Grasses as food

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Grasses as food

Grass seeds are called "grains". Most grains are small, hard and dry and can easily be stored, measured and transported, which makes them ideal food sources as opposed to other food crops such as fresh fruits, roots and tubers.

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History of grasses as food

Barley Hordeum vulgare © Ita McCobb

According to a study by Julio Mercader published in Science magazine and entitled Mozambican Grass Seed Consumption During the Middle Stone Age: “A large assemblage of starch granules has been retrieved from the surfaces of Middle Stone Age stone tools from Mozambique, showing that early Homo sapiens relied on grass seeds starting at least 105,000 years ago, including those of Sorghum grasses.”

Richard Mabey in his book “The cabaret of plants – Botany and the imagination” suggests:

“The most traumatic change in early cultures was from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, a shift which involved a fundamental transformation of the landscape from an open prospect dominated by wild trees to enclosures of cultivated crops. The development of maize – with rice and wheat, one of the world’s three main staple grasses – was the most remarkable process of informal plant breeding in the history of cultivation, involving mysterious transformations of the plant itself, and empathy and ingenuity on the part of the Indian (Mayan) farmers who lived with it.”

So what was it that had turned into an essential part of daily existence for the foragers of Pleistocene times? For centuries we had believed that the technological difficulty inherent in the processing of grains was beyond our early ancestors’ abilities, instead we thought that roots, fruits and nuts provided the basis of their subsistence.

The answer is still relevant today. Most grains are small, hard and dry and can easily be stored, measured and transported as opposed to other food crops such as fresh fruits, roots and tubers.

The development of grain agriculture has also provided an added plus for mankind’s dietary requirements, it allows excess grain foods to be produced and stored easily – so providing a buffer for times when food supplies were/are limited.

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Food uses of grasses

Rice fields © FAO/Antonello Proto

Grasses are often called by their family name Gramineae or Poaceae. The top six grasses that provide staple foodstuffs from domesticated cereal crops globally are: Barley, Maize (corn), Millet, Rice, Sorghum and Wheat.

Barley: is used in soups and stews and, in many cultures, for making barley bread. Barley grains are commonly made into malt and used for fermenting beer and some other distilled drinks. Barley is also used as a component in many health foods and animal fodder.

Maize (corn): Maize and cornmeal (ground dried maize) constitute a staple food in many regions of the world from Mexico to Africa, Italy to Brazil, Romania to South Africa and Central America to Vietnam.

Everyone’s favourite – Popcorn – consists of exploded Maize kernels and Cornflakes (made from Maize) are probably the most popular breakfast cereal worldwide. In fact man’s imagination knows no bounds when it comes to finding ways to cook and present Maize. Maize kernels are often used as a starch in cooking or simply as a vegetable (Sweet corn), it is also a major source of cooking oil (corn oil) and as a sweetener. It is also used in the production of grain alcohol, some commercial dog foods and in fish or animal bait. Maize is the grain that is most used to feed livestock.

Millet: Millet features in the traditional cooking of many countries and is a major food source in arid and semiarid regions of the world, particularly in Africa and Asia.

Porridges made from Millet are traditionally eaten in Russia, Germany and China. Millet is also a base ingredient in many alcoholic drinks, particularly in Asia. Millet is a common ingredient in seed breads and is also used in animal food especially that of birds and grazing animals.

Interestingly, people affected by gluten-related disorders and allergies and need to eat a gluten-free diet can replace gluten-containing cereals with Millet.

Rice: is the most widely consumed staple food in the world, especially in Asia. The most well-known rice species are Oryza sativa (Asian rice) and Oryza glaberrima (African rice). It is said that rice provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed worldwide by humans. Rice bran is used throughout Asia and the oil that it produces is used to make rice bran pickles.

Rice is also ground into flour and used in the making of rice milk and rice wine. It is also used to make noodles or even the well-known Puffed rice breakfast cereal.

Rice flour does not contain gluten so can be eaten by people on a gluten-free diet.

Sorghum: According to the US Grains Council, “Sorghum is the fifth-most important cereal crop grown in the world”. Since Sorghum is able to grow in harsh environments (even extreme drought and heat), it has long been one of the most important staple foods of poor people in rural Asia and Africa providing their principal source of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals.

As well as being a staple in the production of foods such as bread, flatbread, biscuits, couscous, Sorghum flour and porridge, it is used to make syrups and molasses and alcoholic drinks. The seeds and stalks are often fed to cattle and poultry either intentionally or because it is allowed to grow naturally in grazing land.

Sorghum is often used in homemade and commercial breads and cereals for gluten-free diets.

Wheat: Wheat is grown on more land globally than any other grain. Its high demand is probably due to its high protein content – higher than other cereals – and the fact that it is easily digested by all except those with gluten-related disorders.

Raw wheat can be ground into flour or semolina (hard Durum wheat only), used to create malt and cracked wheat and steamed to eat like rice or its husks turned into bran. Wheat is a major ingredient in many foods such as bread, biscuits, numerous breakfast cereals, cakes, gravy, pies, porridge, pancakes, pastries and alcoholic drinks.

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Economic importance of grasses

Total global grain production to 2018 © FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

According to the FAO, “World cereal supplies in the 2017/18 season are expected to rise to an all-time high of nearly 3,331 million tonnes. While global cereal utilization in 2017/18 is heading for an increase (1.2 percent) from the previous season, world cereal inventories are projected to climb steadily for the fifth consecutive season, rising to a record high level of almost 726 million tonnes.”

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Barley

Average global production of Barley 1994-2016 © FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In the rankings of the most important cereal crops grown in the world, Barley comes fourth both in terms of quantity produced and area of land cultivated. According to the most recent statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAOSTAT), total global production of Barley for 2016 was 141,277,993 tonnes.

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Maize (Corn)

Average global production of Maize 1994-2016 © FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In the rankings of the most important cereal crops grown in the world, Maize comes way ahead of the rest both in terms of quantity produced and area of land cultivated. According to the most recent statistics from FAOSTAT, total global production of Maize for 2016 was 1,060,107,470 tonnes.

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Millet

Average global production of Millet 1994-2016 © FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In the rankings of the most important cereal crops grown in the world, Millet production is by far the smallest both in terms of quantity produced and area of land cultivated. According to the most recent statistics from FAOSTAT, total global production of Millet for 2016 was 28,357,451 tonnes.

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Paddy Rice

Average global production of Paddy rice 1994-2016 © FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In the rankings of the most important cereal crops grown in the world, Rice production comes out as second largest both in terms of quantity produced and area of land cultivated. According to the most recent statistics from FAOSTAT, total global production of Paddy rice for 2015 was 740,961,445 tonnes.

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Sorghum

Average global production of Sorgham 1994-2016 © FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In the rankings of the most important cereal crops grown in the world, Sorghum ranks fifth both in terms of quantity produced and area of land cultivated – that is just over twice as much Sorghum is produced than Millet and just under half as much as Barley. According to the most recent statistics from FAOSTAT, total global production of Sorghum for 2016 was 63,930,558 tonnes.

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Wheat

Average global production of Wheat 1994- 2016 © FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

In the rankings of the most important cereal crops grown in the world, Wheat ranks third both in terms of quantity produced and area of land cultivated. According to the most recent statistics from FAOSTAT, total global production of Wheat for 2016 was 749,460,077 tonnes.

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References: Mozambican Grass Seed Consumption During the Middle Stone Age, Julio Mercader, Science magazine (Science 18 Dec. 2009: Vol. 326, Issue 5960 DOI: 10.1126/science.1173966); The cabaret of plants – Botany and the imagination, Richard Mabey, Profile books; Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT); FAOSTAT Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Division of Technology, Industry and Economics; Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press.