Where do our food crops come from?

Where were our (plant) foods first domesticated?

Please don't say Tesco, Sainsbury's or ASDA (part of US Walmart). They get their food from much further afield - from where the food stuffs are grown, and that can be a long way away (Food miles).

We in UK import nearly half of the food we eat (DEFRA Food Pocket Book p. 22), having increased from around a quarter in mid eighties. This proportion is about the largest in the world - similar to Japan and several Arab countries. All EU produce a higher proportion than us. Most of our fruit comes from abroad.

But where does that food come from? About half of what we import comes from the EU. Who are the biggest food exporters in the world and where are they?

While studying for my Masters in Plant Science (Wye College, London University), the main component was 'Tropical Crops'. I found out that most food plants grown for export purposes, are on the other on the other side of the world from which they were first cultivated. Examples of export food crops grown on the opposite side of the world from which they were first cultivated can be found right See right hand column

Some are 'just up the road' - Maize from Mexico to America, Tea from China to India, although both have been through Africa - Maize in the West and Tea in the East. Very few are now grown for export where they originally came from. Garlic is one such exception.

Here are some possible reasons,

Most of us take for granted - without really questioning - that the crops are grown in their 'natural habitat'. We presume that that they are growing where they do because that is where the best conditions for growth are. But then we found that several big crops push their biological limits. eg coffee in Brazil - the second largest exporter - is often hit by frost, as commodity trading prices confirm. Maize keeps being grown further North. Much plant science has be given over to growing crops beyond their existing ranges.

Yorkshire Tea may boast that much of its tea comes from Assam as it is the 'best place for it to grow'. Clearly growing conditions are better than Yorkshire, but tea does not originate in Assam, but where all the tea comes from - China.

That these plants haven't developed where they originated / evolved, makes for many great stories of how these valuable food crops move around and why. We miss these stories if we think that these plants have been plonked there by nature.

Plants from the tropics can generally grow anywhere in the tropics, and temperate crops can generally grow anywhere in temperate climates. This is not to say that the 'terroir' of a plant (the combination of soil and climate that creates specific flavours of wines and many more foods) is not important. These are characters rather than determinants.

We are going to tell the stories of these migrations, We will start with the maps and outlines of the Natural History Museum which we believe is about as authoritative as it gets. Then we try and determine the main causes for these movements. adding other elements that tell us a lot about our history, and how we have got to where we are today.

Coffee (Africa to South America)

Cocoa (Andes to West Africa)

Sugar (Far East to Caribbean)

Bananas (S E Asia to Caribbean)

Wheat (Near East to America)

Soy (China to South America)

Peanuts (Argentina to India

Palm Oil (West Africa to S E Asia)

Citrus fruits (China to California)

Kiwi fruits (China to California)

Rice (China to Southern USA)

Vanilla (Central S.America to Indonesia) and..

Almonds & Cashews - but different way round!

The Navigation (top) is based on the classification used by the first person to track the 'Origin of Cultivated Plants' (full free electronic copy), Alphonse de Candolle, in 1882.

While these plants cannot talk, they can nevertheless tell us stories that reflect our culture and values both past and present. We think that knowing about how these food plants have moved round the world can help us learn about our geography, botany, economics and.....

History…celebrates the battle-fields whereon we meet our deaths, but scorns to speak of ploughed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of the king’s bastards, but cannot tell the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly.” From ‘The Wonders of Instinct’ (p.291 in Chapter on ‘Cabbage-Caterpillar’), written over a 100 years ago by the fabulous and largely forgotten naturalist J H Fabre, commonly called ‘the Insect Man’.

Economics, clearly the movement of these crops has made a lot of money for those in control of he movement - witness palm oil and tea for jut two. However, it raises the question - how much did these plant movers pay for the seeds/plants they took? Did Kew gardens ever pay a single penny, or France a franc or Spain a peso for anything they took? Many consider it steeling - witness recent complaints from Brazil about Whickam 'stealing' around 70,000 rubber tree seeds (OK we don't chew much rubber but it is an important crop) going through Kew and then transported to Sri Lanka and thence to Malaysia. See Seeds of Discord which examines whether Wickham is 'father of BioPiracy'. These issues are alive today as corporate companies replace countries in their zeal for new seeds. See my other webpage/site: Who owns our seeds?.

But most of all it can help explain some of the tensions in the world today. And unless we understand how these have arisen, we could make some drastic mistakes in the future - just as Fabre predicted,