Economists and Biologists teamed up to study trade effects on food diversity

University researchers collaborated to study the diversity of plant products in all countries.

Melissa Steinken

At the University of Minnesota, economists and biologists joined forces to tackle research on food growth and consumption.

A new study — published earlier this month — found that countries tend to produce the same products they have been producing for years despite new possibilities for diversity between climates.

University researchers joined others from schools like the University of Maryland to analyze data of plant products traded and grown around the world from 1992 to 2010.

While biologists focused on the diversity of plant products, economists tested how comparative advantage theory could explain such trends.

“Even though it is easy to access more diverse food, now we tend to produce food more relevant to cultures we grew up in,” said Erik Nelson, an economist who worked on the project.

Comparative advantage is the theory that some countries are better equipped to produce certain products over others, Nelson said, adding that crop specialization across climate zones means some countries may produce only one or two crops. As a result, increased global food output from specialization could help feed a growing human population.

But University of Minnesota Agronomy Professor Don Wyse said the study left out crop specialization that occurred within the U.S. before 1992.

The country started to specialize soybeans and corn to feed its livestock industry between 1940s and 1970s.

Soybean and corn specialization in Minnesota causes soil erosion and could lead to other problems in the future.

Nelson said people should question whether growing diverse crops is the best use for land when crop specialization could create more food overall.

Meanwhile, project biologists studied the “tree of life” to look closer at plant product diversity, said Jeannine Cavender-Bares, University of Minnesota ecology, evolution and behavior associate professor said.

Cavender-Bares said they looked at how much evolutionary distance there is between the foods people eat and found people’s diets vary based on the climate they live in.

Plant products in temperate zones like the U.S can be traced back to fewer lineages in the tree of life compared to the tropics, she said.

There have been many studies of this sort in biology, Cavender-Bares said, but it’s unusual to combine those with economics research.