Of India, Indians, and the Food Revolution

Mistaking the Americas for India, Columbus unknowingly sparked a food revolution that melded many agricultural traditions, from India to American Indians.

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Photo courtesy www.RareSeed.com

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Another Columbus Day has recently passed, as of this writing, and once again we give thought to what the day means. In this country, until fairly recently, the anniversary was marked with celebration. It stood for the discovery of the New World and the opening of new and incredibly rich resources to Europeans, who quickly and methodically set about exploiting them. More recently, mainstream culture has come to grasp the unfathomable injustice and misery that claiming the New World has caused to its original inhabitants and to their descendants even to the present day. Native Americans do not celebrate Columbus’ discovery; and modern people have come to understand why.

When Columbus made landfall on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1492, he unwittingly set off a revolution that reverberated around the globe for centuries. He may have been looking for a quicker and safer trade route to access the riches of India, but what he actually found was so much more than that. Mistaking his landing place for India, it was natural enough to mistake the native Taino people he found there for Indians, and so he named them. It was an irony that, like the misnomer itself, has persisted for centuries.

And yet the two regions, India and the Americas, have much in common besides wealth enough to tempt generations of avaricious Renaissance adventures. Both are stunningly diverse in climate—both have tropical jungle, subtropical savanna, deserts, temperate climes and mountains. They are further alike in possessing incredible diversity of peoples, languages, cultures and cuisines.

Europeans realized their mistake soon enough. But in the frenzied quest for gold and converts, a few noticed the value of the Native agricultural crops. It’s a legacy that has proved to be much more enduring, and today, long after the gold has been spent, it’s these crops that continue to give, feeding billions around the globe. 

The Americas abounded in agricultural riches. Of the staple crops that the world takes for granted to this day, many were unknown outside the Americas prior to Columbus’ voyages. Corn was the most prevalent of these. Cultivated for thousands of years by Native nations from New England into South America, corn was the basis for a number of advanced Native civilizations. The potato is another such crop. Originally cultivated in the cool conditions high up in the Andes, potatoes were well suited to conditions in Ireland and in Eastern Europe. Tomatoes, peppers, common beans, Lima beans, squash, sunflower, Jerusalem artichoke, quinoa, amaranth, peanuts and cocoa are some of the other crops that the Americas gave to the world.

As in the Americas, the riches of India consisted more durably of agricultural crops than of precious metals and gems. Many of today’s favored crops have their origin on the Subcontinent. Cucumbers, eggplant, sesame, cotton, bitter melons, hyacinth bean, several other legumes, possibly rice, sugarcane, and of course the spices: cloves, cardamon, and cinnamon. All either originated in India, or were grown there before humans began to work with metals. And for milennia, trade had flourished between India and Europe, most recently through the leavening effect of Arab conquests, which stretch from India and central Asia, as far west as Spain.

So the early Europeans did not come empty-handed. As conquest quickly gave way to colonization, the new inhabitants craved foods they remembered from their homeland. Native European crops began to be planted in the New World. Fava beans, chick peas, cabbage family crops, beets, melons, wheat and others were brought from Europe. The invaders also brought crops from India and Asia, many of which they had come to think of as their own, and were quickly embraced by the surviving indigenous populations.

What emerged was a worldwide melding of agricultural traditions. Swept along by the trade winds that powered sailing ships, worthwhile crops quickly became valued objects of commerce. Wheat, fava beans, melons and many other crops were quickly embraced in the New World. Peppers, corn, and potatoes just as rapidly found acceptance in the old. African crops were disseminated as well: okra, watermelon, and cowpeas. Traditions of centuries’ duration made room for new crops in the relative blink of an eye. Commerce provided the vehicle, but the change was really driven by pragmatism: the new crops were good, so they found ready acceptance in a way that a foreign language or religion never could. Can anyone really imagine Indian or Thai cuisine without peppers? How about Mexican food without onions, rice, cumin or cilantro? It was truly a planetary revolution, and it continues to this very day. And centuries of oppression and suffering notwithstanding, we are all of us today, the beneficiaries.

Bringing it to a personal level, I reflect on my own case: half of all my ancestors were Portuguese, so the age of discovery is in my blood, as it were. (Portugal was the second great maritime colonial power.) And yet, a fair number of my ancestors were Native Americans, and I’ve spent summer days with close relatives on the reservation. So seeing the matter from both sides comes naturally to me. I long ago realized that if events had played out even the tiniest bit differently, I would not be here at all. The very same could be said of the world we know today.


Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, and owns and operates AbundantAcres.net, which has grown and shipped strictly heirloom, chemical-free veggie starts and plants, since 2004. He has recently relocated to Maine, and you can follow the development of his organic micro-farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.