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One of the greatest achievements in the history of human kind is the shift of a simple question, the addition of the word “What” to the question “Will I eat today?” In most parts of the so-called modern world (the world is always “modern” in its present state, after all), true hunger and starvation are things of the past. While many still suffer from a lack of sufficient food, most of us have not only enough food but also choices of what we will eat. This was not always the case, not by a long shot. Historically, these are the five most important sources of human nourishment.
First cultivated in what is now Peru over 10,000 years ago, anyone who doubts the importance of this starchy tuber need look back less than two centuries to the Great Irish Famine, AKA The Irish Potato Famine, to understand how vital it can be. Potatoes come in thousands of varieties and are grown all around the world. The more colorful varieties pack plenty of vitamins and all potatoes are rich in carbohydrates.
Fish is the source of more than a fifth of the annual protein intake for more than two and a half billion people today, and has traditionally been a foodstuff of immense importance as well. The presence of fish in rivers, lakes and the sea has made them the staple of the diet of people ranging from the Arctic to the Caribbean to the Middle East and beyond. Fish are rich in protein and omega acids, as well as other vitamins and compounds.
The third of the Big Three staple starches, wheat was first cultivated in northern Africa and the Middle East. It is now grown worldwide, with annual production near 700 million tons. Wheat is higher in protein than maize or rice and is actually consumed in greater quantity than either of the other staple starches in much of the world. It also might be the oldest known starch, with evidence of some wild wheat harvesting going back 20,000 years!
The world’s second most widely consumed staple today, maize was first cultivated in years predating accurate historical records in Mesoamerica. By the second millennium B.C. it has spread throughout most of the Americas and was being consumed in many varieties. By the 15th Century, maize/corn was being grown in Europe as well and was soon harvested worldwide. Corn crops are of immense importance to humans both as a direct food source and as feed for animals. Other corn products, from syrup to starch to ethanol, are used in most every aspect of our daily lives. Almost a billion tons of corn is harvested each year globally.
Rice remains the largest staple food consumed on earth today, as it has been since its first noted planting, some 14,000 years ago. Unlike many other staple crops, such as wheat or barley, which require milling, rice need only be harvested, hulled and cooked to provide nourishment, thus making it a wonderfully simple source of carbohydrates. Today, rice provides up to 20% of all human calories consumed each year.
Dmoz.org: Cereals: Rice
Nytimes.com: Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years
Wheatworld.org: Want a few pieces of wheat trivia to throw at your friends?
FAO.org: The Potato