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Staple Crops of the World

Last updated about 7 years ago

What plants did you eat today? Out of a potential 50,000 edible plants, just three of them provide most of the world's food energy: rice, maize, and wheat. These key species, along with a handful of others, serve as the staple crops that support Earth's large human population. Some you are familiar with, some may surprise you!

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    Sorghum bicolor


    Sorghum [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench] is one of the world's leading cereal crops, providing food, feed, fiber, fuel, and chemical/biofuels feed-stocks across a range of environments and production systems. Its remarkable ability to produce a crop under adverse conditions, in particular with much less water than most other grain crops, makes sorghum an important 'failsafe' source of food, feed, fiber, and fuel in the global agroecosystem. Sorghum is especially important in areas such as Northeast Africa and the US Southern Plains that often receive too little rainfall for most other grains.

    Source: Alternative DOE Joint Genome Institute: Sorghum bicolor

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    Triticum aestivum

    Bread Wheat

    Common wheat, best known and most widely cultivated of the wheats, is cultivated for the grain, used whole or ground. Fine ground, it is the source of flour for the world's breadmaking. Main use is for flour and bread-stuffs known by various names throughout the world. Grain also is the source of alcoholic beverages, beer, industrial alcohol made into synthetic rubber and explosives.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Triticum aestivum L.

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    Solanum tuberosum


    Originally from Latin America, probably Andean, the potato is now grown in probably all temperate countries and in tropical uplands. Germplasm improvement is gradually pushing the potato into the lowland tropics, but it can scarcely compete with the tropical root crops. Tubers are one of the temperate staples, eaten boiled, baked, fried, stewed, etc. Surplus potatoes are used for fodder and alcohol, and chemurgic applications. The flour can be used for baking. Potato starch is used to determine the diastatic value of starch.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Solanum tuberosum L.

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    Ipomoea batatas

    Sweet Potato

    Cultivated mainly for the tuber, used as vegetable, eaten boiled, baked fried, or dried and ground into flour to make biscuits, bread, and other pastries. Tubers also dehydrated in chips, canned, cooked and frozen, creamed and used as pie fillings, much like pumpkin. Leafy tops eaten as vegetable and sold in markets in Malaysia. Greatly esteemed as feed for farm animals; with 3 kg green sweet potatoes equivalent to 1 kg of corn, with a food value rated 95–100% that of corn. Dry vines have feed value which compares favorably with alfalfa hay as forage.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam.

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    Dioscorea alata

    Water Yam

    This member of the yam family (Dioscoreaceae) produces edible underground tubers. (Though most yams contain an acrid component, cooking makes them edible.) The large underground tubers of winged yam can weigh up to 100 pounds. Like air potato, winged yam also produces large numbers of aerial tubers, which are potato-like growths attached to the stems. These grow into new plants. Dioscorea species are cultivated for their edible tubers in West Africa where they are important commodities. Uncultivated forms (as in Florida) however are reported to be bitter and even poisonous. Dioscorea varieties, containing the steroid diosgenin, are a principal material used in the manufacture of birth-control pills. Research has shown that winged yam has antifungal properties.

    Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension: Winged Yam

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    Xanthosoma sagittifolium

    Arrowleaf Elephant's Ear

    Central and South Americans use the tubers of elephant ear tubers in various meals. The tuber is one of the most popular foods in the country and provides a basic diet for many. The tubers can be harvested and stored for several weeks if refrigerated. Elephant ear is cultivated in many of the Central and South American countries. Taro is native to Africa and was brought as a food crop for slaves. It is also widely eaten in many areas of the Pacific.

    Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension: Elephant Ear

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    Eragrostis tef


    The millet known as tef (Eragrostis tef) is a minor cereal crop on a global scale, but a major food grain in Ethiopia  and Eritrea. In 2003–2004, for example, this grass was planted on around 2 million hectares, accounting for 28% of the 8 cereal crops grown in Ethiopia, and yielded more than 1.5 million metric tons. Tef can be grown under a wide range of conditions, including situations not suitable for other cereals.

    Source: Shapiro, L. 2011. Eragrostis tef: General Description. Available from

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    Panicum miliaceum

    Proso Millet

    Proso millet (or "common millet") is both a component of grain mixes for birdfood and feed for cattle, sheep, hogs and poultry. It is also grown as a food crop and has very low water requirements, making it an excellent dryland crop.

    Source: Alternative Field Crops Manual: Millets

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    Eleusine coracana

    Finger Millet

    Ragi, or "finger millet" is the main food grain for many peoples, especially in dry areas of India and Sri Lanka. Grain is higher in protein, fat and minerals than rice, corn, or sorghum (Reed, 1976). It is usually converted into flour and made into cakes, Puddings, or porridge. When consumed as food it provides a sustaining diet, especially for people doing hard work. Straw makes valuable fodder for both working and milking animals. A fermented drink or beer is made from the grain. Grain may also be malted and a flour of the malted grain used as a nourishing food for infants and invalids. Ragi is considered an especially wholesome food for diabetics.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.

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    Secale cereale


    Cereal rye is cultivated for the grain, used to make flour, the importance of which is second only to wheat. Canadian and United States whiskies are made mainly from rye. Roasted grains substitute for coffee. Grains mixed with others are used for livestock feed. As pasturage, crop grazed fall or spring and then allowed to head-out and mature. Probably native to southwestern Asia, but now widely cultivated in the temperate regions of the world. Grown in every state in the United States, often where conditions are unfavorable for wheat.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Secale cereale L.

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    Maranta arundinacea


    Arrowroot seems to be an all-inclusive name applied to several species of plants whose roots (rhizomes) are either eaten fresh or made into flour. It is open to speculation whether the name comes from the pointed shape of the root or the belief that it cured arrow injuries. The term arrowroot applies both to the flour and the plant. Arrowroot is also called bamboo tuber, although it is not a true bamboo. The main arrowroot of commerce is West Indian, reed, or Bermuda arrowroot (M. arundinacea).

    Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension: Arrowroot — Maranta arundinacea L.

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    Helianthus tuberosus

    Jerusalem Artichoke

    Jerusalem artichoke is grown primarily for tubers which can be eaten fresh or raw, cooked in appetizing ways similar to Irish potatoes, or pickled. Tubers are used to fatten cattle, sheep and hogs. Stems and leaves are rich in fats, protein and pectin, and make good forage and silage. Jerusalem artichoke is a suitable crop in any soil and climate where corn will grow. It survives in poor soil and in areas as cold as Alaska. It tolerates hot to sub-zero temperatures.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Helianthus tuberosus L.

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    Glycine max


    Soybean seeds furnish one of the world's most important sources of oil and protein. Unripe seeds are eaten as vegetable and dried seeds eaten whole, split or sprouted. Processed they give soy milk, a valuable protein supplement in infant feeding which also provides curds and cheese. Soy sauce made from the mature fermented beans, and soy is an ingredient in other sauces.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Glycine max (L.) Merr.