These Maps Show That Most Of Our Crops Are Immigrants, Too

Where did the food we grow in America come from? Not from America.

We identify garlic with France and tomatoes with Italy, but in fact neither species originated in those countries. Garlic was first grown in Central Asia, while tomatoes came from South America. And they’re not the only fruit and vegetables masquerading as native-grown: Almost 70% of what we eat today started life in a foreign land years ago.


The maps here were produced by researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, in Colombia (or “CIAT” in Spanish). They’re based on the work of Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who in the 1920s tracked the origins of 151 different crops, showing how most were foreign-born. New research compares these origins with how much of the crop is consumed today (in terms of calories, protein, fat, and weight).

You can see that blueberries, grapes, sunflowers and pumpkins are native to North America, but also that most of what we eat today–wheat, barley, sugar, for instance–originated in the western Mediterranean. (In the interactive graphic here, thicker lines between regions indicate more food produced or consumed).

In general, North America, northern Europe and Australia had less biodiversity of crops to begin with, and therefore now grow a higher percentage of non-native crops, while places of higher biodiversity (and less international trade) grow more native crops. That includes tropical Africa where foreign crops make up less than a fifth of what’s grown. Overall, the farming of non-native crops has gone from about 63% to 69% in the last 50 years.

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, has important policy implications. Generally, crops grown outside their native habitat are more susceptible to disease and serious weather events. The researchers say because countries are dependent on each other for crops, they need to do a better job of maintaining native stores of biodiversity (like seed banks), so they can help each other in emergencies. “The increasing use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for considering the underlying genetic diversity of important food plants as a global public good,” they write.

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Cover Photo: Flickr user François Philipp


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.