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Food blog no. 8 – some interesting things about food crops from BIOLOGY 2010

Published December 2, 2010

by dbazely

From January to April 2010, I taught BIOLOGY 2010, Plants.

I have long been annoyed that of the 6 Kingdoms of Life (Bacteria, Archaea, Plants, Protista, Fungi and Animals), introductory zoology courses cover only 1 kingdom. On the other hand, introductory botany courses cover  5 kingdoms. The animal kingdom has hardly any species compared to other 5. In introductory Botany or Plants courses, if we follow the text book's organizational structure, starting at chapter 1, we work our way through fungi, seaweed, bacteria and viruses before getting to trees and flowers. This is NOT fair!

The last time I taught this Biology course was in 1997. And everyone was bored by how long it took us to get to plants - chapter 15 after chapters 1-14 on every other kind of organism except animals. But, thanks to the wonders of e-learning, now I can start my course with chapter 21 - The Human Prospect, or People and Plants and not lose the thread.

My goal was to hook the students into the course through excitement about plants as food:

Without photosynthesis, there would be no life on earth as we know it. Plants are the foundation of our life. Yet, although there are over 250,000 species of plants, humans use only 14 species as our main food crops! WHEAT, RICE, MAIZE, POTATOES, SWEET POTATOES and MANIOC (provide more than 80% of the total calories consumed by humans), while SUGARCANE, SUGARBEET, COMMON BEANS, SOYBEANS, BARLEY, SORGHUM, COCONUTS and BANANAS add to the list, that constitutes the majority of crops that are widely grown for food around the globe.

In the move from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian (crop-based) societies, the area needed to support a family dropped from 5 sq km to a fraction of this. The efforts of a few people were able to produce enough food for everyone.

Since then, the industrial revolution and the green revolution have provided huge subsidies to the amount of time and energy that it takes to produce food to feed ourselves.

All food for thought!

I think that we should give Jerusalem Artichoke or Sunchoke (Helianthis tuberosus) more attention. It's one of only two truly native plant crops in our Great Lakes Basin (the other is wild rice - Zizania aquatica). You can see photos of me and my husband with our back yard crop of Sunchokes - we have dug up about 30lbs so far!

Dawn R. Bazely

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