How to Feed the World: Cereals and Our Daily Bread
In the first four parts of this series, we’ve looked at the crude outlines of our food crisis; now, it is time to turn to solutions. Much like at the dawn of civilization, two plants stand out; cereals and legumes, and we’ll look at them separately.
The Cradle of Humanity
Domestication of cereal grasses is one of the marks of the beginning of our civilization. Planned agriculture provided a stable source of nutrition which liberated people from mere survival and allowed them to allocate their time to other pursuits. There would be no poetry, no art, and certainly no engineering without a stable food source such as cereal grains.
Ancient peoples recognized that importance. In Euro-Atlantic tradition, the word cereals originate in the Roman god Ceres, a goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility, and maternity (and note, a female!). Another great cradle of humanity, ancient China, holds the Five Grains as the absolute foundation of civilization and human existence.
In a pre-industrial world, when famine was still a regular visitor and peoples’ connection to natural forces was thus still huge, it is not difficult to understand that cereals were praised as holy and divine. But since their importance is so profound, we’ll leave the cultural and political role of cereals (and legumes) for a future post. For now, let’s focus on the biological and nutritional aspects alone.
Cereals, Pseudo-cereals and Grains
By cereals, we usually mean seeds of domesticated grasses, but from a nutritional standpoint, we often include pseudo-grains such as quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat, which look and taste similar but belong to different biological categories. To discuss nutrition, it is not a big mistake to include them among the cereals, as long as we are aware of their distinct botanical classification. For simplicity, I’ll refer to both of these categories as cereals.