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1|3rd of what we eat today is foreign 

Jun 26 2016 : The Times of India (Bangalore)
1|3rd of what we eat today is foreign 

Subodh Varma 
From atta and aloo to apples, many of our dietary staples originated abroad, finds a study 

If you’ve been exclaiming at the profusion of foreign veggies and fruits in your local market, you may be surprised to know that it’s not a recent phenomenon. Of all the food grains, veg etables and fruits grown and eaten in India, about a third originally came from some foreign land. In terms of calories, such food items account for 45% of all calories consumed in the country .

At the global level, 66% of calories consumed are derived from foreign origin foods on an average as is 71% of production.

This data was gathered and ana lysed by an international team of scientists studying interdependence of the world’s countries on each other’s foods. The study, covering 177 countries and 132 types of fruits and vegetables, was led by scientists from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

In the past hundred years, scientists have brought together archaeological, linguistic, taxonomic, genetic and other data to identify where all crops came from, said Colin Khoury, lead author of the study .

“What scientists have not done before is to ask -where does our modern food really come from, in the historical sense? This is what we did in our study,“ he told TOI.

The Indian subcontinent is place of origin to one of the widest arrays of foods ranging from varieties of rice, millets and pulses among food grains to sugarcane, bananas and plantains, mangoes, lemons, and various tubers like taro and yams. But some of the most popular foods, now part of the staple diet in India, did not originate here. These include onions (from West Asia), potatoes and tomatoes (from the Andean region in South America), chillies (from Central America), rapeseed and mustard seed from the Mediterranean region, garlic and apples from Central Asia among others. Even the biggest staple of them all ¬ wheat ¬ originally developed in West Asia but came to India thousands of years ago.

How and when did all these reach India? Ancient human migrations over centuries, and trade are the most common reasons for transport of plant species across regions. In the study, Khoury and his co-workers found that there are 23 regions spread across the world where different plants evolved. But now their produce is found all over the globe.

“We can argue that apples `originated’ in a cultivated form first in one region (Central Asia), but the reality of modern apples is that they have very important genetic diversity from wild relatives and early domesticated forms developed from East Asia and Europe too. Same for oil palm -the most cultivated modern oil palm is a mixture of West and Central African as well as Neotropical genetic diversity, from two species of palm. So we called all those regions the `primary regions of diversity’ of those crops,“ Khoury explained.

You may think that assimilation of a new type of food plant produce would be a difficult process but history shows that it is surprisingly easy . Khoury pointed out two examples of very rapid assimilation: potatoes and maize.

“Only 16 years after Europeans first saw potatoes (in the Andean mountains of South America), they were already growing them in Europe! Sometimes crops can really help to complement diets in new regions. For example, in Italy there were only winter cereals like wheat, so after the Columbian Exchange, maize was rapidly adopted into the country in some regions because it was a summer cereal and so produced food at a different time of year than the traditional staples,“ he said.

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