Tuesday, 31 July 2012


 (Mediterranean and Native American Invasion in our Vegetable Diet)

                 I was discussing with a friend of mine on a restaurant, lately. It all started with me picking on him about his food habit. He was having Chinese, I remember, and I was having south Indian. He interestingly hit me back with a question ‘What ingredients my food has that yours doesn’t?’ Ironically, I had no answer to tell him. Not only that we had same vegetables on our plates, but they were all foreign in origin.

                 Having read Jared Diamond’s “Guns, germs and steel” I already had an idea of Native American vegetable species dominating other vegetables all over the world. It was, basically, an European point of view who had been having vegetables originated from Mediterranean and Mesopotamian (Parts of Iran) regions. From an Indian point of view, the domination is adjoined by European vegetables as well.

                The fact was mentioned in the book to explain that the Native American civilization was not incompetent in plant domestication. In fact, they were masters of plant domestication having domesticated every possible plant species including Maize of which, the wild ancestor is totally unpalatable with extremely hard husks. This domestication took almost 4000 years which is more than any other large staple grain domestication time span. Thus delaying their agriculture based civilization by 2500 years, since they were devoid of any other domesticable, edible large grain species due to geographical isolation.

                  This is one of the reasons the author enumerates to explain the upper hand of Europeans during intercultural encounters of late 16th and early 17th century which resulted in massive wipeout of Native American population. Today Native American vegetable species dominate over the other vegetables of the world while the population who accomplished the domestication dwindles in asylums.

                  Potato, especially, is estimated to be fourth largely cultivated plant species all over the world only next to wheat, rice, maize(Native American again!) in that order. Tomato is consumed all over the world as a part of cuisine, Salad so one. The “Three Sisters” of Mesoamerica squash (pumpkin, chayote etc), Beans and Maize are adopted all over the world as common food.

Here are some I can think of, instantly, that forms my diet now.

1.     Carrot(Dancus carota)
2.     Beetroot (Beta vulgaris )
3.     Radish (Raphanus sativa)
These three, I consider, the major Mediterranean taproot vegetable trio
4.     Cauli flower (Brassica olearacea)
5.     Cabbage(Brassica oleracea)
6.     Potato( Solanum tuberosum)
7.     Tomato (Solanum lycopesium)
8.     Beans (Phascolous vulgaris )
9.     Pumpkin (Squash family or cucurbita family)
10.                        Capsicum (Capsicum sp)
11.                        Chayote (Sechium edule)
Fertile crescent
Mediterranean region
Andean region

               Of this, the first five species are Mediterranean and Mesopotamian in origin while the rest are of Native American origin. Carrot and Cabbage are considered to be originated from Mesopotamia or Fertile Crescent (parts of present Iran) while other two are predominantly Mediterranean species. Among the Native American vegetables Tomato & Potato are Andean species and the rest are domesticated around Mesoamerica (Modern Mexico). Pumpkin and chayote widely popular squash fruits in India are Native American too.

                Handful of Native vegetable species surviving along with these foreign competitors, not considering onion, include

1.     Lady’s finger or Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)
2.     Brinjal  or Eggplant (Solanum Melongena)
3.     Drumstick (Moringa oleifera)
4.     Cucumber (Cucumis sativus)
5.     Plantain (Musaceae sp)
6.     Small green squash (cucurbitae sp)   Local name “Thonda Kai”(kannada)

Results of a small scale statistics on our PG (paying guest) would be of some help getting an overall picture and having been decided over years, the food catalogue can well be considered as preference of general public. Now before I disclose the data, I must admit, our PG’s vegetable consumption is pathetically low.

We are served twice a day, that is, mornings and evenings.  

In A Week:

Amount of vegetables consumed, per head = 1.3 kg
Cost of vegetables consumed, per head = 29.36 Rs

The amount of vegetables of foreign origin was 23 kg
It is percentage in total amount (30.5 kg) will be 75.4%

The cost of vegetables of foreign origin was 794 Rs.
Its percentage in total cost of vegetables (965 Rs) will be 81.1%

Each member was asked to select vegetables, five each to derive a statistical number
And 86.4% of them were foreign.

All these numbers are shown graphically below.

                     The first percentage bar visually strikes us showing how Indian species are dwarfed by foreign competitors. This radical shift over 50 years is not just aesthetically but, as one would realise, economically important too, which we would latter have a look.

                    In the next percentage bar the difference is more staggering. In other words, the difference is more distinct economically than in amount, which is worth noting. Thus 75.4% of vegetables which are considered foreign makes 80.1% of the total budget showing that these vegetables are expensive considerably and definitely costlier than Native vegetables.  The Native vegetables those do survive are among the costliest.

               Coming to the third bar which is further hostile to Native species the only consoling values are contributed by senior members of the rent out. Young generation, according to the study, obliviously tend to prefer vegetables of foreign origin. They are mostly conditioned that way rather than knowingly drawn towards their exotic nature. Of course, exoticism played a role in their gain of popularity at some point of time. This bar finally tells us, in future, thing are not going to be any good for Native species.        

                  Majority of Indian vegetables are raw fruits of herb, climbers, creepers and rarely trees rather than taproot, fleshy leaf or tuberous steps which constitute most of the foreign vegetable species. Just 2 out of 8 major foreign vegetables are fruits, in our case. While all the Indian species are raw fruits.  All of the foreign ‘fruit species’ are American, belonging to region climatically somewhat similar to tropical India. All the non-fruit foreign vegetable species are originated from their wild ancestors of temperate grassland vegetation.  Having a look at Indian landscapes we know that we have very few regions exhibiting grasslands similar to temperate grasslands like parts of Himalayas and Western Ghats. They are called alpine grasslands. (Terai plains of Assam are wetlands not grasslands.  Only water loving or tolerant grass species can survive in these regions). Most of our vegetables are originated from either tropical, open wood land or dry land vegetation.

                   Theories of evolution tell us temperate species are evolutionarily primitive than tropical species. Tropical species are dominated by flowering plants which are pollinated by insects or other organisms whereas most of the temperate plant species either are vegetatively reproductive (reproduce by body parts) or wind pollinated, probably because they belong to ancient branches of evolutionary tree split much before most of the animals walked the earth. The way plants reproduce along with the temperature conditions play an important role in determining their region of energy storage and consequently the part we consume. For example temperate vegetable species like carrots are flowering plants, by nature, but temperature has made them evolve subterranean means of latent energy storage until flowering season. This explains our traditional fruit based vegetable diet and their taproot, tuberous stem-based vegetable diet. Of course we have our own native taproot vegetables, in fact, a lot of them but they suffer the most in the rivalry and are slowly being replaced by their foreign competitors.

                    Does part of plant being eaten really matter? I don’t think so. But on the contrary, there is a general dislike among my fellow mates for seedy vegetables particularly, when they are mature. Raw fruits generally grow to be less of water on the cellular level when they mature making their seed coat hard and fruit body chewy, which cannot be reverted by cooking. This process takes place without much apparent change in size making it hard to pick out tender ones among mature, but there are methods for sure. I’m reminded of my mother snapping the tips of lady’s finger (the fruit not literal) to check for tenderness, but lack of ‘time’ always make us give a second thought on choosing these vegetables. Whereas in the case of taproot, tuberous vegetables process of maturing is not so concise and maturity is proportional to their size. Now, in the case of tomatoes it is not the unripe we eat but the ripe ones of which the change is naked, and my study says foreign raw fruits like beans and pumpkins are equally disliked as native raw fruits, I think they will soon be eliminated from the menu with their charm of exoticism being lost along with the generation.

                 But there can be at least two kinds of issue exotic species arguably feature awkwardness, Economic and health issues.

                   To start with, most of the exotic vegetable species belong to regions having Mediterranean or Andean climate which can be achieved only at an altitude of 1500 meters or above in a tropical country like India. As a result most of our exotic vegetable cultivations are restricted to hilly terrain. It is apparent that hilly soil is devoid of some essential minerals due to centuries of bleaching.  So these vegetables grow to be poor in mineral content which they were bound to have if grown in their native temperate plains.

Introduction of a foreign species into a new environment can either result in population explosion (eg. parthenium) due to absence of natural predators or survival threat with the species vulnerable to every possible predator. Most of these vegetable species fall under second category in which all pests zero in on the plant.  The farmers are forced to use heavy dosage of pesticides on these vegetables which the pests keep evolving to resist. A suitable analogy would be, instead of having a samurai who we can aid, at times, with a sword (by which I mean organic pesticides) we have a puny child who we build a wall around which requires strengthening each time enemy gets stronger.  This ever increasing pesticide dosage is a serious health threat. Most of these pesticide residues are suspected carcinogens, bee toxins and can barely be washed off by water. These vegetables need to be rinsed out at least twice after boiling in water to get rid of most of the residues.

                  One could defend pointing out pesticides sprayed on Native vegetable farms nowadays which are nothing short of those sprayed on exotic vegetable farms. But those fancy, least resistive, aesthetically competitive, hybrid varieties are not one must root for. Traditional hardy varieties, from what I learnt through local agricultural radio programs, cultivated with organic manures in small-scale, self-sustained farms (glimpses of Gandhi again) by crop rotation method has proved to be largely successful.      

                 Having visited both exotic and Native vegetable farms, one in Nilgiri another nearby my house (Doesn’t this ring a bell?) , I’ve noticed that there were no insect feeding birds on foreign vegetable farm which I could see on forest line just 100 m from there. While Native Vegetable farm, like the home-grown brinjal farm I visited, I could spot at least 10 species of birds including Taylor birds, Ashy Prinias, Greenish Warblers, Indian Magpie Robins, Jungle Babblers, Common Hoopoe busily feeding on Insects. Thus these pesticides not only fall inadequate but keep competent insectivorous birds off the field.

                      Now coming to financial part of it, being cultivated in hills, all pesticides and fertilizers have to be transported uphill, which contribute some numbers to the production cost and eventually the price tag.  Hilly regions are notorious for their uncertain rainfall which would wash out all the pesticides sprayed at the time, trivial though it may seem this phenomenon is considerably devastating for a farmer. I once witnessed pesticide worth 2000 Rs. sprayed in just 2500 sq. ft. of potato field go in vain because of sudden rain (I acknowledge Mr.Nirmalya for the figures). Since hills are comparatively less populated than plains, that is, limited human resources, the labor there is pretty expensive. These reasons make the production of exotic vegetables expensive.

               Foreign vegetable cultivations are highly localized.  They need to be transported from these areas to the whole country.  This not only makes these vegetables costly by adding up transportation expense with production cost but makes the system more complicated in which even a bounce in diesel prize or internal turmoil per se result in considerable rise of vegetable cost.

Gandhi has the most relevant answers to these economical and health predicaments we face with exotic vegetables. It would sure be worthwhile to consider Gandhi’s salad bowl and move on towards indigenous, self-sustained vegetable cultivation.

1)      “Guns, Germs and Steel” – Jared Diamond
2)      www.wikipedia.org (for biological terms and names)


  1. A wonderful article again from Ajithan. What fascinates me is how the writer combines his 'other' interest of bird watching to infer an important ecological fact related to gardens. I would suggest just two more important components for comparison between exotic and native vegetable gardens : embedded energy and virtual water.

  2. dear aji,
    it is indeed a great thought process, to connect cultivation of foreign veggies- usage of pesticide- and the bird-insect relationship under the same thread. and the analogy of samurai and a puny child fits perfectly for the subject matter. actually in commercial farming, we dont see any difference in usage of pesticides. may be the green revolution, had collapsed a well established system that was built through centuries of wisdom.

  3. Thank you for your comments. you've been greatly appreciative for me. Those to aspects of comparison Mr.Aravindan(I request him to mention his name somewhere on the comment for his name is published in Tamil) metioned are important as well. I will look into it and write soon. I would be glad to have more comments which, inspite of the pageviews, are only few. Having more comments would help me get to know who I am writing to, give me something to aim at. My next work might take some time with the exams coming up. Thank you again.

  4. Deat Ajith

    This is also a good article. Your observations are important and you know how to present it.

    Recently Amir Khan has presented an interesting program on this subject


  5. Nice article on Gandhian way of life, we need to come back to, earlier the better..

  6. aji,
    hope you dont bother about page views. especially in initial days...do some modifications in the settings of your blog..add a follow through e.mail widget in the side panel. . so that people can subscribe for your posts, and will not miss a post. and then there will be an icon- insert jump break- in the posting page..insert that for the posts after the first paragraph..as it will reduce the scrolling to reach to your previous posts..and then do add tags for the posts (like gandhi, food, economics etc) so that they can be grouped easily..also insert a gadget for tags..these are just some suggestions for you to improve the appearance and accesibility of blog. if you want you can add your blog to blog aggregators like- one india, blogadda- it may increase the views, but my personal advice will be against doing that..hopefully you come up with your birdwatching experiences soon.:)

  7. Dear Ajithan,

    Again a good article. I have a question relating your first article (Greyed out of mind?) and this one, since you have mentioned your observation of birds keeping away from exotic vegetable farms. There was a prediction in the (Nandana year) almanac about the possible drought weather and less production of food grains this year. Are there any report (or did you personally observe) on the rate of flow of migratory birds to South India this year? Since there is a comparatively very dry weather with more hot and sunny days and less rain fall, I presume that the migratory birds would 'know' this climate change by their intuition and would avoid coming to their 'Holiday Homes'.

    I know there need no intuition to avoid the exotic vegetable farms as it is devoid of prey due to high pesticide dosage which destroyed the food chain, but I feel the migratory birds would know about the fore coming climate change and can choose alternate destinations. could you shed some light on this?

    1. sorry for the delay i had exams. Thank you...I think it is a bit too early to anticipate winter migrants. and I think drought might have been serious for our water dependent cultivation but not severe enough not to make these migrants skip the subcontinent.

  8. Dear Ajithan
    My brother’s name is Ajithan. There is a famous astrologer named Ajithan namboodri. Are you a Malayalee?
    All three articles are very good. Creative and fresh ideas presented in a lucid manner. I think you are doing some research in this area. But you wrote the ideas in a new way like Carl Sagan and Jared Diamond. Highly readable.
    The article on vegetables is the best ,because it is more timely one. Here in kerla we are eating poison in the name of vegetables. All these vegetables are commercially produced with ample use of poisons in Tamilnadu transported here. In Kerala we have extremely good soil for vegetables. Almost all months have rain so no need of irrigation. Good vegetables can be produces without any effort. But people never do it. The government is doing their best to promote native vegetables but our God’s own society is not responding. Here in Kerla almost one third of people have breathing problems because of these pesticides, you can see a number of Pankaj Kasturi adds.

    Very good article. You must write these kind of articles in our dailies and reach more readers.

  9. If a scholar presents a simple idea that could 'explain everything' in a lucid language it will definitely make great impact on people, especially on young ones. That is what Prof Jared Diamond is exactly doing.

    Definitely he has intuition and imagination and good reading. But you are carried too far by the ideas of Prof Jared Diamond.

    I can see students who have these kind of excitements in these days. This is his effect, positively and negatively. It makes them apolitical and ignorant to human issues. They just explain everything in geological terms and feel contented that they are more scientific.

  10. Hi ajithan!
    Pests infest invariably all the crops. Blending, pigeon pea and rice were originated in Indian region. But they are infested by native insect species. You please visit our farm again. I will show you the insect control measures involving less pesticides/No pesticides in most of the crops. Green revolution was order of the day. But it brought environmental deterioration no doubt. Things are moving on with integrated approaches. Let us witness in the field. We will go to cabbage and rice field to compare the insects population!

  11. Dear Ajithan

    I was reading a book ("1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created") where the author provides, in popular style, snippets of historical narrative of the Columbian Exchange and some of the economic benefits accrued due to this Homogenocene. Your article was a very interesting counterpoint at the micro level. It would be enlightening to know if there has been a global study of this phenomenon and its costs and effects.


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