Cultural Ramifications of the Globalization of Food
In 1957, a Japanese man named Momofuku Ando created his first batch of flash-fried ramen noodles, utilizing surplus flour given as aid by the United States after the conclusion of World War II. While Ando’s project originally began with only 18 kilograms of flour and a hand-me-down noodle machine, over 118 billion servings of Ando’s instant ramen are now consumed yearly, with major consumers spanning Australia, Asia, the United States, and the Middle East. The story of instant ramen is hardly unique; globalization within the past few centuries has allowed for cuisines and—by proxy—cultures to have unprecedented expanse across the world. Tomatoes, a current staple in Italian cuisine, originated in the Andes Mountains in South America and were brought to Italy through the Columbian Exchange during the mid-1500s. Later on, industrialization in the 19th century allowed complete dishes, such as spaghetti, to propagate throughout the world with enormous popularity. Today, even entire restaurant franchises can globalize, such as Starbucks with locations in 80 countries.
Such global interconnectedness is a double-edged sword; what nations gain in cultural unity and a diversified palate often comes at the price of interdependency, exploitation of less developed regions and natural resources, and increased demand for advanced infrastructure. The ongoing war in Ukraine has recently exposed some of these faults, with staggering food shortages resulting from Ukraine and Russia producing more than 18 percent of the world’s cereal grains and 72 percent of all sunflower seed oil. However, the Ukrainian conflict marks neither the first nor last time that food is significant in international politics. Given a looming climate crisis, increased awareness of ethical issues surrounding food production, and continued globalization, humanity is at a crucial turning point in its relationship with food. Within this generation, food could become a tool for war, or for peace.
Food Sustainability and the Global Serving Size
With the advent of social media and improvements in transportation and storage, food trends spread faster and wider than ever before, exacerbating unsustainability and overconsumption. Information about foods previously seen as unfamiliar or exotic is widely accessible online, encouraging the spread of new cuisines through virtual interest groups and social media. While trendy foods such as brightly colored dragon fruit drinks, acai bowls, and avocado toast seem innocuous at first glance, the demand for produce outside of where it is naturally grown is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; as of 2021, transportation of food constitutes approximately one fifth of all emissions associated with food production. When this pollution is combined with the increasing popularity of these foods (US consumption of avocados alone has increased three-fold since 2000), the impact of food globalization is clear. Currently, 50 percent of all habitable land is used for agriculture, and increased demand for certain foods could cause further straining of already saturated industries . Commercial monoculture, the large-scale cultivation of one specific crop, is also contributing to soil degradation, erosion, and the usage of artificial fertilizers and toxic pesticides. Ironically, humanity already produces enough food per year to feed 10 billion people (around 1.5 times the current global population), yet 697 million people suffer from high levels of food insecurity globally. This is largely due to a lack of refrigerating technology in certain regions, which makes it more difficult to prevent food spoilage, and waste issues in other countries where food is cheap and easy to replace.
The existing environmental concerns around food globalization are exacerbated when applied to foods that are difficult to cultivate. The spread and overharvesting of sturgeon caviar, a delicacy originating in the Caspian Sea and currently cultivated in 20 countries, has led to near complete decimation of the wild Atlantic Sturgeon population, with reports this year stating that the Delaware River breeding population has been reduced by 99 percent since the late 1800s. The loss of biodiversity as a result of extinction could potentially lead to “cascading effects” as species dependent on extinct animals become endangered themselves, causing high levels of economic damage to communities dependent on food production.
The World’s Demand for Exploitation
While the globalization of food has expanded the culinary palate of those who can afford it, structural shortcomings surrounding infrastructure and labor regulations have led to the exploitation of workers and entire communities in underdeveloped regions. Impoverished groups are not only more vulnerable to malnutrition, but are also used as a source of cheap labor to satisfy the ever-growing demand for trendy food elsewhere. In Brazil, the explosive and largely unregulated growth of the acai berry industry in the 2000s due to the fruit’s popularity with social media influencers has led to rampant child labor within the country and economic dependency on fruit yields, which has decreased the ability of even adult workers to negotiate better conditions. These violations often go unpunished by regulations such as fair trade certifications, which are lax enough in their inspections that issues can be hidden or not reported at all. Furthermore, approximately 40 percent of all agricultural employees in Brazil are waged workers who do not actually own the land they work on and live below the poverty line. These workers are also often prevented from unionizing and are more susceptible to forced labor and illnesses such as HIV.
Beyond the exploitation of workers, economic dependency on agricultural commodities can even spark violence within dependent regions. In Madagascar, the country with the 10th lowest global GDP per capita in 2022, reliance on the extremely lucrative and labor-intensive vanilla trade has led to the formation of informal armed bands that defend the fields where the crop is ground. An estimated 15 percent of the annual vanilla harvest is stolen every year, and between 2016 and 2018, 150 people were killed as a result of ongoing thievery and defense. Despite the dangers present, the highly volatile pricing found in the vanilla trade creates dependency among the people as one of the few ways farmers can break the cycle of poverty for future generations.
Food as a Vehicle for Peace
Though food insecurity can serve as a vessel for spreading violent conflict, the spread of cuisines possesses a unique ability to unite communities through the sharing and understanding of culture. On a smaller scale, studies have shown that smells associated with food are interconnected with the region of the brain that controls emotions, which can spark powerful reactions. Certain traits of food, such as crunchiness, have even been found to be universally appealing to humans regardless of cultural origin. By sampling and enjoying a variety of global foods, individuals gain a better understanding of and greater empathy towards different cultures. In the wake of former President Donald Trump’s drafting of a travel ban on residents from Syria and Iran in 2017, many restaurants protested by adding Syrian and Iranian dishes to their menus. Similarly, efforts to unite Israeli and Palestinian mothers through the sharing of family recipes were shown to aid the women in viewing each other “not as villains, but as humans just like themselves.” On a larger scale, the intermingling of cultures “underpins social cohesion, peace, and security.” With urban populations expected to increase to nearly 6 billion people by 2045, interactions between various cultures will increasingly occur, and cuisines can help facilitate positive relationships among cultural groups. While negative perceptions of different cultures can lead to conflict, cultural unity is crucial to creating lasting peace.
Constructing a Kinder Plate
Clearly, humanity cannot reverse the globalization of food, but it can minimize the damaging effects of overproduction and overconsumption while still retaining as many cultural benefits as possible. One popular argument is that the prevalence of multinational companies reduces the capabilities of individual communities to become self-sufficient, as food distribution is completely managed by outsiders with ulterior motives. Therefore, the only way to ensure food access for everyone is to place it in the hands of the people themselves. This goal coincides with the recent movement for consumers to purchase locally grown produce, which can be used in preparing cultural dishes. Since 1986, the number of community shared agriculture programs in the United States has increased from two to over 1000, and farm-to-school food programs have increased by 50 percent from 2006 to 2009 alone. Other suggestions seek to combat food insecurity through increasing individual access to credit, urban farming, and empowering women to become economic contributors to their families. In 2022, the World Bank provided US$350 million to Chad, Ghana, and Sierra Leone in order to increase access to agricultural advising and more efficient and climate-friendly technology. Similarly, a US$130 million loan was also provided to Tunisia to aid in wheat imports that were affected by the conflict in Ukraine.
Technological development may also serve as a catalyst for more sustainable global consumption. The development of plant-based meat alternatives in recent years has created the ability to feed more people using between 41 percent and 98 percent less land than typical meat farming. Within the past five years, developments in cellular agriculture (the cultivation of animal cells to produce lab-grown meat) have even enabled the cultivation of seafood without aquaculture, further opening the door to sustainable agriculture. Furthermore, farmland and biodiversity can be protected through regenerative agriculture, which restores depleted soils through crop rotation and composting.
While solutions to the inequities caused by the globalization of food are imperfect and not as globalized as the consumption of the foods they are meant to preserve, they are the first step in fostering justice in a world of unequal economic growth. With the continued rise of social media platforms, international cuisines, and diversity in urban areas, food will continue to be a powerful commodity in both spreading culture and exacerbating excess production and exploitation. The full ramifications of humanity’s actions remain to be seen, but the most significant task is to bring populations together through food rather than apart through conflict.