Cereals – the staples of our food


It was a whopping 12,000 years ago that farming communities cultivated the first cereal grains in the Fertile Crescent area of southwest Asia! Cereals were the first ever crops to be cultivated by people, and it is the most important source of the world’s total food. When we say ‘cereals’, it refers to rice, wheat, corn, oats, barley, sorghum, rye and millet. Rice alone is a major part of the diet for more than half the world’s population. There are also other lesser known cereals. In general, cereals provide 60 per cent of the calories and proteins that human beings consume worldwide.

It’s not surprising that cereals have become such a popular part of the human diet. The primary reason for this is because they can be grown in a variety of areas, even in adverse soil and climatic conditions. They also give high yields per acre as compared to other crops. They are not just high in nutritive value, but can be produced with reasonable effort, and can be stored easily in kitchens. Different countries have different cereals as their staple food – this depends on production statistics based on climatic variation. The total annual yields of cereals globally add up to more than 2000 million tons. Because they are easy to package and transport, they are used for producing a large variety of highly desirable foods and beverages.

Looking at the distribution of cereal-based diets across the world, wheat is the most significant cereal in the diets of most European countries and parts of India. On the other hand, rice is the primary grain used in China, Japan, South East Asia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Brazil, Myanmar and the U.S. The staple cereal in northern and Central South America is maize or corn, while millets and sorghum are popular in Africa and in parts of India. Oats was initially a staple cereal in Scotland, but they are now popular as breakfast cereals in almost all countries. In cold climates like in Russia, rye is the staple cereal, which is also used for making breads, beer, whiskeys and vodkas. There are also other lesser-known cereals that are consumed, like triticale, which is a cross between rye and wheat, Fonio, which is popular in western Africa. Buckwheat is another cereal used in pancakes, noodles and porridge and it has a higher amount of protein and amino acid. Quinoa is rich in dietry fibre and iron – and it’s mainly grown in Andes, and parts of North America. Change in Production and Consumption Patterns in Cereals As in every other agricultural pattern, cereal cultivation and consumption too has undergone change over the years. Consider Africa, which was the place of origin of several cereals like sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet, ‘teff’ and African rice. But its cereal production and consumption patterns are changing. The reasons for this change are climate change, which has led to a decline in productivity by up to 20 per cent; and the difficulties associated with population growth. Also, considering that many of the regions are dry-land areas that fall amongst the most food insecure places on earth, there’s a need to invest in seed production and delivery systems. Another way is to enable farmers to access production inputs and markets and help them adopt mechanization to a small or medium scale. A third initiative is to restore degraded soils to ensure sustainability. One positive development is that maize is now being intercropped and rotated with legumes, which helps in restoring soil health and fertility. Farmers also need training in how to manage the available resources. In countries like India, on the other hand, rice is a staple crop; and with groundwater levels rapidly depleting and with erratic summer monsoons, the issue is whether rice can be grown with less water. In fact, yes, says William Murray, Deputy Director of the Plant Production and Protection Division at FAO, mentioning that various approaches are being adopted to help farmers increase rice productivity using less water. One such method is alternate wetting and drying, in which paddy is allowed to dry out before re-flooding. Another is to grow aerobic rice, where seeds are directly sown into dry soil and then irrigated. Both these methods result in water savings of 30-50 per cent. In India, while the Green Revolution focused on intensive production of maize, rice and wheat, it no doubt supplied more ‘dietry energy’; but it still did not improve overall human nutrition. So that’s a lesson that more attention to the quality of production, as against quantity.

Changes in Methods of Cultivation

Some old methods of cultivation are giving way to new ones. For example, ploughing had so far been the standard practice for wheat cultivation for thousands of years, but the full costs of this method are coming to light now – such as depletion of soil fertility and loss of soil biodiversity. In countries like Kazakhstan, farmers shifted to zero tillage practices with Government support, beginning in the year 2000. Wheat cultivation in Kazakhstan is now reported to be both sustainable and more productive. In Banlgadesh, farmers are growing maize and napier grass between the two main growing seasons. This gives them greater efficiency in earning income and providing fodder for livestock.

“Save and Grow” in the Context of Cereal Cultivation

The Food and Agricultural Organisation has published a book called “Save and Grow” that talks about new applications and techniques for farming, and these techniques could well be applied to the cultivation of cereal crops. The focus of these techniques is conservation agriculture, maintenance of soil health, selection of crops with higher yield potential and greater resistance to climate change, efficient water management and pest control. One such natural pest control practised in China is rice-fish farming where in the fish flood paddy fields. Countries like Indonesia are now reviving the practice of aquaculture in paddy fields. There’s more to this “Save and Grow” technique that can be applied to cereal cultivation than just what traditional agricultural systems offer. These new technologies and practices include bringing in higher yielding varieties, precision irrigation, needs-based fertilizer management, bio-pesticides and direct seeding without soil tillage. The method also promotes diversification of smallholder production to include pulses, fruits, leafy vegetables and poultry, dairy and fish. What a significant step forward, considering that a large proportion of the world’s cereal cultivators and smallholder farmers!