Trade and Transport
People have been exchanging foods for thousands of years—whether along the ancient Silk Road or on airplanes that transport food around the world overnight. Today, the movement of food is more complex than ever. Giant ships transport ingredients to every corner of the planet, networks of trains and trucks move food within countries, and an increasingly international food culture transforms regional dishes into universal parts of global cuisine. Around the world, policy, economics, and culture collide to help determine who eats what.
Japan imports more fish than any other country in the world, and most of it routes through the Tsukiji wholesale seafood market in Tokyo.
Trading Food for Fuel
More Brazilian sugar ends up at the gas pump than at the grocery. Converting sugarcane to ethanol releases less carbon dioxide than almost any other kind of biofuel production, but using crops and cropland for biofuels can drive up food prices and devastate natural ecosystems.
Trading Processed Foods
Processed foods, such as pastries, beer, and canned soup, represent the end of a worldwide supply chain. Raw materials get transformed into more profitable food items and are then resold. Processed foods make up the majority of Australia’s food imports, while countries like Germany and France both export and import large quantities of processed foods.
India produces nearly 30 percent of the world’s bananas—more than all of Central and South America combined! In the Western Hemisphere, bananas are a classic export crop, shipped by the ton in refrigerated containers from tropical countries to their cooler neighbors. But almost none of India’s bananas are exported: more than 99 percent of the bananas grown in India are bought, sold, and eaten in India.
Interactive Exhibit: Food Ships
See it in Our Global Kitchen! This interactive video exhibit illustrates how and why four common foods—bananas, apples, tuna, and lamb—are transported around the world. An on-screen narrator reveals how foods travel to the U.S. from far-off locations, for example, bananas shipped from Ecuador and lamb from New Zealand. Additional text offers an in-depth discussion of the challenges and choices involved in modern food shipment.
The Great Exchange: Aztec Market
Visit the Aztec Market in Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture to find out what was for sale, what was eaten, and what was used as currency in ancient Mexico. In the year 1519, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés was about to enter Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the thriving Aztec Empire, setting off an explosion of cultural exchange that would bring exciting new foods to Europe, Asia, and Africa—and introduce others to the Americas. Never before would so many new foods spread so far, so quickly; the world would literally never be the same.
There are many ways of moving food from farms to consumers—but a lot gets lost along the way. Over 30 percent is not eaten. The problem is much bigger than just what’s visible to consumers; loss occurs throughout the food system. But in places like the United States, where food is most abundant, immense amounts of food simply get thrown away—wasting all the labor, resources, and greenhouse-gas emissions involved in growing the food in the first place.
Waste in America: Your Family's Share
About 414 pounds (188 kg) of food is discarded for each person in the United States each year at home, in stores and restaurants. That’s 1,656 pounds (751 kg) for a family of four—the amount in this sculpture (right). And this is just consumer waste—even more food is lost on farms and in processing and transportation.
What Americans throw out each year
22% Fresh fruits and vegetables
19% Milk and dairy, except eggs
14% Grain products
10% added sugar and sweeteners
8% Processed fruits and vegetables
18% Meat, poultry, fish & seafood
7% Fats and oils