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>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. </p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Solanum_tuberosum.html">James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Solanum tuberosum L.</a></p>
  • <p>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.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/ipomoea_batatas.html">James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam.</a></p>
  • <p>The breadfruit is believed to be native to a vast area extending from New Guinea through the Indo-Malayan Archipelago to Western Micronesia. It is said to have been widely spread in the Pacific area by migrating Polynesians, and Hawaiians believed that it was brought from the Samoan island of Upalu to Oahu in the 12th Century A.D. It is said to have been first seen by Europeans in the Marquesas in 1595, then in Tahiti in 1606. At the beginning of the 18th Century, the early English explorers were loud in its praises, and its fame, together with several periods of famine in Jamaica between 1780 and 1786, inspired plantation owners in the British West Indies to petition King George III to import seedless breadfruit trees to provide food for their slaves.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/breadfruit.html">Morton, J. 1987. Breadfruit. p. 50–58. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.</a></p>
  • <p>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.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Glycine_max.html">James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Glycine max (L.) Merr.</a></p>
  • <p>Common bean is most widely cultivated of all beans in temperate regions, and widely cultivated in semitropical regions. In temperate regions the green immature pods are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Immature pods are marketed fresh, frozen or canned, whole, cut or french-cut. Mature ripe beans, variously called navy beans, white beans, northern beans, or pea beans, are widely consumed. In lower latitudes, dry beans furnish a large portion of the protein needs of low and middle class families.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/phaseolus_vulgaris.html">James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Phaseolus vulgaris L.</a></p>
  • <p>The domestication of Lens culinaris formed an important part of the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic, along with Wheat and Barley. Although the amount harvested per unit area for Lentil is less than for Wheat and Barley, the high protein content (25%) of Lentil seeds makes them a highly nutritious (and tasty) food source. </p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.biodiversityexplorer.org/plants/fabaceae/lens_culinaris.htm">Biodiversity Explorer: Lens culinaris (Lentil)</a></p>
  • <p>Chickpea is grown in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate regions. Kabuli type is grown in temperate regions while the desi type chickpea is grown in the semi-arid tropics (Muehlbauer and Singh, 1987; Malhotra et al., 1987). Chickpea is valued for its nutritive seeds with high protein content, 25.3-28.9 %, after dehulling (Hulse, 1991). Chickpea seeds are eaten fresh as green vegetables, parched, fried, roasted, and boiled; as snack food, sweet and condiments; seeds are ground and the flour can be used as soup, dhal, and to make bread; prepared with pepper, salt and lemon it is served as a side dish.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/cropfactsheets/Chickpea.html">NewCROP FactSHEET: Cicer arietinum L.</a></p>
  • <p>Peas are cultivated for the fresh green seeds, tender green pods, dried seeds and foliage (Duke, 1981). Green peas are eaten cooked as a vegetable, and are marketed fresh, canned, or frozen while ripe dried peas are used whole, split, or made into flour (Davies et al., 1985). In some parts of the world, dried peas are consumed split as dahl, roasted, parched or boiled.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/cropfactsheets/pea.html">NewCROP FactSHEET: Pisum sativum L.</a></p>
  • <p>Taro (Colocasia esculenta), believed to be one of the world's oldest food crops, was traditionally the main root crop of Samoa and was the preferred starchy staple until the cyclones of the 1990s. However, the impact of the cyclones followed by the rapid spread of taro leaf blight (Phytophthera colocasiae) resulted in a major decline in production, particularly as all cultivars proved susceptible to the disease. Whereas taro was once the largest export commodity, generating more than half of all export revenue in 1993, it currently accounts for less than one per cent of export revenue.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.new-ag.info/en/country/profile.php?a=844">New Agriculturalist: A taro tale. </a></p>
  • <p>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.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://prelaunch.eol.org/data_objects/11290577">Shapiro, L. 2011. Eragrostis tef: General Description. Available from eol.org </a></p>
  • <p>Cultivated barley is one of the primary cereal crops in many areas of the world and has played an important role in human history. Nutritious, like wheat, but able to withstand drier conditions and poorer soils, barley has been historically cultivated for animal feed, human food, and fermented for beer. Today, it appears in many health food products.</p> <p>Source: Zohary, D. and M. Hopf. 2000. Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. Third Edition. Oxford University Press.</p>
  • <p>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.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/millet.html">Alternative Field Crops Manual: Millets</a></p>
  • <p>Foxtail millet (Setaria italica L.) probably originated in southern Asia and is the oldest of the cultivated millets. Today, foxtail millet is grown primarily in eastern Asia. Proso millet is grown in the Soviet Union, mainland China, India and western Europe. In the United States, both millets are grown principally in the Dakotas, Colorado and Nebraska. Foxtail millet is usually grown for hay or silage often as a short-season emergency hay crop.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/millet.html">Alternative Field Crops Manual: Millets</a></p>
  • <p>Oats grain is used widely for human consumption. While oats are still widely used for breakfast cereals, their use as a staple in northern Europe has decreased with the easier availability of imported wheat; a wide range of oat recipes is given by MacNeill 1929. A tall annual cereal, widely grown as a fodder in temperate and sub-tropical countries, also does well in the high-altitude tropics. Oats are only known as a cultigen, of uncertain origin, but were known to Lake Dwellers of Europe.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.fao.org/ag/AGP/AGPC/doc/Gbase/DATA/PF000466.HTM">Grassland Species Profiles: Avena sativa </a></p>
  • <p>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.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/eleusine_coracana.html">James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.</a></p>
  • <p>Rice is cultivated primarily for the grain which forms an important part of the diet in many countries, especially in Asia. Native to the tropics and subtropics of Southeast Asia, rice is now cultivated in many localities throughout the world with favorable climatic conditions. More than 90% of the world rice production is in Asia; China and India being the largest producers.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/oryza_sativa.html">James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Oryza sativa L.</a></p>
  • <p>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.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Secale_cereale.html">James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Secale cereale L.</a></p>
  • <p>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.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://genome.jgi-psf.org/Sorbi1/Sorbi1.home.html">Alternative DOE Joint Genome Institute: Sorghum bicolor</a></p>
  • <p>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.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/triticum_aestivum.html">James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Triticum aestivum L.</a></p>
  • <p>Maize (corn) was first domesticated in Central America about 7000 years ago and is now the third most important crop in the world. The many cultivars are grown for cereal or forage, and it is also an important source of oil, syrup, and alcohol.</p> <p>Source: <a href="http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=200026507">Flora of China: Zea mays</a></p>

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