Most of the Food We Eat Crosses a Border—Here’s Why That’s OK

Last Update: March 11, 2020

For all the hoopla around eating locally, humanity isn’t doing a very good job at it. And that may not be such a bad thing. A new interactive report published by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (ICTA) researched the origins of the foods we have on our tables—almost 70 percent of which crosses at least one national border before it reaches the dinner table.

The study analyzed data on countries of origin (the authors call them “regions of diversity”) for a variety of foods produced and consumed around the world. Globalization has rapidly increased the amount of our food that is produced in other countries, as well as the amount of native crops spreading from region to region.

“The results provide a novel perspective on the ongoing globalization of food systems worldwide, and bolster evidence for the importance of international collaboration on genetic resource conservation and exchange,” the authors point out in the study. “The increasing use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for considering the underlying genetic diversity of important food plants as a global public good.”

Not surprisingly, in North America, corn is the top-exported crop with the highest production value (by far!). Because of the relatively low diversity of major crops, the United States and Canada also are near tops in the world for food imported for consumption, while countries with more biodiversity within their food supply rely less heavily on imports from abroad.

This reality—that the United States is less biodiverse and therefore more dependent on foreign crops—is important to consider in light of the local foods movement. While supporting our local producers is vital, some imported foods are crucial to a well-rounded, nutritious diet. How else would we be able to consume delicious bananas or hearty pulses like chickpeas and lentils?

What’s more, an all-local diet here in America wouldn’t look as healthy as you might think. Instead of the colorful medley of fresh fruits and crisp vegetables, a steady diet of corn would be on the menu most meals if every American were to take up an all-local diet.

A troubling—though not surprising—finding in the ICTA report was how much more fatty foods are crossing borders now than they were 50 years ago (an increase from 63.8 to 75.5 percent).

For more information about where your food comes from, check out the cool interactive graphics that the ICTA produced to accompany the study.

Photo credit: CEBImagery via Flickr 

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Educational, Food, News

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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