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

By David WinderStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 1983

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.

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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

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.