Now, I’m not much of a farming type. But for some reason, about a year ago I became intensely curious about three cereal grains—corn, rice, and wheat—and the central role they played in getting civilization off the ground. And so, on this Passover holiday, when Ashkenazi Jews are supposed to avoid not only leavened bread, but corn and rice as well (the reason? apparently some 13th-century rabbi feared that a grain of wheat might fall in undetected), I thought I’d “go against the grain,” and ask “Four Questions” about all three of these strange plants.
Question I. How did hunter-gatherers ever get the idea to breed these grains? Of course, we know today that whether or not they’re labeled “organic” at Whole Foods, cereal grains aren’t much like anything found in nature, but are the result of thousands of years of selective breeding: massive genetic-engineering projects of the ancient world. The trouble is that, if you ran into one their wild ancestors, there probably wouldn’t be anything appetizing about it. Corn’s ancestor, for example, seems to have been a barely-edible grass called teosinte. Does the only explanation we can ever hope for rely on anthropic postselection: eventually some cave-dwellers stumbled on the idea of breeding grain, and we’re all living in the aftermath of the resulting population explosion? But the fact that it happened not once, not twice, but three times independently—with wheat in the Middle East, rice in Asia, and corn in the Americas—suggests that it couldn’t have been all that unlikely. Which brings us to…
Question II. What other plants could similarly be used as the basis for a large civilization? The one other plant I can think of that’s played a similar role is the yam, in parts of Africa. Has there ever been a culture that used the potato as its main food source—maybe in Russia or Eastern Europe? (Update, 4/12: Duhhhhhhh, the Irish, of course, hence the Irish Potato Famine. Thanks to several commenters for pointing this out.) OK, what about oats, barley, rye, or sorghum?
Question III. Corn, rice, wheat: which one is best? Is there one such that, if we all switched to it, we’d be ten times healthier and also save the planet? Or, on the tiny chance that we can’t settle that question via blog comments, can we at least elucidate the salient differences? (Corn does seem like the outlier among the three, much as I enjoy grilled rice and wheat on the cob…)
Question IV. Should we still be eating these grains today? It seems clear that corn, rice, and wheat were directly responsible for a human population explosion, and that even today, the planet couldn’t support most of its inhabitants without them. But for those who can afford to, the promoters of “hunter-gatherer diets” advocate returning to foods that were available in the ancestral environment, such as nuts, berries, and roasted mammoth leg. The underlying question here is actually an interesting one: did the switch to agriculture cause some sort of massive change in human health? The most surprising answer would seem to be that it didn’t.
Despite the staggering amount of research I did for this post, it remains conceivable that there are readers who know more about these topics than I do. And so, having thrown out a few seeds, I look forward to reaping a bounteous harvest of grain-related comments.