Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and drink

A tale of the planet’s 30 super food plants. Or everyone be nice to Norway in case things go really bad

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I came across this statement the other day and it stopped me in my tracks:

The modern supermarket is deceptive in the variety it offers. When the packaging is removed, it reveals that 95 per cent of our global nutritional needs are derived from a mere 30 kinds of plants. Three-quarters of our diet is based on only eight crops - a far cry from the 80,000 plants the world offers as potentially edible species.

It's from Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management . And no, it was not written by James Lovelock, whose Gaia hypothesis back in the late 1970s first alerted us to the idea of Earth as a "living" planet. (Lovelock, by the way, is currently on tour, at age 90, promoting his latest book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning . It features on its cover a startlingly red planet Earth floating in a sea of black, rather than the usual Spaceship Earth orb of sympathetic blue.)

This graphically rich atlas, originally edited by Oxford's world-renowned conservationist and author, Dr. Norman Meyers, is a collaborative work of amazing breadth and depth by scientists from around the world, from Amnesty International to the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences. Given Lovelock's "final warning" it's not such a bad book to pull out and contemplate right now.

But back to the "super"market featuring, essentially, 30 plants - fresh, frozen, canned, ground, baked, processed or what have you. It all depends on where in the world you are as to which of the magical 30 feed you the most.

In the top 24, we find watermelons in the number 24 position, surely a delight here in Canada on a summer's day, but not a food that springs immediately to mind when considering the major food league out of 80,000 edible contenders.

From there, moving up the annual crop production list, we find yams, cotton seed (for oil - check that cracker box label), rye, sugar beets, peanuts, coconut, millet, apples, oranges and bananas, in that ascending order. Nice to see bananas topping boring old rye, unless you're a whiskey drinker, and I'm not sure they consider that nutritional, at least not yet.

Yes, we find dozens of other plant products on our food shelves, but they definitely play a minor role next to the top eight heavy hitters that supply three-quarters of the nutritional needs of people around the world. Wheat remains in the top spot, as it has for centuries, followed by rice; maize and potatoes (tied for third place, more or less); barley; sweet potatoes; cassava; and, believe it or not, grapes, and we aren't talking about wine production here.

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