In discussions about food, environment and health, a resource perspective is often lacking. For more than half of the global population what ends up on their plate is mostly a function of their economic and energetic circumstances. If one wants to change what people eat it is necessary to understand the realities of the global food system. Without that, all well-intended advice for a diet better for health or for the environment are falling on barren rock instead of in fertile ground.
The WHO says that 3.9 million deaths could be avoided if people ate more fruit and vegetables. The recent report of the EAT Lancet Commission recommends that people should eat at least 500 gram fruit and vegetables per day. Many countries have similar recommendations of a certain quantity in weight or in number of servings or portions. But in almost no country are people doing what they are told. In Sweden only 1 percent of the men in rural Arjeplog eat their half a kilo per day while 19 percent of the women in wealthy, urban Täby does it. Are people stupid or what?
In order to understand fruit and vegetables consumption it is essential to realize some pertinent facts. Fruits and vegetables are mostly luxury plants in comparison with grains, pulses, root crops. Very few traditional farming systems have had a high share of fruits and vegetables unless you include starchy crops like plantains, potatoes, cassava or yams in your definition. The reason for it is that they are fairly demanding to grow and their content of the most essential food components, energy and protein, is low. Even today, fruits and vegetables are expensive to buy.
Almost half of the world’s population live on less than $5.50 per day. Five dollars give you more in a poor country than in a rich one, but when it comes to vegetables is my experience that they are not particularly cheap in poor countries. On the contrary, I am normally envious of the prices local farmers get for their vegetables compared to what I get in Sweden. There are certainly some exceptions of coarse local vegetables such as leaves of cassava or sweet potatoes, they also happen to be by-products of the cultivation of a starchy staple foods. In some places mangoes or bananas can be very cheap.
In India, despite a high number of vegetarians, the average consumption of fruit and vegs is around 150 gram per person a day. Even in a country like Thailand which is a major producer – and exporter – of fruit and vegetables only women with high incomes eat according to the public recommendations.
Also in the rich countries there is a direct relation between income and consumption of vegetables. During the economic recession following the financial crisis 2008/2009 vegetable consumption shrank with one third among the poorest tenth of the British population. And in the USA, there is direct relation between low consumption of vegetables and incomes up to four times above the poverty line. In a comparison of a healthy and an unhealthy food basket in the UK, the healthy food was around 30% more expensive. In addition, the cost was much higher and the availability of fruit and vegs much lower in rural areas than in cities.
In the dominating, mostly simplistic, food, health and environment narrative we are told that people should eat less meat and more vegetables. But such calls miss that the consumption of meat and vegetables are not opposites but complementary. Normally, meat consumption and vegetable consumption increases parallel to wealth. Prajal Pradhan, Dominik E. Reusser och Juergen P. Kroppi classifies food consumption patterns in the article Embodied Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Diets in PLOS. They show, convincingly, that most people in poor countries eat little fruit and vegetables as well as little meat (there are some exception, such as pastoralist). The food of poor people is dominated by a few starchy staple crops because they do give most value for money or most food per hour worked if you grow your own food.
When incomes increase there is a shift away from those staple crops towards more protein rich products, such as egg, milk, simple meat products (offal, sausages etc.). Often consumption of rough vegetables such as root crops, cabbage and onions increase in parallel. With further increase in income people tend to eat more whole meats and more luxurious vegetables, such as lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
This last stage also mostly coincides with that people do much less hard physical work and thus need less energy. As much as the economic perspective is missing from the food narrative, the energy perspective is also missing. There is a very strong correlation between the amount of (fossil) energy invested in food production and income. Fueling the diets of the wealthy uses up to forty times as much fossil fuels as producing the diets of the poor according to the research by Pradan and colleagues. Clearly, it is only the wealthy that can afford to have a diet based on consumption of meat produced largely by cultivated feeds and energy poor vegetables.
In former times, it was unusual that poor people were obese for energetic reasons. Traditional staple foods are rather voluminous. You need to eat 3 kg of potatoes to get 2500 kcal, which is not even enough for somebody doing physical work. The taste and digestibility of most staples also didn’t stimulate overconsumption even if you would have afforded it. This is why pulses have not been as popular among the poor as one might believe. When income increases, for many of those that have been on a traditional staple food diet, it is an easy step to buy energy and protein dense foods such as meats and fats, rather than vegetables. Vegetables give little energy for a given volume, which is why they are popular among those trying to control weight. But they also give little energy per krona, pound, euro or dollar.
Lately things have changed. Now the industrial food system all the way from farm to table with massive energy use can provide people with very energy dense foods for a the same cost as, or even cheaper than, traditional staple crops. I think about sugar, palm oil and other mass produced vegetable oils, industrial foods made of wheat, soy and corn. This has led to increasing obesity among poor. As these foods also crowds out more nutrient dense foods we face the fact that people can be obese and still suffer from malnutrition.
Poor people don’t only have little money, they also little time as it takes a lot of time to deal with all the issues caused by poverty. A team of Harvard economists came to the conclusion that the decreased time people spend on cooking is a major cause for obesity. Or in other words: the time cost for being sated has shrunk. The same energy dense industrial food comes in very handy, it is both rather cheap and quick to prepare. All this is reinforced by an agricultural system of constant overproduction and a food system with strong incentives to make people buy more than they need.
It seems to me that the very strong lobby for people eating more vegetables would benefit from some analysis and understanding of the actual situation of many poor people and the actual drivers in the food system, instead of believing that information or propaganda will change the situation.
How good are they – really?
I have grown vegetables professionally or semi-professionally for forty years, I was a founder of a vegetable marketing cooperative 1983 and I assisted in publishing a vegetable cookbook some thirty years ago. So clearly I am a fan of vegetables.
The article above is written without questioning the health benefits of vegetables. I don’t doubt that fruits and vegetables are healthy to eat. I am much less convinced that there is sufficient evidence that consuming fruit and vegetables is the only way to reach certain health outcomes. For example, two of the most featured nutritional benefits of fruit and vegetables are that they have much fiber and that they have low energy content. But there are other foods that contain a lot of fiber. If you eat whole grains and oats you will get a lot of fiber. And the argument that there is little energy in vegetables is not a very relevant argument as long as you don’t have some particular eating disorder. Ironically, it is exactly because vegetables have little energy that they have not been prominent in many diets.
It is also a bit strange that there is no agreement on what constitutes a vegetable or a fruit in the various dietary guidelines. In some countries potatoes count as vegetables, in others not. Fruit juice can count as fruit here and there, beans in some cases. A plantain (a cooking banana) can be called a fruit but dietary wise it is perhaps more similar to a potato, yams or cassava. Some countries express their recommendations in grams while others use state a recommended number of ”portions” or ”serving”. There is also no global standard for what constitute a serving. Adding all this together, the actual recommendations may vary considerably were they expressed in a comparable way in all countries.
When it comes to environment, the average fruit and vegetables are certainly not very beneficial. Few crops are sprayed with chemicals so frequently as fruit and vegetables and fruit and vegetable crop farming use a lot of irrigation, fertilizers, plastics (for protective structures) and machinery. Greenhouse production in colder climates also use very much energy for heating, and after harvest most of them are perishable and need resource demanding cold chains. In the end, a high share is discarded either by producers, middle men or consumers. Many vegetables are not even climate friendly if you count per kg, and if you count per energy unit or protein they are no better than many livestock products.
Teaser photo credit: By David Monniaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0