Copyright ©2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Travel to another country and you may be surprised to learn that more and more, you can find your favorite food, no matter where you are. There's pizza in China and sushi in Scotland.

And just as the menu looks very much the same across the globe, a new study shows that the world's farmers are growing an increasingly similar basket of crops.

NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: There's a slightly scary fact about our global food system. We humans depend on just a handful of crops for a lot of the food we eat. It's scary because any one of those crops could be hit by some disaster, like disease.

COLIN KHOURY: And we wanted to know, really, how many crops feed the world and what's happening with them.

CHARLES: That's Colin Khoury, a researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia. Khoury and some other scientists in Europe and the U.S. went through 50 years of data collected by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.

They published their findings this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Khoury says the numbers revealed two big trends. Here's the first.

KHOURY: Hey, actually, there's places where diets are diversifying, where they're adding crops.

CHARLES: Think of countries in Asia like China, where people traditionally ate lots of rice. These days, in those countries, rice is a declining portion of the average person's diet. In the U.S. meanwhile, people are eating more mangoes. All over the world, in fact, people are eating a bigger variety of foods.

But here's the second discovery. Those bigger menus of food also are getting more and more similar to each other, from Nanjing to Nairobi. Everybody is relying more and more heavily on a few dozen global mega-foods.

Many of those foods are part of what you'd call a standard Western diet, Khoury says - wheat, potatoes, dairy. But others come from the tropics, like palm oil.

KHOURY: It's grown in large scale in Malaysia and Indonesia and it's become a global commodity in diets, essentially everywhere.

CHARLES: Smaller crops are getting pushed aside. Sorghum and millet, for instance, are grown quite widely around the world but they're losing out to corn and soybeans. Other small crops that you only find in certain areas could disappear altogether.

KHOURY: Like in the Andes, aside from the potato, most of the rest of the traditional roots and tubers, crops like oca and maca are declining in the amount of production and the amount of consumption

CHARLES: Colin Khoury says a lot of things are driving this trend - international trade, global restaurant chains.

KHOURY: People moving to the cities, having more access to supermarkets, to fast food; having less time to cook and not having gardens.

CHARLES: Khoury says the bottom line is what people feared is true. We are more and more dependent on just a few dozen big crops. That trend probably can't be stopped, he says. But governments and international organizations can help to safeguard diversity in our food sources. They can preserve the many different genetic varieties of mega-crops and promote minor crops.

Rachel Laudan, a historian at the University of Texas and author of the book "Cuisine and Empire," says what drives the rise and fall of crops though, is demand for them after they've been transformed into something mouth-watering.

RACHEL LAUDAN: They're only interesting once they've been processed in some way.

CHARLES: Think of all the things people do with wheat.

LAUDAN: You can get bread, flatbread. You can get porridge. You can get cake, pie. You can get beer.

CHARLES: That's turned wheat into a mega-crop. Root and tubers, by contrast, were hard to store, or transport or process into interesting foods. We can turn some of these crops into attractive food, she says, if there's enough interest. And there now may be. Consumers in the U.S. and Europe are snapping up little-known tropical fruits and so-called, ancient grains. Maybe some of those minor crops can now find their spot on the global menu.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.