The hamburger revolution captures taste buds and wallets of the third world

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Once upon a time, and not in the very distant past -- or so the popular stereotype would have us believe -- the Chinese ate rice, the Fijians ate fish, and the Mexicans ate beans and tortillas.

Not anymore. Or at least not exclusively so, for the "Western" diet with its prestige and easy convenience has captured the imagination, the appetites, and, as economists soberly add, the wallets of the third world.

The demand for foreign foods has increased so dramatically that food imports for the Middle Eastern nations soared from 3.1 million metric tons to 15 million metric tons between 1970 and 1980. The cost of those food imports rocketed from

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The degree to which Africa, which as self-sufficient in food in the 1960s, is dependent on imported foods has development specialists particularly worried. Today hardly any black African nations produce enough food for domestic consumption.

Ironically just as people in the third world are developing a taste for more exotic food, economic belt-tightening is forcing many developing countries to cut back imports because their food bills are getting out of hand.

Nigeria is a classic case. Once Africa's largest exporter of food, it then became the continent's largest food importer as it drew on its vast oil revenues to pay for such luxuries as imported frozen chicken flown in every week from the Southeastern United States. Last April, faced with an imported food bill of $2.4 billion, Nigeria slapped a total import ban on imported poultry and most red meat.

Such curbs don't come easily to third-world nations that have recently begun to shift away from traditional diets and, in some cases, have adopted Western diets with such abandon that new restraints may be hard to enforce.

Who among the growing middle class in Lagos, for instance, would prefer to eat Nigerian cassava and yams when it has been possible to buy plump frozen chickens flown in from Alabama?

Who in Mexico City is prepared to settle for beans and tortillas on the dinner table every night when it has been possible to vary the diet with a juicy hamburger?

But these latest austerity-induced restraints seem likely to impose only a temporary halt on the third world's revolution in eating habits -- eating habits that had previously remained virtually unchanged for generations.

Looking at the longer run, J. Dawson Ahalt, deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, attributes much of the upgrading and Westernization of diet to an increase in individual incomes, particularly in middle income in the economically expanding Pacific Rim countries.

In addition, neglect of agriculture, especially in Africa, rapid urbanization throughout the third world, and aggressive Western food sales are all contributing to these changes in diet.

In Khartoum, Sudan, fewer city apartment dwellers are prepared to keep on grinding millet at home, as the Sudanese do in the countryside, because their close neighbors complain of the noise. It's easier to buy packaged food at the supermarket.

In Peking, a gleaming US-built bakery produces 1,500 loaves of bread an hour in a nation synonymous with eating rice.

In Central America, an area better known for its beans and tortillas, the demand for meat has zoomed to the point where specialists on the area speak of the great "hamburger revolution." But the demand is not restricted to Central America. South America and Asia are also eating more meat than ever before.

According to the 1982 report of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., Taiwan's per capita meat consumption rose 147 percent between 1960 and 1980. This, in turn, has led to a large increase in the amount of cereals needed to feed livestock.

(The argument that raged during the world grain shortage of the 1970s -- that the third world would be better off eating grain than feeding it to livestock -- has virtually evaporated, partly because of the current world grain surplus and partly because grain fed to livestock is not for human consumption.)

Throughout the third-world wheat is emerging as a status symbol. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that third-world cereal imports, mainly for livestock feeding, soared 75 percent from 1970 to 1978.

A change in eating habits is more than just a personal whim of satisfying the taste buds of Bombay merchant or the Lagos mechanic. It can add up to far-reaching changes for a nation, even for a continent.

The introduction into Europe of potatoes from South America -- providing consumers with cheap, adequate calories -- is associated with Europe's dramatic population growth in the 1800s, according to Marian Zeitlin, assistant professor of the School of Nutrition at Tufts University.

The height of Japanese people, which had remained largely static for centuries, shot up by several inches after World War II because rising affluence and changed postwar social patterns brought an enriched protein diet.

For the developing world, where many people live amid poverty and serious malnutrition, food plays a far more critical role than it does in the developed world. While families in a country like Canada, with a per capita income of $10, 000 spend about 20 percent of their funds on individual food purchases, low-income groups in developing countries spend as much as 60 to 70 percent on food, according to the World Bank.

Development specialists at the World Bank and at the United Nations say that without substantial food subsidies to keep prices down, third-world countries run the risk of food riots.

Food subsidies are so critical to Egypt, the largest recipient of US food aid , that some $2.9 billion, or 28 percent of the budget, goes toward food subsidies.

In the biggest food aid program in the world, the US ships 1.5 million metric tons of wheat to Egypt each year. At the same time, it is argued, food subsidies are sometimes insidious since they enable governments to placate restless urban populations with cheap food while depriving the rural poor of the incentive to grow food.

Yet food is such a pressing political issue to third-world nations that John W. Mellor, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute, in Washington, believes that governments first determine what their food needs are, and then try to find ways to pay for the food imports.

In the process, development projects are cut way down to absorb the high food-import costs. Mr. Mellor takes the view that if third world consumers are eating more wheat it is not so much because they demand it as because their governments find wheat an easier and more convenient commodity to provide -- and that the public then adapts to the change.

Some third-world countries recognize that large food imports are getting out of hand. Fiji, for example, has become a large importer of food, despite a lush and productive countryside and ample fish from local waters. An FAO publication states that "not only is the country experiencing health problems from this trend, but the cost of food is affecting their balance of trade."

To correct the problem, the government of Fiji has spent the last two years working on food and nutrition policy to counter the preference for food imports, and it is promoting food grown in Fiji.

A number of third-world countries that greatly increased food imports in the 1970s in response to a pent-up consumer demand propelled by fast-rising incomes now are curtailing their food imports. These countries include Algeria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. But the overwhelming reason for cutting back on imports, says Patrick M. O'Brien, deputy associate administrator of Economic Research Services of the US Department of Agriculture, is not so much "to avoid foreign imports as to tighten the belt on foreign expenditures."

While some third-world countries may be striving to lower the boom on imported food, the United States has been aggressively promoting food exports. US Agriculture Secretary John Block has made exports a cornerstone of his farm policy. In 1981, US agricultural exports set a record $43.8 billion in sales.

Much of these sales are in grains that help feed livestock, which in turn supply the meat that is becoming a more conspicuous part of the diet in the third world.

US exports of soybeans, used as a protein supplement in animal feeds, jumped from 8 million to 21 million tons between 1968 and 1981. Haiti's imports of US soybeans rose to 76,000 tons in 1982 from only 9,000 metric tons in 1981; Brazil's imports rose from just 11,000 tons to 183,000 tons from 1980 to 1982; and Malaysia's imports jumped from 40,000 tons in 1980 to 139,000 tons in 1982.

The increasing dependence of these and many other countries in the world on imported food or animal feeds raises both a political and an economic question:

Should these nations be so heavily dependent on outside sources such as the US for their basic necessities?

Japan realized how dependent its economy was on oil imports during the 1973 oil shokku, when the Arabs embargoed their oil exports during the Arab-Israeli war. The same shock could occur with food imports if a country that had come to rely on them was suddenly deprived of them due to unforeseen political or economic circumstances.

The call in Africa, with population over-taking agricultural production and in turn aggravating the food import imbalance, is to place a much higher priority on boosting domestic agriculture. The need has already been recognized by development ministers in regional African conferences. The problem now is to put it into practice.

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