Food and science: Our international food

The food we eat today may have been grown on the farm next door or in Chile or in Ethiopia. But thousands of years ago, their ancestors grew wild somewhere. The plants we eat originate from around the world.

Before recently reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, I never appreciated the difficulty of the domestication of plants. Only a handful of plants comprise the majority of our crop production and calorie consumption. Even in thousands of years, many plants have never been domesticated. A domestic plant is a precious thing; without domestic plants, civilization would probably not have arisen.

Scientists can determine the likely wild origins of crop foods by the location of genetically similar wild plants. Tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chocolate, and chile peppers all come from the Americas. Sugar cane comes from India and New Guinea. Rice and soybeans are from China. Onions are from present-day Iran. Cashews are from Brazil.

Pecans are from the Mississippi valley, but they were not grown commercially until the 1880s! Macadamia nuts were the sole domesticated food from Australia, and they were not grown commercially until the 1880s either.

Although these plants come from around the world, you wouldn’t know it from our cuisines and cultures today. Italian food and tomato sauce, the Irish Potato famine, cashews and pineapples and chiles in Thai fried-rice, Belgian chocolate… Although humans have trouble domesticating plants, we are good at adopting them. In antiquity, similar adoptions happened with wheat and rice and millet. For discussion of how various plants influenced history, I recommend the book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws.

It piques my curiosity– 200 years ago, pecans and macadamia nuts were wild. 500 years ago, most of the world didn’t know chocolate or potatoes or tomatoes. With modern science, what will be a dietary staple in 100 years?

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