Do You Know Where Your Food Comes From? Probably Not.
by Evan DeMarco on Aug 09, 2022
Depending on where you live, you could be surrounded by dozens of farms and food producers—but that doesn’t mean that the food you see in stores and restaurants actually comes from the same area.
Food supplies have long been globalized. Over the past 50 years, the foods that make up our local diets have increasingly come from other countries. The avocados for your toast probably didn’t come from California, even though they grow well in that climate: they’re likely from Mexico or South America. Similarly, California is the number one almond grower, worldwide.
As you know from the COVID-19 pandemic, our supply chains—including food supply—are globally interdependent. When one part of the supply chain fails, we experience delays, shortages and even profiteering. (The 2020 toilet paper shortage is a great example.) That’s why experts worry increased globalization, along with climate change, could lead to food shortages “just as deadly” as a global pandemic.
The state of our nations
America is a leading agricultural producer, yet we still import food to support our national diet. According to NPR, “In the United States, diet depends on crops from the Mediterranean and West Asia, like wheat, barley, chickpea, almonds and others. Meanwhile, the U.S. farm economy is centered on soybeans from East Asia and maize from Mexico and Central America, as well as wheat and other crops from the Mediterranean. The U.S. is itself the origin of sunflowers, which countries from Argentina to China grow and consume.”
That doesn’t mean we don’t eat any local food. But we do depend on other countries for many of our popular food selections. In fact, 69 percent of our diets rely on global food supply. That’s up from 63 percent just 50 years ago.
Typically, countries who exist far from “centers of agricultural biodiversity,” like Northern Europe, parts of North America and Australia, rely most on foreign crops. Interestingly enough, this has a lot to do with immigration and food traditions. Countries who still primarily eat their national staples don’t import as much food. That’s because traditional dishes tend to rely on native plants and animals.
As more people move from country to country, they bring their favorite dishes and traditions along with them. Over time, there becomes more of a demand for “foreign” ingredients—food that doesn’t naturally grow in a specific location.
Colin Khoury, a plant scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, noted that the rapid pace of food globalization is a “bit of a surprise,” even though it shouldn’t be. Cultures tend to adapt new foods quickly: potatoes were grown in Europe a mere 16 years after they were found in the Andes. When you consider the state of global travel in the sixteenth century, that’s an incredible leap.
Should we worry?
Today’s technology makes it easy for us to travel around the world in a matter of hours or days. But as we’ve seen from the COVID-19 pandemic, that doesn’t mean that we should rely so heavily on global food sources.
Yes, a disruption in the supply chain could create food scarcity and higher food prices. The war in Ukraine has certainly drawn international attention to grain production and exports. However, some experts argue that it’s not as scary as we might think.
Fortune reports the problem isn’t so much a food shortage as a “highly inefficient” system. Access and affordability are affected, but availability of food itself isn’t threatened. “More than a third of the cereals we grow in the world are fed to animals. Raising animals for food takes up approximately 83 percent of the world’s farmland but accounts for only 18 percent of global calories.”
On the other hand, the UN reported that 49 million people are currently on the verge of starvation. And for every percent food prices increase, 10 million more people are “thrown into extreme poverty.”
Because global pandemics, climate change, supply chain disruptions and wars are here to stay, an overhaul is necessary. This map of where your food comes from highlights just how far our favorite staples have to travel to get to us. That not only contributes to pollution and climate change, but can lead to increased food prices and shortages whenever a problem arises.
Shop local, eat local, grow local
So, what can you do? As an individual consumer, we might not have the power to overhaul the food supply system on our own. However, growing your own backyard garden, shopping with local producers and eating at farm-to-table restaurants can make a difference.
If nothing else, having your own avocado tree will significantly cut down on the price of avocado toast.