 1920s, scientists found they could self-pollinate landraces to create genetically identical inbred plants where certain traits are promoted, such as height or yield. Once the required characteristics were developed, these inbred plants were crossed with other inbred plants to create hybrids.
Over time, the seeds from these hybrids were adopted by more and more farmers and agricultural industries simply because the yields are so economically attractive. And this would be fine if current climate conditions remain stable and no disease or pests adapt to these hybrids. People also grew accustomed to the taste of hybrids and after some time, they would not even know the taste of the original maize – or corn, as it’s now renamed – seeds. Such hybrids also tend to favour crop yield over nutrition, and to combat this, many countries also fortify foods made with such crops with the nutrients that have been lost.
Some agricultural scientists went even further by splicing in genes from other organisms to confer, for example, protections against pests to ensure yields are maximised. This process is known as genetic modification, and genetically-modified (GM) crops get really interesting when genetic material from another unrelated species is introduced into plants.
In the early 1990s, a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis was introduced into GM corn. These bacteria produce a natural pesticide called Bt-toxin which causes the stomachs of insect pests to turn to mush or sometimes even explode. The aggressive toxicity of Bt-toxin is not surprising because Bacillus thuringiensis comes from the same family as Bacillus anthracis, ie the deadly anthrax bacterium. Before GM corn got into the picture, Bt-toxin had been the world’s largest-used biological pesticide.
With GM corn, the strategy was to insert a gene from bacillus thuringiensis that would cause the corn to produce its own Bt-toxin – this was done with the express intention of making the corn itself kill any bugs that may want to eat it. This GM corn is known as Bt corn.
There are now two strains of Bt corn called MON810 and MON863 – and much of the US corn harvest is now based on Bt corn. Weight for weight, Bt corn produces thousands of times more Bt-toxin than the original Bacillus thuringiensis.
Regardless of the interesting history of GM corn, the reality is that such modern hybrids dominate corn production. It is not only corn which has lost its diversity. Many other crops, such as wheat, coffee, bananas, and even apples, have also lost much of their biodiversity. Despite the bountiful shelves of fruits in the shops, a careful look will reveal only a few varieties of each type of fruit.
In 1970 in Asia, 1.56 million square kilometres of land were planted with local crop varieties with only 200,000sq km growing modern hybrids. By 2014, 2.18 million sq km were planted with hybrids and only 190,000sq km were growing their traditional varieties. The loss of so much local crop varieties means the world has lost huge pools of genetic adaptability to droughts, heat, diseases/pests and wet weather.
There are already warning signs of problems caused by monocultures.
Last year saw the price of wheat almost double due to heatwaves and floods in various parts of the world. Just lately, in April 2022, shops in France are restricting the purchase of pasta to only two packs per person. This is mostly due to Russia’s unjust war on Ukraine, but nevertheless the scarcity is due to human actions.
Climate change is also due to human activity and the resulting higher temperatures and erratic rainfall is likely to render 50% of the Arabica coffee plantations unviable by 2050. Vanilla is native to Mexico and Central America, and all eight of the original wild species there are already on the endangered species list.
Almost all the commercially grown bananas in the West are the Cavendish hybrid, and this species is particularly susceptible to a fungus called Panama 4, which has spread all around the world, boosted by global warming and higher rainfall. It may only be a matter of time before bananas disappear from shops in the West.
As the dietary patterns of the world overlap more and more, the strategy for meeting the growing demand for vast amounts of the same foodstuffs has traditionally been the extensive use – and perhaps, overuse – of monocultures of modern hybrids.
As mentioned, this would be fine if the current planetary climatic conditions do not change, and if no diseases/pests adapt to target these monocultures. However, the current global warming trend is certain to have negative impacts on our food supply. One can only hope that agricultural scientists can reintroduce more genetic diversity into our food production systems in time to meet the climate crisis. And importantly, we can all help now by reducing our carbon footprint on the planet.