The Modern Era

The discovery of the Americas was a side-effect of the large European market for spices. Columbus set sail convinced he could find a sea route to ‘the Indies’, instead he found the ‘New World’. The Conquistadors, and the other Europeans who followed them, transplanted a considerable number of crops from the Americas to other countries. Many are now widely cultivated outside of their country of origin, including manioc (Manihot esculenta), beans (Phaseolus spp.), maize, potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) and sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas). Europeans also introduced crops to the Americas, including wheat, barley, oats (Avena sativa) and fruits. The dispersal of plant and animal species, people and disease vectors between the Americas and Eurasia was named by Crosby as the Columbian Exchange.

Van der Veen et al showed that, in Roman Britain, diet was an important part of social identity, and this affected who consumed newly adopted crops, and where they were cultivated. This effect can also be seen in the Americas, where the Conquistadors believed that native Andean crops were inferior to European crops such as barley, wheat and broad beans (Vicia faba). This prejudice persists in South America to the present day, affecting the popularity of native crops such as oca, tarwi (Lupinus mutabilis) and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), which were ‘Indian’ crops equated with low status. Whilst conquerors may exploit those native crops that they find useful (for food, medicine or building materials), other species suffer from the cultural suppression used to subjugate the native population. For example, quinoa has a religious significance to the indigenous population of South America, and as such was deliberately suppressed and devalued by the Spanish as one means of dismantling the indigenous food production systems and the political and social systems they supported.

Ripening cocoa pod

Compare the fate of these low-status crops with that of chocolate, made with cocoa (Theobroma cacao) beans that had never been peasant food, but had been considered divine. Their high status allowed them to be used as currency, and cocoa beans were paid in tribute to Aztec rulers such as Montezuma. In November 2011, “global sales of chocolate confectionery crossed $100 billion for the first time”, and demand for chocolate was expected to outstrip supply. By 2012, between forty and fifty million people were dependent on cocoa for their livelihood, producing almost 4 million metric tonnes of cocoa beans.

The vanilla (Vanilla spp.) exalted by the Totonac people was demanded in tribute by the Aztecs once the Totonac had been subjugated, and used as a perfume, an aphrodisiac and medicinally as well as for flavouring. Although vanilla is now one of the world’s most popular flavours and experiencing “strong and growing demand”, natural vanilla is increasingly being replaced by synthetic vanillin and the market for natural vanilla is contracting.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the potato as ‘humble’ was worshipped, or at least exalted, 4,000 years ago in Peru. Now a firm favourite (the world production of potatoes in 2012 was in excess of 368 million tonnes), in the 1700s the potato was not easily adopted into the English diet, as it became embroiled in the religious divide between Protestants and Catholics. The English continued to express a preference for the parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), concerned that the potato had become an Irish (Catholic) favourite.

These examples suggest that it is easier for high-status crops to be assimilated into a new culture and become popular, or to see it from another perspective, that “crops the world over are stigmatized by the prejudices held against the peoples who use them most”, and this discourages the more widespread adoption of underutilized species.

It was the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama who discovered a sea route to India in 1497, finding Calcutta, the “fabled city of spices and emporium of cinnamon, ginger, and black pepper”, and ending Venetian control of the spice trade in Europe. According to De Vos, once it became clear that Spain would not be able to take control of the Spice Islands, they turned to the possibility of cultivating spices in their own colonies. Although the archival record is fragmentary, there is evidence that Francisco de Mendoza was granted land in New Spain in 1558 on which to grow spices, and an exclusive license to do so. He enjoyed limited success, but ginger (Zingiber officinale) production in Hispaniola in the 16th century was reported to be “prodigious”, and in the 1580s it was being produced in large quantities and being sold in Europe for higher prices than sugar. Eventually there was a need to curb production in New Spain to avoid an oversupply, but even so evidence suggests that ginger plants were imported into mainland Spain with the aim of local cultivation. It is said that ginger did well around Seville, but further reports on the project are yet to be uncovered. However, we know that ginger did not become a major export commodity for Spain.

The next major group of plant movements occurred in the colonial period of the 18th and 19th centuries, when European nations began to transplant commodity crops such as rubber (Hevea brasiliensis), sugar cane (Saccharum spp.) and breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) from their centres of origin to colonies where they could be more profitably exploited. In general, crops grow better outside their centres of origin, and the agricultural commodities on which now we rely have been introduced to the countries in which they are so productive.

Although the history of exchanges between the Americas and Eurasia is usually told through the stories of legendary European explorers such as Magellan, Columbus and de Gama, and later those of famous European plant hunters like Sir Joseph Banks and Joseph Hooker, it is important to remember that prior to 1820, four out of five immigrants to the Americas were African. They did not come by choice but they brought with them African crops, including rice, okra (Belmoschus esculentus), yams (Dioscorea spp.), black-eyed peas (Vigna unguiculata subsp. unguiculata), millet, sorghum and sesame (Sesamum indicum). They also brought with them their expertise in tropical agriculture, and the contributions these African slaves made to diets in the lands to which they were transported is often overlooked.


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