Staple Crops of the World

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!


  • <p>Pearl or cattail millet (Pennisetum glaucum) originated in the African savannah and grown since prehistoric time. It is grown extensively in Africa, Asia, India and Near East as a food grain. It was introduced into the United States at an early date but was seldom grown until 1875. It is primarily grown in southern United States as a temporary pasture. It is preferred over sudangrass as a forage crop in the south. Varieties planted at Rosemount, Minnesota produced very little seed, and their forage yield was low compared to foxtail varieties.</p> <p>Source: <a href="">Alternative Field Crops Manual: Millets</a></p>
  • <p>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).</p> <p>Source: <a href="">University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension: Arrowroot — Maranta arundinacea L.</a></p>
  • <p>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.</p> <p>Source: <a href="">University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension: Winged Yam</a></p>
  • <p>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. </p> <p>Source: <a href="">University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension: Elephant Ear</a></p>
  • <p>Cassava is a perennial woody shrub, grown as an annual. Cassava is a major source of low cost carbohydrates for populations in the humid tropics. The largest producer of cassava is Brazil, followed by Thailand, Nigeria, Zaire and Indonesia. Production in Africa and Asia continues to increase, while that in Latin America has remained relatively level over the past 30 years. Thailand is the main exporter of cassava with most of it going to Europe. It was carried to Africa by Portuguese traders from the Americas. It is a staple food in many parts for western and central Africa and is found throughout the humid tropics. The world market for cassava starch and meal is limited, due to the abundance of substitutes.</p> <p>Source: <a href="">New Crop FactSHEET: Cassava</a></p>
  • <p>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. </p> <p>Source: <a href="">James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Helianthus tuberosus L.</a></p>

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