Just eleven plants out of thirty thousand

Out of the thirty thousand types of edible plants thought to exist on Earth, just eleven – corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sorghum, millet, beans, barley, rye, and oats – account for 93 percent of all that humans eat, and every one of them was first cultivated by our Neolithic ancestors. Exactly the same is true of husbandry. The animals we raise for food today are eaten not because they are notably delectable or nutritious or a pleasure to be around, but because they were the ones first domesticated in the Stone Age. (Bill Bryson, At Home (Doubleday 2010), 37-38   Courtesy http://delanceyplace.com

I have to admit I don’t find this fact (which Bryson simply takes from scholars) particularly shocking or surprising.  There are good reasons it is so.  Our ancestors spent a million years plus surveying the earth’s edible resources.  They discovered how to detoxify poisonous cassava, turn the bark of a tropical tree into sago, grind hard grains into flour, eat algae from the surface of lakes, and preserve perishable meat and fish for a year or more.  In short, they were champions at finding and preparing almost anything that could be eaten.

Many of these edibles were always marginal. Barrel cactus just grows too slowly to be a major food. Moles and blue flies tasted awful as the Buckland family discovered in the nineteenth century when looking for alternative sources of protein.  Lettuce provides micronutrients but isn’t ever going to be a major source of calories.  It’s just too hard to eat enough.

In short, we do our ancestors a disservice to suggest that they simply stuck with the first things that they ran across in the Neolithic.  Quite the reverse.  They were always looking out for new sources of food, sugar cane being a prime example, coming in around the 2nd century B.C. (and shouldn’t it be on that list above)?  They have always leapt on new foods from old plants (sugar and oil from maize).

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to eat as wide a range of plants as possible or that with modern science and technology we couldn’t exploit more plants by breeding and processing (andean tubers for example).  It is to say that to find plants (and animals) that provide palatable calories without huge costs of chewing, digestion, cooking, processing, transport, storage, farming, and environmental impact is the devil of a job.

Candidates anyone? Lot of people would love to know.

Edit:  Continue the rant. 93% of all humans eat? By value, by weight, by calories, by trade?  Hopelessly vague.

And what would happen if you aggregated fruits or vegetables, especially in the advanced world?

Anyway isn’t it a good thing, if we want to have diverse diets, that lots of local plants don’t make it into the top ten or eleven?

How many other bitches do you want with this kind of sloppy rhetoric (which I don’t blame on the amiable Bryson by the way but on the people he is quoting)?

 

 

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Just eleven plants out of thirty thousand

  1. Jeremy

    I’m with you on the 93% figure; our ancestors did a pretty good job. But how do you feel about the other figure that’s bandied about, that three or four species supply 60% of our calories? That does seem to me like too narrow a diet, especially for nutrition rather than calories.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Pleased to hear it Jeremy. I thought we migh be at odds on this one. I think I’m not worried either about the three or four species but I don’t remember seeing that figure bandied about. More on this later.

      Reply
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  4. Evilcyber

    Taking numbers and facts from Bryson’s book is a perilous activity. It seems to me that research for the book mostly consisted of quickly looking up some facts facts, I feel, Bryson never bothered checking twice.

    There are a number of these, but one example that stayed with me is him localizing the native home of the eggplant as the Americas, instead of the Indian sub-continent.

    What the book promised – to explain the history of our modern dwellings in general – was never fulfilled, anyway. What we instead get is a lot of largely anglocentric tidbits about the development of palaces and country houses and their social structures.

    In the chapter on the larder, for example, he mostly talks about servants and maids in Victorian England, because that’s where they spent a lot of time. We don’t get to hear why and when larders first appeared in houses. For that matter, he doesn’t even explain how having servants developed.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Agreed that Bryson is not a serious scholar and that many of his facts are to be taken with a pinch of salt. I picked up on this quote, though, precisely because it is the kind of culinary/agricultural myth that does circulate widely and it needs to be challenged. In fact that post got more hits than almost anything else I have blogged about, many of them from serious people.
      Now to take on the one about one person’s urine supplying sufficient nitrogen for an acre.

      Reply
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