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When it comes to eating through a crisis, it turns out humans are remarkably similar.
Since lockdown measures moved from Asia to the rest of the world last month, the food trends seen in the U.S.—stockpiling, a return to comfort foods, even a sudden obsession with baking bread—have in fact appeared worldwide, shifting global supply chains in the process, according to the early reports on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service.
While the habits picked up during lockdowns may not last after they’re lifted—after all, everyone has a restaurant dish they miss, and maybe you’re already sick of beans—the harmonized response is actually the continuation of a decades-long, global trend. When it comes to food, more than ever, we’re all eating from the same menu.
The great flour and yeast run
As lockdowns have been announced globally, people have fallen into similar patterns, according to early anecdotal reports. (It’s too early for much conclusive data.) From Colombia to Bulgaria, people have stockpiled dried and canned beans, grains and potatoes—and started baking bread, producing runs on yeast and flour the world over, according to country-specific reports from the USDA.
Runs on flour and other staples have prompted national governments from Kazakhstan to Cambodia to Algeria to restrict or ban exports of locally produced basics. Meanwhile, logistical delays at some ports and borders, paired with currency fluctuations and job losses, have in many places made imported food more unaffordable—and turned buyers back to basic foods, grown locally, according to USDA reports. And for those who can afford it, online grocery shopping and delivery is now booming worldwide.
With tourism grinding to a halt and restaurants closed, demand for meat—especially more premium cuts—is also down in many parts of the world. In Japan, that means plunging demand for marbled wagyu beef, while in Spain, that’s hitting sales of the country’s famous Iberico ham—prompting shortages of storage space and pleas for government help. In Asia, where countries have been grappling with lockdowns and closures since January, the evaporation of tourism and special-nights-out has produced a demand fall to rival oil prices; with people less inclined to deep-fry at home, the need for vegetable oil has dropped.
Meanwhile, people appear to be turning to foods that are comforting to staunch their anxiety, and fill the time. In Italy, that means returning to cooking pizzas from scratch. In the U.S., it seems to mean stocking up on ready meals and guilty pleasure snacks—the kinds of processed food that, until the coronavirus crisis, were struggling to hold sway against the rising popularity of healthy eating. Either way, carbs are popular.
“Some people will find comfort in eating,” says Fatima Hachem, the senior nutrition officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. “We are assuming this is a behavior people have in times of crises.”
A monotonous menu
It’s simply too early to see what the long term affects on food supply chains and diets will be, says Hachem. The FAO does not yet have data on how diets are changing, although she notes that they, too, know anecdotally that cans of beans—in general, legumes—are now a major food group around the globe.
(That’s not a bad thing, notes Hachem: getting unprocessed food out of cans is a perfectly valid way to eat, especially now—and the FAO thinks we should all be getting more of our protein from beans, anyways.)
But it shouldn’t be so surprising that, in a time of crisis, we all seem to be eating more or less the same things.
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, “diets around the world were going into a harmonized diet,” says Hachem. “And diversity was at risk. We’re relying on mostly a few types of staples, meat, poultry, and even fruits and vegetables are becoming more similar.”
There are many reasons for this, she points out. Globalization has merged food cultures, as have urbanization and changing tastes among young people. The diversity of the labor force is a factor too. Women have increasingly entered the workforce, globally, and they now bear the double brunt of labor inside and outside the home, putting more time pressure on cooking and preparing food.
But our diets have also become more monotonous due to declining biodiversity in our food systems, the byproduct of increasingly industrialized agriculture, rapid urbanization and our love affair with monocultures.
Of the 6,000 plant species that have been cultivated by humans, just nine of them account for 66% of cultivated crops, according to the FAO’s 2019 report from the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Of the 7,774 local breeds of livestock worldwide, 26% are in danger of becoming extinct.
That poses dangers for the robustness of the environment, the safety of our food supply chain, and even our potential exposure to pandemics, due to diseases that jump from animals to humans. It also makes our food less nutritious, less interesting—and less unique.
The COVID-19 crisis could offer a chance to reassess the way we eat—to revamp the diversity of our diets and our food systems, revisiting local and forgotten foods, particularly when it comes to fruits and vegetables.
It would make us healthier—and less prone to infection, Hachem points out.
But she’s not optimistic that this crisis will be the one that forces us to permanently shift how we eat. After all, “comfort food” doesn’t imply change.
“Changing diets will take a very long time, and this is a very slow process,” she says. “Once we are out of lockdown, I think people will go back to their old habits.”
Right now, she says, “we are just coping.”
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