International food supply patterns play an important role in health and environmental sustainability. Yet to date, little research has investigated what extent global food supply has changed over time.
“In history class, teachers do not talk much about food,” noted Roseline Remans, who works with the Alliance of Biodiversity International, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and CGIAR.
“And while there are fascinating books that tell the history of individual food items, it has been difficult to grasp to what extent food supply, as a whole, changes when societies and ecosystems go through major transitions.”
Now, a team of researchers led by the University of Kent’s James Betham, is using a data-driven approach to do just that. The researchers have developed an index to demonstrate how global food supply has changed over a period of 50 years.
171 countries, 50 years, 18 food groups
Betham’s team analysed food balance data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) database for 171 countries, from 1961 to 2013. Food balance data describes the availability of different foods for human consumption.
Specifically, the researchers used data from 18 food groups: cereals, starchy roots, sugar and sweeteners, pulses, treenuts, oilcrops, vegetable oils, vegetables, fruits, stimulants, spices, meat, offal, animal fats, eggs, milk, fish and seafood, and aquatic products.
According to their findings, the largest changes in food supply were observed in South Korea, China and Taiwan. Over the past five decades, these countries have increased consumption of animal source foods (such as meat and eggs), sugar, vegetables, seafood, and oilcrops.
In the Western world, however, many countries have reduced their intake of animal source foods and sugar. This was particularly prevalent in high-income English-speaking countries, the researchers noted, such as the UK, Australia, and north America.
Indeed, vegetable-based diets were found to have increased in many countries around the world.
According to the index, the sub-Saharan Africa region – which lacks a diverse food supply – showed the least change.
Interpreting the data
The researchers suggest that a reduction in animal source food and sugar in Western countries, accompanied by an increase in vegetable availability, could indicate a possible trend towards more balanced and healthier foods.
However, the opposite may be true in South Korea, China and Taiwan. Here, Betham’s team noted that the increase in animal-sourced product and sugar availability occurred at the same time as a ‘dramatic rise’ in obesity.
Further, this change in food supply could be having a ‘substantial negative’ effect on the environment, they noted.
'There are clear shifts in global food supply, and these trends may be responsible for strong improvements in nutrition in some parts of the world,” said Bentham.
“However, obesity remains a long-term concern, and we hope that our research will open doors to analysis of the health impacts of global diet patterns. Equally, we must also consider carefully the environmental impacts of these trends.”
Commenting on the research, the Alliance of Biodiversity International’s Remans said that rapid economic growth, urbanisation, industrialisation and a supermarket revolution in certain Asian countries have been reflected by increases in the supply of meat and sugar, seafood and oilcrops, and vegetables.
“While it is not new that these particular food groups increase in supply as societies grow richer, it is remarkable that, with fruits and starchy roots, they account for nearly 90% of variation in food supply across countries, despite only providing around 30% of our calories.”
According to Imperial College London’s Majid Ezzati, who worked alongside Betham on the study, increased diversity in food supply can be linked to new technologies. Could this offer an opportunity for change?
“Advances in science and technology, together with growing incomes, have allowed many nations to have access to a diversity of foods,” he said.
“We must harness these advances and set in place policies that provide healthier foods for people everywhere, especially those who can currently least afford them.”
‘Multidimensional characterization of global food supply from 1961 to 2013
Published: 13 January 2020
Authors: James Bentham, Gitanjali M Singh, Goodarz Danaei, Rosemary Green, John K Lin, Gretchen A Stevens, Farshad Farzadfar, James E Bennett, Mariachiara Di Cesare, Alan D Dngour, and Majid Ezzati.