The typical Western diet—heavy on meat, starch, and sweets—is taking over the world. From Mexico to China, changes in what people eat are driving up rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Research published last month underscores another disturbing consequence of this energy-dense diet. If the cheeseburger and fries don’t kill you, the food system that sustains it one day could—by putting food supplies in peril.
The largest global survey of crop diversity and diets conducted to date, released last month, paints a bleak picture of global food supplies. Countries are 36 percent more reliant on the same staple crops than they were 50 years ago. Just 50 crop commodities provide more than 90 percent of calories, protein, and fat around the world.
To paraphrase folk singer Greg Brown, it’s as if “the whole world struggles to become one bland place.”
It’s not just that our food choices are dull. It’s a recipe for disaster.
The big three cereal crops are wheat, corn, and rice. Improvements over the past five decades in breeding and growing these three crops have helped feed the world. But annual yield improvements in these same crops are slowing and are expected to start declining after the 2030s because of climate change. And pests will have a field day (pardon the pun). A fungal pathogen of wheat, a stem rust dubbed Ug99, evolved to infect wheat varieties once resistant to the fungus. It has spread throughout Africa and into the Middle East and poses a serious threat to global wheat production.
With 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050, those are daunting vulnerabilities.
Staring at global crop data for the past year had an impact on Colin Khoury, an American researcher based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, who led the new analysis of global crops. He’s been thinking a lot about what he calls “radical eating.” It sounds hardcore, but it’s actually pretty simple—eat more of the world’s less popular foods.
“I didn’t realize until I saw the data that, in a world where soybean and palm oil have become dominant oil crops, it is a radical thing to drizzle olive oil on my pasta,” says Khoury. He still eats wheat and rice, but, when he can, he eats unique or local varieties, anything to promote diversity in the agricultural system.
At least 7,000 species of plants could be eaten by humans. The hard part is getting even a few of these edible species on a supermarket shelf, much less on a fork. Most of the so-called neglected, or orphan, crops are eaten primarily as traditional foods in small pockets of developing nations, if at all.
Quinoa was once a neglected crop. Until recently, this ancient grain was a staple of South American highland farmers. The recent quinoa craze was made possible by two notable characteristics: The gluten-free, high-protein grain is loaded with eight essential amino acids, and health food nuts were willing to pay top dollar for it. Since the 1980s, the world harvest of quinoa has almost doubled, and its market price jumped 600 percent between 2000 and 2008.
Researchers worldwide spend considerable effort looking for the “next quinoa.” It’s not as easy as you might think. First, people are picky eaters. Second, most edible species in the world’s complex, disconnected global food system have had little scientific attention. It’s often not clear what type of culinary qualities a plant possesses or could easily be bred to have.
“Everybody knows what to do with wheat because the crop has been grown, eaten, processed, and bred for thousands of years,” says Sean Mayes, director for biotechnology and crop genetics at the Crops for the Future Research Centre in Malaysia. Increasing wheat yields leads straightforwardly to more bread, pasta, cereal, and beer. That’s not often true for neglected crops.
There are two primary ways to help a neglected crop get a spot on a plate: Create demand or create supply.
Celebrity chefs may be the main ones able to spark demand—especially if the new ingredients boast superfood-like nutritional benefits. Kale sales soared 40 percent last year after celebrity chefs (and actress Gwyneth Paltrow) touted its health benefits. Kale chips even made it on Wolfgang Puck’s Oscar ceremony menu this year.
But it takes hundreds of farmers and researchers to create supply.
Frank Morton is one of those suppliers. He was growing quinoa before quinoa was cool. Back in the 1980s, he got some quinoa seed from the Abundant Life Seed Foundation in Port Townsend, Wash., one of the first places in the United States to sell quinoa seed being produced by a three-person Colorado operation devoted to bringing the grain from South America to North America. But Morton grew it as a green, not for grain. Working near Seattle at the time, Morton grew wild salad mixes for chefs sick of iceberg lettuce. Quinoa was a heat-tolerant green that, unlike lettuce, wouldn’t wilt on a warm summer day.
As he kept growing quinoa, he realized he was, inadvertently, selecting for traits that made it grow well in the Pacific Northwest. He ended up with six varieties that he sold through his Wild Garden Seeds catalog and website based out of an organic farm in Philomath, Ore., a small operation with only a handful of employees.
He watched as quinoa made its way onto health food shelves. Interest really started to grow once Peruvian restaurants started to open in his region about a decade ago, and other restaurants took notice of the cuisine. “Chefs are the celebrities of food,” he says, “and they always want something new, so that’s what I provide.”
In the past few years, requests for his quinoa seeds have poured in from researchers and entrepreneurs in Abu Dhabi, Morocco, Qatar, Slovenia, and Kazakhstan. Morton was dumbfounded that he was the go-to guy for quinoa seed. “I kept asking myself—how did our food system, which is supposed to innovate for nutrition and climate, get so freakin’ broken that nowhere was anybody else working on this?”
Quinoa was on a priority list of underutilized cereals published by Bioversity International in 2002, highlighting species that deserved more R&D. Quinoa, so far, is the best example of a crop that made it off the list and into the mainstream.
These species are called neglected for a reason. They get extremely little funding, especially compared to staple crops. Researchers have to be strategic, and that means thinking 20 years out. They most often focus their effort on crops that will help improve nutrition and supply in the most food-insecure regions.
Mayes, for example, works with partners in developing countries in Southeast Asia and Africa to find profitable ways for small-scale farmers to grow Bambara groundnut, a drought-tolerant, nutritious, chickpea-like nut.
Growing orphan crops that are adapted to drought or heat tolerance will be increasingly important for local food security as changing climates dictate where we can grow staple crops on a large scale. It’s one of the reasons Mayes may soon test Bambara groundnut in southern Europe’s marginal lands.
He and Morton agree that forgotten high-protein grains—like teff or amaranth—have the makings for the next big craze. Other researchers hope foodies get excited about finger millet, an ancient African grain that is high not only in protein but also in calcium and fiber.
What’s clear is that the world has reached a strange point in history. Consumer choices will affect not just individual nutrition, but possibly global food security. Without concerted efforts to develop and eat neglected crops, many may disappear altogether. “The only thing that has ever served humanity well in the face of uncertainty is diversity,” says Morton.
One thing Khoury has learned is that the food system is always in flux. “We’re already seeing changes on the ground that aren’t showing up in the data yet,” he says. There is a small but growing trend toward eating less meat and more vegetables, for instance, particularly in northern Europe.
African leafy vegetables (nightshades, but not the deadly variety) are now on Kenyan supermarket shelves, which wouldn’t have been likely 15 years ago given locals’ preference for exotic vegetables like cabbage or carrots, according to Khoury’s colleague Luigi Guarino, senior scientist at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Bonn, Germany. Efforts to promote nutritional benefits of local diversity helped increase demand.
Diversity used to be prized in agriculture. Thomas Jefferson boasted about the 330 varieties of 89 different vegetables grown at Monticello. He favored the rare and unusual such as orach, asparagus bean, and sprout kale, foods that are likely almost impossible to find in Virginia today.
To do my part, I looked for amaranth flour on my latest visit to the market. It was there amid several other ancestral grains from a local natural food mill; I’ll try them next. My daughter and I made zucchini chocolate chip cookies with amaranth flour this weekend. It added a rich, nutty flavor and a dash of adventure to our regular old recipe. It was an easy way to help ensure her future will include a diverse mix of foods to choose from.