Ultra-processed foods, ready-to-eat, or precooked foods are becoming increasingly popular. These products, which often assemble different food ingredients and ‘cosmetic’ additives through industrial processes, are now taking over most diets around the world, and this is having a negative impact on the diversity of plant species while also affecting human and planetary health.
A challenging food system
Fernanda Helena Marrocos Leite, a Brazilian researcher at the University of Sao Paulo, and a group of colleagues wanted to shed light on the contribution of global diets to agrobiodiversity loss and to highlight that the absence of such discussions in global food system summits, climate change conferences, and biodiversity conventions.
“An increasingly prominent ‘globalized diet’, characterized by an abundance of branded ultra-processed food products made on an industrial scale, comes at the expense of the cultivation, manufacture, and consumption of traditional foods, cuisines, and diets, comprising fresh and minimally processed foods,” Marrocos Leite told ZME Science.
Nowadays, supermarket shelves are often packed with highly advertised ultra-processed products that are made from ingredients derived from a handful of high-yielding crops, the researchers argued. This includes sweetened or salty snacks, soft drinks, instant noodles, biscuits, pre-prepared pizza, pasta dishes, confectionary, and many others.
These products already account for more than half of the energy intake in the USA and the UK and over a third in Australia. Their consumption is growing, especially in upper-middle-income and lower-middle-income countries. Consequently, dietary patterns are becoming more processed and less diverse, which in turn affects agrobiodiversity.
This is, according to the UN Agriculture and Food agency, the variety and variability of animals, plants, and microorganisms used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture – crucial to having resilient and sustainable food systems. Global agrobiodiversity is declining fast, especially the genetic diversity of plants used for human consumption.
Over 7,000 edible plant species have been identified and used for human food since the start of human agriculture over 12,000 years ago. However, fewer than 200 species still had significant production in 2014, with just nine crops accounting for more than 66% by weight of all crop production, the researchers wrote. We have access to a lot of potential foods, but we don’t really use them — a true lack of food diversity. But the problem runs even deeper.
A total of 90% of humanity’s energy intake comes from just 15 crop plants, and more than four billion people rely on just three of them: rice, wheat, and maize. In Brazil, for example, an ongoing study of ultra-processed food sold in supermarkets found the main ingredients were sugar cane, milk, wheat, corn, and soy.
“The homogeneity of agricultural landscapes linked with the intensive use of cheap standardized ingredients is negatively affecting cultivation and consumption of long-established plant food sources, including rich varieties of grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods,” Marrocos Leite told ZME Science.
An overlooked problem
In addition to an over-reliance on a small number of plant species, a globalized diet based on ultra-processed foods also means a larger use of land water, energy, and fertilizers, the researchers said. This is causing overall environmental degradation from greenhouse gas emissions and packaging waste.
Nevertheless, the problems remain largely ignored at global food system summits and major environmental and public health events, the researchers caution. For example, in the draft of the UN biodiversity conference, which seeks a new global biodiversity agreement, ultra-processed foods aren’t mentioned and there’s also no reference to the impact of industrial food systems on biodiversity loss.
This is why the researchers are calling for a reshape of the globalized food system. Policymakers have to recognize the effects of ultra-processed foods on both human and planetary health, while researchers and civil society organizations should be asking national governments to promote the production and consumption of a varied diet.
For instance, national dietary guidelines should be revised to emphasize a preference for a variety of fresh, locally produced minimally processed foods and avoidance of ultra-processed foods, Marrocos Leite told ZME Science. This has already been implemented in Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Israel and Peru and could be done more extensively.
The researchers also suggested creating innovative methods, metrics, and policy actions to move towards more sustainable and resilient food systems. The Ten Years for Agroecology (TYFA), a project that explores the possibility of generalizing agroecology at the European level, could be a starting point, for example.
The commentary was published in the journal BMJ Global Health.