‘The Nature of Crops’ Published Next Month

Its already available to pre-order from CABI and via Amazon:

To wet your appetite, here are the opening paragraphs of ‘The Nature of Crops’

Scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have estimated that the number of species of plants alive on the earth today is probably in excess of 400,000. Of these it is thought that many more than half of them could be considered edible to humans. It is entirely possible that we could eat an amazing 300,000 plant species. However, the reality is that we only consume a tiny fraction of what is possible. Homo sapiens, which is the most cosmopolitan of all species and one that thrives by virtue of being a
supreme generalist, survives, by routinely eating only about 200 plant species. Amazingly more than half of the calories and the proteins that we derive from plants are provided by just three crops: maize, rice, and wheat. Given these remarkable statistics, the next time you hear a faddy child complaining that it does not want to eat its broccoli; you must inform the pernickety urchin that they are being offered one of the most appetizing, the most delectable, and the most scrummy things on a menu that lists 300,000 possible alternatives. If they think broccoli is repulsive then threaten them with something really disgusting. Ask them to imagine dinner tomorrow night chosen from the least palatable offerings on the list. The argument can be extended. Broccoli must be truly wonderful, because as a crop it has benefited from generations of selection, which have enhanced its taste qualities, palatability, nutritional value and yield. In contrast, most of the other 300,000 are still wild plants that taste, ‘just as nature intended’.
The world’s finest gourmet chefs are no better than the rest of us. They choose to cook using almost the same limited list of ingredients as everyone else. They too are confined by the conformities of our current highly restricted choice. Imagine if all the great artists opted to paint with less than one percent of the colours available on their palette. How stunned would the art establishment be at the avant-garde painter who was able to revolutionize our view of the world by introducing us to literally thousands of new colours? Surely they would walk away with the Turner Prize.
The animal kingdom provides us with an even more limited choice of things to eat. In the absence of seafood, the menu is effectively restricted to beef, pork, lamb and chicken. But we could argue that there is little to be gained by widening our horizons, because as everyone knows, all other meats from frogs, through to ostrich or crocodiles all taste just the same, ‘a bit like chicken’. However, the ‘a bit like chicken’ phenomenon does not appear to apply in the world of plants. A raspberry is not one bit like a banana, an orange or an apple. More remarkably, a sprout is not even very much like cauliflower or kohlrabi, and as we shall discover later, these three are in fact all the same species. Given the vast array of different flavours and textures that could be available if we were adventurous enough to venture further down the menu, it really does demand that we ask the question – why do we limit ourselves to growing and eating just a couple of hundred plant species? Are these chosen few fruit and vegetables at the top of the menu really the only ones worth bothering with? Is everything else further down the list less appetizing than a sprout, and therefore just not worth contemplating? Even if that were true, it just makes the question even more intriguing, because, many of our current favourite crops, (the ones that we routinely eat today) were domesticated from wild ancestors that are virtually inedible. So what made our forebears set about the task of domesticating a twisted, chewy, fibrous wild root in the uncertain hope they would eventually arrive at the large, crunchy, tender, sweet, orange thing we recognize today as a carrot? Why dedicate thousands of years to this task rather than starting with a dandelion that has a much fleshier and potentially more promising root as a wild plant? Why did different groups of humans in different places and at different times, frequently decide to develop crops derived from the same plant families? Why have some of these crops spread around the world while others have remained local specialities? Even within a region, we need to ask why are so many of our chosen few crops related to each other, when other plant families are spurned? Have we always been so unadventurous in our tastes or are there good biological reasons for our conservatism? These questions are anything but trivial, because our favourite plant families are frequently highly poisonous and contain many highly toxic relatives. For example, the deadly nightshade family has given us staples such as potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines as well as the more unusual but intriguingly named Duke of Argyll’s tea plant (or goji berry) all of which are stuffed full of toxic chemicals called alkaloids. There are still deeper layers of complexity to be explained, because sometimes we are attracted by oddities; by plants with very few related species, while on other occasions we clamour to consume plants with pungent odours and burning tastes. The smelly durian and hottest chilli peppers have their devotees who are prepared to pay the highest prices, and yet these delicacies revolt most uninitiated palates. Again and again we have ended up eating the most unlikely of crops while overlooking the vast majority of the potentially edible, even when they are commonplace.
My task here is not to play the role of Eve in the Garden of Eden and tempt you to eat of the forbidden fruit. But I do wish to provide you with new knowledge as together we attempt to try and answer the question – why do we eat the plants we do?


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