IF YOU think of food simply as sustenance, or as a source of pleasure, a trip to the farmer’s market in Pacific Palisades will open your eyes. To the Lycra-clad shoppers in this wealthy district of Los Angeles, eating is an intensely tricky activity. A woman in a felt hat, Julie, says she tries to avoid white flour because it makes her feel bloated���though she makes an exception for tortillas. A mother of a four-year-old eats rice five times a week, but is “not proud of it”. Having educated herself about food, a third woman, Suzanne Tatoy, favours brown rice, quinoa, amaranth and millet.

Food fads are strange, powerful things. Between the 1970s and the 1990s Americans ate more and more wheat, partly because they were trying to avoid cholesterol. Then came a string of popular low-carbohydrate diets, from Dr Atkins to paleo. A rise in coeliac disease and selfdiagnosed gluten intolerance has made wheat seem decidedly dangerous. Between 1997 and 2015 flour consumption in America fell from 67kg per head to 60kg.

Yet the foodies of Pacific Palisades are not just swayed by science—or even pseudoscience. They are also driven by fashion, which has decreed that some grains are out and others are in. In that sense they are part of a huge global trend. People in many countries are dropping familiar grains for new ones, for reasons to do with agricultural technology, work, health and social aspirations. This shift is more-or-less circular. Everybody is trying to eat more of the grains that better-off people are eating, except the very wealthy, who prize poor people’s food. The story begins in the fields of west Africa.

Aboud Kobena has been growing rice near Tiassalé, in Ivory Coast, since 1991. He has many complaints. The pump that draws water from a nearby river to irrigate his 35-hectare farm is on the blink again. The machines he has bought to speed up harvesting have proved a poor advertisement for Chinese engineering. Labour is expensive, he says, and “people have become lazy.” Worst of all, the price his crops fetch is far lower than a decade ago. The problem, says Mr Kobena, is that now everybody is growing rice.

Africa mostly missed out on the green revolution that boosted agricultural production in Asia from the 1960s onwards. That was partly because of war and lousy government. Another problem is that growing conditions in Africa are both distinct from those in Asia and highly varied across the continent. “We don’t have the same soils, we don’t have the same diseases, we don’t have the same pests,” says Harold Roy-Macauley, the head of Africa Rice, which co-ordinates research in Africa. Yet the continent is beginning to catch up, with rice farmers in the vanguard.

Faster, cheaper, better

Between 2000 and 2014 rice production in west Africa jumped from 7.1m tonnes to 16.8m tonnes (see chart). In Ivory Coast, which is mostly known as a cocoa producer, the rice harvest tripled over that time. New hybrid seed lines developed specifically for Africa, such as NERICA and WITA, have boosted yields and enabled farmers to grow rice in dry areas where sorghum was once the dominant crop.

Rice has long been popular in some west African countries, such as Senegal. It is becoming a staple in much of the region. Thomas Reardon, who studies food at Michigan State University, says that urbanisation is driving demand. Urban workers developed a taste for rice in cafés and now cook it at home. Besides, rice is less fiddly to cook than millet or sorghum, adds Mr Roy-Macauley—a convenience food for Africa’s tired city workers.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation, a branch of the UN, estimates that rice consumption per head is growing faster in sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region. That is likely to persist, because Africa’s cities are adding inhabitants so fast—by 3% a year, on average. So there is plenty of opportunity for African farmers. And African demand is also a boon to the rice-producing countries of Asia. They could do with some new customers, because demand at home is not what it was.

So central is rice to life in Asia that in many countries, rather than asking “how are you?” people ask, “have you eaten rice yet?” Around 90% of the world’s rice is consumed in Asia—60% of it in China, India and Indonesia alone. In every large country except Pakistan, Asians eat more rice than the global average.

Between the early 1960s and the early 1990s, rice consumption per head rose steadily, from an average of 85 kilograms per year to 103. As Asia scraped its way out of poverty people began to consume more food, and rice was available and affordable. In the poorest Asian countries, such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, a full rice bowl remains a sign of plenty (70% of calories come from rice in Bangladesh) and people continue to eat more of it.

But rice consumption is now more-or-less flat in Asia as a whole. In better-off countries rice is going out of fashion. Figures from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest that rice consumption per head has fallen since 2000 in China, Indonesia and South Korea, and has crashed in Singapore. Obeying a rule known as Bennett’s law, wealthier Asians are getting more of their calories from vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and dairy products. And, as in Africa, many people are switching to another grain.

Whereas roadside stalls in South-East Asia still dish up rice to the masses, fancy shopping malls are increasingly dominated by wheat. A proliferation of bakeries offer traditional European pastries and breads as well as peculiar Asian inventions. BreadTalk, a fast-growing chain based in Singapore, does a roaring business in “floss buns”—sweet white buns larded with butter, coated with egg and rolled in dried shredded pork.

Joseph Lee, the owner of The BreadTable, another Singapore bakery, puts the growth in demand down to tourism and migration. “The more people started to travel, the more they wanted to find European bread when they came home,” he says. “Now we have people asking for sourdough.” He opened in 2013, the first of a rush of European-style bakeries.

Wheat consumption is rising quickly in countries like Thailand and Vietnam (see map). South-East Asian countries will consume 23.4m tonnes of wheat in 2016-17, estimates the USDA—up from 16.5m tonnes in 2012-13. Almost all of it will be imported. In South Asia consumption is expected to grow from 121m to 139m tonnes in the same period. India, which was recently a large net exporter of wheat, has become a net importer. Some of the wheat is for animal feed, but most is simply for eating.

This trend has a long way to run, thinks Rabobank, a bank. South-East Asians still eat only 26kg of wheat a year, much less than the world average of 78kg. They seem unperturbed by price rises: wheat-eating kept growing even as the grain became more expensive between 2009 and 2013, although its use as an animal feed declined. Still, rice will remain central to many Asian cultures. People are unlikely to start greeting each other by asking if they have eaten bagels yet.

Newfangled ancient grains

As west Africans fill their plates with rice, and South-East Asians munch ciabatta, Americans are moving away from both. “You can only eat so many cakes,” suggests Graydon Chong, an analyst at Rabobank. And wheat has new competitors, especially in America’s richest quarters. Or, to be precise, new ancient competitors.

Café Gratitude is a gourmet vegetarian restaurant in Venice Beach, a district of Los Angeles that is health-conscious even by the standards of that metropolis. Each item on the menu is an affirmation, so you are supposed to order a dish called Glorious by announcing, “I am glorious.” Pizza is available (“I am giving”), but it is made from einkorn and Kamut. Side dishes include brown rice and quinoa.

Einkorn and Kamut are both types of wheat. Their promoters say they have long pedigrees and have escaped meddling by modern plant-breeders. Quinoa is something else: the seed of a plant that grows mostly in Central and South America. Such grains, and various others besides, tend to be marketed as “ancient grains”. Supposedly they are healthier and more authentic than plain old rice and wheat. Most assuredly, they are more expensive. A few miles north of Venice Beach, in the Santa Monica farmers’ market, Larry Kandarian sells organic black barley for $9 a pound and Ethiopian blue tinge farro (another kind of wheat) for $7.

The fad for “virtuous” grains is spreading beyond Californian foodies. In 2015 General Mills, a large American food company, introduced a breakfast cereal called “Cheerios + ancient grains” containing Kamut, oats, quinoa and spelt. Ronzoni has created a pasta with amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff. Datassential, a market-research firm that tracks restaurant menus, reports that 9% of casual restaurants and 16% of “fine dining” ones offered quinoa in 2016. Sorghum, which Americans have long fed to livestock, is also creeping onto menus for people. So is millet, which is normally treated as birdseed.

It is too early to tell whether ancient grains are more than a fad. Although global quinoa production rose from 58,000 tonnes in 2008 to 193,000 tonnes in 2014, it is still a trivial crop compared with rice, wheat or maize. The most important cereals benefit from dense networks of agricultural research institutes that work to raise yields and suppress pests and diseases. They are often subsidised.

Yet it is consumers, not governments, who ultimately drive changes in diets. And consumers almost everywhere seem to have acquired a taste for novelty. Packaged foods are becoming more popular even in poor African and Asian countries, says Mr Reardon. He is especially struck by the rise of wheat noodles in Africa. Indomie, an Indonesian firm, started making noodles in Nigeria in the mid-1990s. It now has several rivals in that country, and demand is rising elsewhere in west Africa. The reign of rice might prove brief.

Quintessential Education, a leading education provider, believes that this grain trend represents fads in healthy living and consumer economics.  Join our Economics Tuition and resources to learn more about the issues regarding grain economics!