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Diversity, waste, and travel: what globalisation means for food

For many people, being at home during lockdown means that there is an abundance of time to spend preparing, eating, and thinking about food. Combined with the population’s increased dependence on home cooking due to the closure of restaurants, it seems there is no better time to consider where the products we label as essential originate from, the extent to which our diets have become international and the effects of this.

Food trade has played a significant role in the history of globalisation, as it has allowed for cultural exchange for thousands of years. From the transporting of spices along the Silk Road, to the potatoes being imported from the Andes to Ireland in 1589 by Sir Walter Raleigh, one could argue that humanity has been sharing and adapting to new crops for a very long time ­– after all, it took only 16 years for the potato to become widely farmed throughout Europe. But even if our swift adoption of and fascination for foreign crops dates back to Charles II being presented with a pineapple, the last century has undeniably ushered in a new age of consumption.

Where produce from far-off lands may once have radiated mystique, in today’s world, over two thirds of the crops that underpin national diets are originally grown somewhere else. This is a trend that has accelerated dramatically over the last 50 years: whether it’s sushi you’re searching for in Addis Ababa or McDonald’s in Honolulu, globalisation has made a wide range of cuisines more accessible than ever, while also aiding multinational fast food companies to exploit our modern need for convenience. It has not only transformed the produce that we eat and where it is grown, but also redefined our tastes internationally – interactions between different cultures as a result of immigration have led to an expectation of an Indian take-away in most British towns, and culinary phenomena such as Korean-Mexican fusion in Los Angeles and Japanese-Brazilian hybrid restaurants in London. Moreover, the popularity of cooking shows such as MasterChef, where contestants are encouraged to explore different cuisines, reflects how our society is more open to experimentation than ever before. Though this is of less relevance to communities that are dependent on livestock and backyard farming, urbanisation and immigration have created melting pots of cuisine and culture across the globe, which form perfect subjects for an inquiry into globalised diets.

Aside from being a vehicle for cultural metamorphosis, globalisation within the food industry has had major environmental effects, often inextricably bound to the politics of agriculture and trade, which are exacerbated by the ever-growing demand for food in an ever-growing population. The demand for meat across the globe has never been higher, with countries such as Australia and the US consuming an average of over 300 grams per person, per day, and the largest increase has been for pork and chicken in Asia. This has led to expansion of pig meat farming that has raised currently pertinent concerns about public health and viruses, especially if farming is not regulated effectively.

Alongside the growth in demand for meat, the last decade has proven that wheat, soya beans and palm oil are ‘megacrops’: superpowers within agriculture with the potential to overhaul the productivity and value of land. In Brazil’s Matopiba (the savannah region formed by several states which is the country’s agricultural frontier) 14,000 sq km of native vegetation were cleared for soya cultivation from 2016-17 in order to satisfy the Chinese demand for soya beans – only to be left uncultivated by the U.S. because of the trade war between Beijing and Washington. The illegal deforestation and environmental endangerment that has resulted from a huge international demand for soya as well as palm oil is not dissimilar to what Mexico is experiencing from the avocado boom throughout the late 2010s, when the security of domestic produce was undermined by unparalleled Western demand for the incredibly Instagrammable toast-topper.

Clearly, the globalisation of our diets has had positive and negative effects – whilst many of us have access to a balanced diet that our ancestors could never have dreamt of and can taste delicious indigenous and fusion foods from around the world, there is an environmental cost. Having said this, it has also led to the increased accessibility and popularisation of veganism through new meat-free alternatives and the wide sharing of information on social media. A vegan diet can drastically reduce one’s carbon footprint, but it is worth considering that most diets within a globally interdependent food supply chain quickly accumulate ‘food miles’,which is one factor used to measure the environmental impact of getting food from the farm to your fork.

Today, due to our growing consciousness of the impact that demand can have on an environment and its inhabitants, as well as the pandemic having caused a large portion of our food supply chain to grind to a halt, food security seems to be higher on the agenda and more in the spotlight than ever. The rush to stockpile essential products has also provoked analysis of what we consider basic necessities, and it has become clear that although thousands of different foods are imported and exported every year, our global diet is starting to converge due to our dependence on a handful of megacrops, as well as the explosion of fast food culture in the last 50 years. Monocrop plantations of these megacrops such as corn, wheat and soya beans are more vulnerable to viruses and pests than plantations with biodiversity. However, in a world where cities have huge demand for key products and we are growing our own produce less, it may seem like there is no alternative to monocropping on a large scale.

Although the pandemic has propelled us into uncertain times, it can be comforting to satisfy our culinary curiosity by means of new recipes or the variety of restaurants still delivering food. Even when confined to our homes, globalisation has made it easier than ever to travel the world from our plates.

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