Fishes and Loaves?

Christian children in Sunday school often hear the story of how Jesus Christ is supposed to have transformed two fish and five loaves of bread into enough food to feed a multitude of people. In the centuries following the discovery of the New World by the Europeans, the population of the Earth has multiplied itself by four. Certainly, a staggering number of billions of people would constitute a "multitude," but short of a miraculous transformation, from where is the food to nourish these people coming? Some of the facts to answer this question can be found in the patterns of exporting New World foods back to the Old World—not only Europe, but Asia and Africa as well.

When the explorers brought back some of the stabler and hardier crops, the stereotypes of these staples in a particular ethnic or national diet was conceived. It is amazing to discover how many of these "cultural" foods were imported from another land. For example, one often thinks of the potato as being an Irish icon, yet it was brought from the Americas. Its origin does not lessen its importance to the Irish as a good "relief crop" (and who can forget the "Irish Potato Famine" in history?). Like Italian food? A good, rich tomato sauce? Not Italian. The tomato came from the New World. Spices that characterize dishes of Spain and Hungary—also from the New World. So not only did the new foods from the Americas allow the sustenance of life for the residents back home, but they also provided many "trademarks" of the national cultures of the Old World, especially in Europe. Other continents were interested in the novel harvests as well.

The presence of the sweet potato in the Japanese diet can be attributed to the importation of the American vegetable. Another Asian sweet potato producer is China—the largest sweet potato producer in the world. The Chinese were also eager to farm peanuts, as early as the time of Cortes. Later, maize became a staple crop in China, and today it is an important part of the food production in north China.

The plants worked so well that as countries became overcrowded with the growing populations of well-nourished citizens, an emigration from the Old World commenced. Some of the new "Americans" where African slaves, brought against their will, but who had relied on American crops in their native land. Since the latitudeof tropical Africa is the same as South America, many of the plants from the South American region of the New World have been able to flourish in Africa. Maize production in Africa has even surpassed production of all other grains except rice on that continent. By the time the Europeans began to bring Africans en masse to the Americas, they had quite some knowledge about the food plants there.

One can tell that the new wave of immigrants to the shores of the New World were not as ignorant of the foods available from its soil as the original explorers had been. The intent of many slave-owners was to work the Africans in the fields on plantations. With increased knowledge of the native vegetation, the owners using slave labor were able to grow crops in sufficient amounts to not only feed themselves, but also to export and feed other parts of the world. With an adequate food supply, the population of planet Earth has grown immensely. Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. states that with plants "America has made its really positive contribution to the Old World."

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