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8. Ownership and theft: How the economic value of crops has influenced their domestication: Breadfruits, Sugarcanes, Cloves, Rubber, Tea, Coffee, Mulberries, Monkey Puzzles, Artichokes, Pineapples

Warren, J. CABI PDF

8

Ownership and theft

By weight, plant products are some of the most expensive commodities on earth. You might expect therefore that this would have driven us to domesticate many more crops than we have. However, the reverse is probably true. This chapter includes several examples where crops have become so valuable that this has fuelled economic self-interest in those involved in growing and trading in these crops. This in turn has driven them to steal, smuggle, outlaw and even destroy these plants, to an extreme that has been damaging to our crop genetic resources.

Everywhere you look there are plants. Without plants there can be no animals and certainly no humans. We don’t just eat plants. While doing so; we sit on chairs made of plants, eat at tables made of plants, and live in homes built of plants. We clothe ourselves in plant fibres. They are used to make musical instruments and most of our great literature and art was produced on plant material, coloured with plant pigments. We ferment plants to produce alcohol. Chemicals derived from plants make us high and are also still the basis of most of our medicines. The list goes on and on. And yet, we still utilize a tiny proportion of the plants that are available to us. Not only are plants essential for most human activities, the crop plants that we exploit in so many diverse ways are the rare elite. This can make them incredibly valuable and the people who control their cultivation and trade exceedingly rich and powerful. It is no great surprise therefore that human history is bursting with stories of subterfuge, stealing and smuggling of crops plants. Breaking monopolies of supplies of crops frequently motivated the great journeys of discovery such as those of

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7. Classic combinations and recurring themes: Plant families that have been repeatedly domesticated: Grains, Legumes, Pumpkins, Spinaches

Warren, J. CABI PDF

7

Classic combinations and recurring themes

We have seen that the chance of a wild plant being domesticated is rather rare. However, a small number of plant families have independently provided us with important crops on several occasions. This chapter tries to identify what makes these families so special. It appears that each of these families produces seeds or fruits that are easily stored, or leaves that can be harvested over a prolonged season. In addition to this, it turns out that their nutritional properties and agricultural requirements perfectly complement each other.

It is said that humans consume every part of the pig, except for its squeak. Although the hog may be a versatile creature, the ways in which we utilize plants are far more varied. In spite of the fact that we routinely eat so few of the plant species that are available to us, we have found a seemingly endless list of ingenious uses for every plant product on offer.

We dig up roots and underground storage organs, while fruits and seeds are devoured with relish. Plant sap is tapped to turn into rubber, or poured over pancakes as maple syrup or fermented to make birch sap wine. More viscous plant secretions give us varnish, glues and violin resin. Unopened flower buds provide us with the very different flavours of cloves and capers plus the rather less exotic tasting cauliflower. The stigmas and styles of crocus flowers are harvested to give us the spice saffron, and nectar is plundered from agave flowers to produce a range of desserts. The bark of trees provides us with items as diverse as cork, cinnamon and materials for building canoes. We use fibres from cotton and linen to make fabrics that are dyed using plant pigments. The fluffy fibres that

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2. Wild things: Recently domesticated crops and crops that have returned to the wild: Cranberries, Huckleberries, Currants, Kiwifruits, Cacao, Cashew nuts, Pistachio nuts, Cabbages

Warren, J. CABI PDF

2

Wild things

What is the difference between a crop and a wild plant? The definition is not a black and white one. In this chapter we discover that many crops hardly differ from their wild ancestors, while others have slipped from our diet and returned to the wild. Even after thousands of years of cultivation, many crops are still grown alongside wild progenitors of the same species with genes regularly flowing in both directions. Modern genetic tools are revealing that some crops have been domesticated on several occasions.

In extreme cases, species that have been cultivated for millennia also occur as varieties that have just been plucked from the wild.

In the early days of the Soviet Union, the Russian scientist Nicholai

Vavilov realized that most of the world’s crops originated from a handful of ancient centres of domestication. Conversely, the great landmasses of

Australia and North America had contributed very little to our modern diet, except for a few minor players, which are in essence still wild species, such as macadamia nuts and cranberries respectively. These

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1. Introduction, the nature of natural: What does domestication involve?: Peanuts, Rye, Tomato

Warren, J. CABI PDF

1

Introduction, the nature of natural

The entire raison d'être of this book is to try and ascertain why we eat so few of the plant species that are available to us on Earth. In attempting this feat the first chapter tries to establish whether our impoverished diet is a new phenomenon. The evidence suggests that our ancestral diets differed greatly between cultures and although some of these may have been more diverse than our own, many others would have been more monotonous. Throughout this book different elements of the problem are tackled by exploring crop biographies as case studies. In this first chapter this approach reveals that over the history of crop domestication, humans have successfully and repeatedly solved one of the most significant problems involved in transforming wild plants into crops, which is how to avoid being poisoned. This was achieved by a number of methods: by selecting plants that contain lower levels of toxic chemicals, by adapting our own biology to be better able to digest these new foods stuffs and finally by inventing methods of processing plant materials which make them safer to eat. These issues will re-emerge and are covered in greater depth in subsequent chapters.

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5. The weird and wonderful: Herbs, spices and crops with exotic phytochemicals: Wasabi, Chillies, Saffron, Herbs, Willow, Tobacco, Cannabis, Durians

Warren, J. CABI PDF

5

The weird and wonderful

Although we gain most of our calories from a remarkably short list of species, our spice-racks, and medicinal and recreational drug cabinets in contrast are stuffed with the plants that are rich in an amazing diversity of chemicals. This chapter describes a range of the more unusual plants that we consume and tries to answer: why are we repeatedly drawn to minor crops that burn our lips and befuddle our brains?

It can be argued that all plants with the exception of grasses can be considered to be poisonous. The cells of plants contain a vast array of weird and wonderful chemicals. The biological function of many of these within these plants remains uncertain. However, once inside the human body these compounds may act as powerful drugs, potentially enhancing our health by mopping up cancer causing reagents, or they may help kill disease-causing microorganisms. Alternatively nature’s apothecary may impair our well-being. Plants may cause our demise by rapid poisoning, or slowly cause our death over decades. Other chemicals derived from plants cause allergies, intense burning sensations and befuddle our minds.

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