A new study reveals the full extent of globalization in our food supply. More than two-thirds of the crops that underpin national diets originally came from somewhere else — often far away.
Previous work by the same authors had shown that national diets have adopted new crops and become more and more globally alike in recent decades. The new study shows that those crops are mainly foreign.
The idea that crop plants have centers of origin, where they were originally domesticated, goes back to the 1920s and the great Russian plant explorer Nikolai Vavilov. He reasoned that the region where a crop had been domesticated would be marked by the greatest diversity of that crop, because farmers there would have been selecting different types for the longest time. Diversity, along with the presence of that crop's wild relatives, marked the center of origin.
The Fertile Crescent, with its profusion of wild grasses related to wheat and barley, is the primary center of diversity for those cereals. Thai chilies come originally from Central America and tropical South America, while Italian tomatoes come from the Andes.
Khoury and his colleagues extended Vavilov's methods to look for the origins of 151 different crops across 23 geographical regions. They then examined national statistics for diet and food production in 177 countries, covering 98.5 percent of the world's population.
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