Dynamics of Diet and Food Security in the Mediterranean ‘in the middle of the land’

In the Middle of disparate land

The Mediterranean – means ‘In the Middle of the Land’ – and the sea is a geographical link between countries bordering it that differ markedly in terms of style of governance, affluence, culture and religion.   In the 1970’s and 80’s the Brandt Commission looked at new approaches to restructuring the global economy and to development (3) published in two reports North -South (1980) and Common Crisis (1983).  Reducing the divide between the affluent North and the less developed South of the world, by investing in the south, could even out economic development and reduce risks of tension and conflict.  Unfortunately in a report written about 20 years on the proposals had largely not been acted on. Developed countries had, in the mean time, focused on their own interest and the economic disparities have been reported to have widened since the 1980’s (3). The Brandt line drawn in the 1970’s or 80’s separating the more affluent European side from North Africa and South East Mediterranean countries was drawn right through the Mediterranean.   Since then there have been some changes in fortune with the appearance of emerging economies,  however countries around the Mediterranean shore line may encapsulate some of the global problems relating to disparities. There are various bodies involving participants from the range of countries bordering the Mediterranean trying to find ways of harmonious co-existence.  Countries in the southern part of the European Union have played a particularly active role in establishing regional dialogue via the Barcelona protocol. This gave rise to The European Union-Mediterranean Free Trade Area, which provides for free trade agreements in the Euro-Mediterranean.

Changing diets, environmental challenges

 A few years ago having visited Rome I travelled south to Naples to meet Professor Rocco di Prisco, University of Naples, Faculty of Medicine.   Rocco took me around Naples and I was able to walk some of the streets off the beaten track  with him.  We escaped the city and saw areas growing tomatoes such as the famous San Mazano tomato which originates from the town of the same name in the shadow of Vesuvius.

As an aside – in a quiet moment from an elevated perspective looking down at long streams of slow-moving traffic across the vast plain, I wondered at the logistics needed to cope with moving the sheer volume of humanity if there were any future warnings about possible volcanic activity.

I learnt about two problems in the Naples area in terms of food production and consumption here. Polluted water sources and toxic waste in some areas was affecting local agricultural production. Dr. di Prisco highlighted changes in dietary trends  – some of the local children were  going to school without eating breakfast and they were not eating as many of the tomatoes or oranges evident everywhere in the area.

What is the Mediterranean diet  and is it no more?

Naples and Salerno are just North of Pioppi a small coastal town on the Cilento Coast.  Ancel Keys (2) an American diet scientist lived there with his wife from the 1960’s for over thirty years. It is now home to the ‘Museum of the Mediterranean Diet’ (5).

After World War 2 the US diet was richer than the austerity diet in Europe, which was affected by the aftermath of the war.  Ancel Keyes was struck by the higher levels of cardiovascular disease in the USA and postulated a link to cholesterol and higher levels of animal fat in the diet compared to the Mediterranean style diet low in animal fats.  He was struck by the comment from a professor in Naples in the 1950’s that  cardiovascular ailments were not prevalent in the area.   He undertook a Seven country study  from 1958 to the 1980’s studying healthy middle-aged men living in Italy, the Greek Islands, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Finland, Japan and the United State.  Findings from the study indicated a link between serum cholesterol and cardiovascular disease and also a link between increased cancer deaths and raised cholesterol levels, being over weight, obesity  and increased blood pressure linked to increased risk of strokes.  Results from others indicated levels of coronary deaths in Northern Europe and the USA were higher than in Southern Europe shaped by eating patterns and other positively influencing facts exercise, not being over weight and fibre in the diet appeared to have a positive effect. (6)  In addition it appeared that a change from a healthy active Mediterranean diet to a less active lifestyle influenced by Western diet led to increased heart disease.  However, there have been criticism about the strength of the causality of dietary fat and heart mortality; that the results were based on 7 out 21 countries data sets available (results are less clear from the wider analysis) and that the impact of sugar consumption in different countries was not measured (6).

The modern concept of the ‘Mediterranean diet’ – contains olive oil, legumes, unrefined cereals, fruit, vegetables, fish, dairy products cheese and yoghurt and a low consumption of meat and meat products (1).  In reality the diet in the Mediterranean region is quite variable and the observations were affected by austerity after World War 2.  Possibly at the other extreme are diets in Northern Italy and North Africa which contain more animal fat.  Best definition of the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ is that of Walter Willett of Havard University  School of Public Health defined as ‘Food patterns typical of Crete, much of the rest of Greece, and southern Italy in the early 1960s’ (1).   There is still discussion about how the interaction of the diet (and even the local environment) produce the health benefits.  Recently UNESCO added the Mediterranean diet to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.   Never-the-less there has been a worrying move away from the ‘Mediterranean diet’ in recent times as highlighted by Jeremy Cherfas of Bioversity International in 2011 in a  National Public Radio broadcast “Mediterraneans Abandon Their Famous Diet” (4).

On my trip back from Italy I took the train back to Montpellier to visit the Agropolis Museum and give a talk about The Eden Project.   Though Agropolis International is still carrying on valuable research unfortunately the museum is now closed. It had interesting insights and presentations relating to crops that were grown and the diets of people in different parts of the world – including a round table of models of people from different countries and links to their food cultures called ‘A banquet of humanity’.

When revisiting the issue of changes in the Mediterranean food security in 2011, I came across a horizon scanning exercise hosted by Agropolis International with input from participants from countries around the Mediterranean sea published as a report in 2011,  ‘Food Security Across the Mediterranean: A Quantitive and Qualitative forecast for 2030’ .   It addressed the future of Mediterranean food security and trade up to 2030 in the face of future uncertainties such as climate change, food security, population rise and possible tensions between countries on the North and South and South East shore lines of the Mediterranean sea.

Here are some of the findings – translated from French.

Horizon scanning future scenarios linked to food security in the Mediterranean.

The participants came up with four different scenarios of what might happen by 2030.

1, There would be improvements in local food networks and developments in local food trade, coupled to awareness raising about diet and local provenance.

2,  Development of privileged trade routes for produce from North Africa and Turkey to Countries on the Northern shore of the Mediterranean and technology transfer to countries on the South and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean. The possibility of extending the  Mediterranean Free Trade Area was discussed.   

3, Markets dominated by large-scale manufacturers and the emerging BRIC’s (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies.   With a simplified diet, more processed food, sugar and fat.  Turkey and the Maghreb countries (countries of North West Africa, west of Egypt) would intensify their agriculture to meet the demand for fresh produce for Northern Europe, as a complement to a policy of local development.   

4, If the European Union took a more isolationist stance then there would be greater risks of radicalization and xenophobia between countries on the North and South and East shores of the Mediterranean.

I think the conclusions were discussed in early December 2010 and by chance the tension in South and East Mediterranean which led to the start of the ‘Arab Spring’ initially in Tunisia a few weeks later.

Future Challenges and opportunities by 2030 


Findings about water are alarming, by 2030 trends suggest large shortages in some countries.  Droughts may lead to farmers moving to cities.  There would be increasing pressure on non-renewable fossil water.  Urbanisation could increase pressure on water supply.  Greater accountability will be necessary for this scarce resource,  there is likely to be greater indication of use in the manufacture life-cycle of products.

About 80% of water in South and East Mediterranean is used in irrigation – cost of water could affect sustainability of  irrigation in the future.  In some countries waste water is used to irrigate vegetable plots – which can lead to build up of heavy metals and other harmful particles.   Methods of  re-utilisation water to avoid contamination must be developed to prevent the occurrence of epidemics.

The Sea

The Mediterranean sea is the common link to these countries, but there is already pressure on its resources.    It possesses a rich biodiversity with an important endemism rate.  The sea is a place of conflicting uses, there is a need for super-national collaboration between countries on marine policies.  There are chances for coexistence of many activities: wind farms, fishing, aquaculture, marine protected areas, tourist excursions, diving, scientific research.  The sea offers potential important uses virtually untapped and can contribute to food security.

Lagoon areas are among the most productive in the world. Partnerships are needed to address increased salinization in river deltas affects biodiversity.  The downside of salinization is also increased barren land, but it could provide opportunities – if managed correctly.  Will it provide opportunities for new techniques of fish farming different species like Blue Fin Tuna?  What about algae production? For nutraceuticals, fish food or biofuels?   Circulation aquaculture in the basin exceeds production from fishing – algae rather than fish derived food would increase sustainability.


Capturing energy from the sun, potential use of algae?  Are there strategic approaches to cope with future variable electricity supplies?   Harnessing the sun’s energy for solar stills for the grid or to recharge small electrical devices like irrigation systems on farm could  save energy. 

Importance of the wild

It is important in relation to biodiversity but also in relation to ecosystem services, such as controlling water flow.  Otherwise costly man-made interventions would have to be implemented.   Biodiversity represents a reservoir of species and varieties useful for improving the agricultural and industrial production.   One of the problems is the loss of biodiversity, due to population pressure and climate change and the invasion of alien species.   Need for international standardising of  economic and social value of ecosystem services that biodiversity makes to man.

Risks of new pests and diseases and zoonosis*                                                                       

There is a need for monitoring systems for north and south of the Mediterranean and beyond.   Risks increase with intensification, greater movement of people, climate change, pests from sub Saharan Africa.  (* Transmission of animal diseases to humans.)


Will this lead to planned integration of food product with urban spread?  There are opportunities to integrate into urban landscape to make consumer and producer meet – may be a mix of town and countryside this would call for a multi-disciplinary approaches to planning.     Extreme weather could mean farmers  abandon their land to work in towns,  what is the price of mass rural exodus on community?   Evolving diet to suit greater urbanisation in 2030, the consumption of green vegetables has reduced in favour of starchy foods, meat and cereals.   There is a need to look at new sources of human food such as algae.

One scenario discussed was  linked to large-scale food manufacturing and simplified diets suggests long belts of urbanisation along the Northern Mediterranean shore line may develop.

Biological resources – plants, animals, food processing                      

There is a need to development of drought-resistant crop varieties adapted to unusual or extreme heat, water and reductions in inputs.    Future application of Genetically Modified Organisms depends on acceptability at the time.

On the North side of the Mediterranean genetic improvements have been made by seed companies.  Is this model suitable for countries in the South and East of the Mediterranean?   Research in the South has emanated from government research stations, one suggestion is to work with a wide network of poor farmers and develop resilient seed exchanges networks (some of these ideas have already been tested out). There is a need to consider implication of laws that could affect farmer’s seed exchange of traditional varieties for less intensive production. Conservation and use of biodiversity of crops in situ can promote adaptions to local environments. There are possibilities for farmers being involved in participatory selection both modern varieties and combining traditional and modern traits.

Animal feed                                                                                                           

Increased demand for animal products will continue in the South and East of Mediterranean. Pastoral areas provide only 10 to 15% of animal feed, the rest consists of fallow crops and imported maize or rapeseed imported. Initiatives were suggested in relation to breeding and agronomy of feed crops and to increase production from steppe/range land.

Changing Mediterranean diet                                                                            

The Agropolis International report highlights changes in Diet in Tunisia (as an example) with more meat and milk, oil (not olive oil) bread wheat rather than pasta being consumed.   Changes in diet and reduction in exercise is leading to a rise in obesity, cardiovascular disease and Type II diabetes.   Here and in other places the open market and the expansion of supermarkets and fast food restaurants has lead to new eating habits.

When food is an important part of tight budgets cheaper mass produced imported food products, which may not be as healthy rather than local produce can prevail.  This a problem in many parts of the world and cannot only impacts on the local economy but on health of the consumers.

Increasing complexity in agricultural production to increase resilience.                                                                                                                      

This may well be needed in the face of rising prices of inputs water, cultivation agrochemicals, fertilisers, could result in increasing the number of species present in the field polyculture – agroforestry, productive hedges, extensification.

Food trade                                                                                                                      

The South East Mediterranean countries import cereals dairy products sugar and wheat and export fruit and vegetables.

With the exception of Turkey*,  South and East Mediterranean countries are net importers.  This trend won’t reverse even if technology improves crop production.

There are rising levels of young people in countries like Egypt will mean that these countries will always have to import foods such as wheat.  Even if there is enough food in the world it often isn’t in the right place to meet population concentrations.

The imbalance in the agricultural region (7% of world population and 22% of world imports of cereals) results in a precarious food security.   Dependency on the world market, leads to vulnerability to volatile commodity food prices.

* Turkey can play an important role as an exporter of a wide range of food products.

Food spending power, dichotomy between people on the North and South and South East of the Mediterranean.                                                

Two speed agriculture exists between small producers and large exporters. 50% of people’s income is spent on food in countries on the South and East Mediterranean shores.  By contrast 15% of people’s income is spent on food in North Mediterranean. 70% of diet in South and East Mediterranean is dependent on cereals.  Increasing speculation and demand for biofuels are likely to affect prices.

There is a need for political efforts to encourage buying fresh local fruit and vegetables because nutritional value can be higher for some produce compared to some long distance imports.

Factors that lead to unrest include…                                                               

Rising food prices, high levels of unemployment – such as youth unemployment, changes in social structures.


The Mediterranean is an opportunity for Europe. tourist destination today attractive climate, with a strong identity based on common values such as food, the conviviality, authenticity or a certain philosophy of life.  Rural activities are also threatened by the scarcity of resources (land, water, forest, steppe, lack of courses).  Many small local players, including women, are excluded from decision processes that affect them directly.  There are needs for better income, education and training.  As an example the Green Morocco Plan launched in 2008 enabled the agricultural sector better use of its capabilities to meet the new socio-economic needs.


A lot of development models protected geography areas and origins to ‘add value’ to export and to the land.  There are successful co-operatives in Morocco and Lebanon involved in export.  However these are the exception to the rule, rural people around the Mediterranean are often isolated and poorly educated with small incomes.

One avenue of development is to open a Euro Med Economic free market zone to integrate trade between different Mediterranean countries.   One challenge is unequal agricultural exchanges across the Mediterranean basin.

Food processing and marketing – opportunities exist to create businesses based on quality products, employment and therefore better food security. Three goals: lower cost processing, reduce waste, adaption to economic and climate uncertainty. The problem is intensification suits a few larger wealthier producers and doesn’t suit small-scale producers, widening the gap.  Sanitary laws can limit exports unless to countries with lower requirements.  Integration of small and medium enterprises in agriculture distribution channels, ensures sufficient volumes to supply supermarkets, research is needed to reduce losses of products.  Improving quality requires a higher investment for small producers, but associated with indices of social and human development and ‘fair trade’.  Labelling such as protected geographical status adds value for smaller producers and to the land.  Flag up the “Mediterranean” with positive connotations linked to health and tourist attractiveness.

The productive potential of arid, semi arid steppe and mountain of South and East Mediterranean is often overlooked.  Subsistence production in rural and peri-urban systems with a high employment rate would reduce the problems of unemployment and dependence.  It would also provide greater local food security, if there was lack of  access to international markets and impacts of climate change.

Technology transfer                                                                                               

There is a need for networks for small-scale producers covering information technology and communication, citizen forums for better dialogue between producers, consumers and distributors.  This will also help with severe weather warnings and harvest information. Transfer of technology for precision agriculture to the south of the Mediterranean remains low, while a lot of local know-how from producers on the south of the Mediterranean is at risk of being lost.

Final thoughts                                                                                                                   

I was inspired to read this report as it brings to life some of the socio-economic differences between the different areas of the Mediterranean shore line.  The Agropolis International report was designed to inform future policy makers.  It will be interesting to see how the economic difficulties affecting countries in the Euro zone and disquiet in the South and East of the Mediterranean will affect the outlook and future decision-making processes.


(1) The Mediterranean Diet  – Wikipedia

(2) Ancel Keys – Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancel_Keys

(3)  James Quilligan  (2002-07)  The Brandt Equation: 21st Century Blueprint for the New Global Economy   – Centre for Global Negotiation.

(4) Jeremy Cherfas (2011); Mediterraneans Abandon Their Famous Diet

(5) http://www.summerinitaly.com/guide/museum-of-the-mediterranean-diet

(6) Severn Countries Study – Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Countries_Study#cite_note-31

Andrew Ormerod  May 2014



About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
This entry was posted in Food and Nutrition, Food Resilience, Globalization of Crops, Livestock production, Local production, Mediterranean, Near East, Politics, Population Growth, Sustainable production, Ttraditional Production System, Urban and peri urban food production. Bookmark the permalink.

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