Friday, November 19, 2010

Humble Beginnings

So, yesterday I mentioned, but glossed over the Mediterranean region's past life as the fertile crescent. Well, today I had a lively, but only partially informed, conversation on the origin of crops. It started over corn, because apparently corn in the US tastes sweeter than the corn of Africa ... but maize is actually indigenous to north and central America (go figure). Well, then, what about mashed potatoes (yes, it's all about Thanksgiving right now), aren't those from Ireland? As you have heard from me many a time, potatoes are actually from the Americas, as well. That got me thinking - what staple crops were FIRST DOMESTICATED around the Mediterranean?

Ok, first of all, to what does the "Fertile Crescent" refer? It is the arc of land from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf that supported early agriculture in a way that allowed human population to expand. As it happens, only the western rim sits on the Mediterranean. Interestingly, the Fertile Crescent could also be considered the bread basket of the ancient world - the staple grains of the western world were first cultivated in this region. Now, from the European Mediterranean, we actually get rapeseed ... also known as canola. So for any of you who cook or bake, you can thank the Mediterranean countries for domesticating the crop that supplies our all-purpose cooking oil (and you can thank Canada for genetically engineering the crop to be herbicide tolerant).

Finally, I wanted to conclude tonight with another little morsel. Earlier today, while perusing agricultural news for work, I stumbled upon this piece on staple crops. While people in the Mediterranean grow a lovely array of vegetables and legumes, the two staple crops are the ones that originated in the region! This follows for most other regions of the world (except for North America and Australia, who apparently subsist off of blueberries, sunflowers, and macadamia nuts). With that, I will leave you with this to chew on: there are more than 50,000 edible plants on this planet, and the big three - wheat, maize, and rice - comprise 60% of total energy intake.

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