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Staple Crops of the World

Last updated over 4 years ago

What plants did you eat today? Out of a potential 50,000 edible plants, just three of them provide most of the world's food energy: rice, maize, and wheat. These key species, along with a handful of others, serve as the staple crops that support Earth's large human population. Some you are familiar with, some may surprise you!

  • 05123_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Sorghum bicolor


    Sorghum [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench] is one of the world's leading cereal crops, providing food, feed, fiber, fuel, and chemical/biofuels feed-stocks across a range of environments and production systems. Its remarkable ability to produce a crop under adverse conditions, in particular with much less water than most other grain crops, makes sorghum an important 'failsafe' source of food, feed, fiber, and fuel in the global agroecosystem. Sorghum is especially important in areas such as Northeast Africa and the US Southern Plains that often receive too little rainfall for most other grains.

    Source: Alternative DOE Joint Genome Institute: Sorghum bicolor

  • 69134_88_88 Plantae > Euphorbiaceae

    Manihot esculenta


    Cassava is a perennial woody shrub, grown as an annual. Cassava is a major source of low cost carbohydrates for populations in the humid tropics. The largest producer of cassava is Brazil, followed by Thailand, Nigeria, Zaire and Indonesia. Production in Africa and Asia continues to increase, while that in Latin America has remained relatively level over the past 30 years. Thailand is the main exporter of cassava with most of it going to Europe. It was carried to Africa by Portuguese traders from the Americas. It is a staple food in many parts for western and central Africa and is found throughout the humid tropics. The world market for cassava starch and meal is limited, due to the abundance of substitutes.

    Source: New Crop FactSHEET: Cassava

  • 56757_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Triticum aestivum

    Bread Wheat

    Common wheat, best known and most widely cultivated of the wheats, is cultivated for the grain, used whole or ground. Fine ground, it is the source of flour for the world's breadmaking. Main use is for flour and bread-stuffs known by various names throughout the world. Grain also is the source of alcoholic beverages, beer, industrial alcohol made into synthetic rubber and explosives.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Triticum aestivum L.

  • 59942_88_88 Plantae > Solanaceae

    Solanum tuberosum


    Originally from Latin America, probably Andean, the potato is now grown in probably all temperate countries and in tropical uplands. Germplasm improvement is gradually pushing the potato into the lowland tropics, but it can scarcely compete with the tropical root crops. Tubers are one of the temperate staples, eaten boiled, baked, fried, stewed, etc. Surplus potatoes are used for fodder and alcohol, and chemurgic applications. The flour can be used for baking. Potato starch is used to determine the diastatic value of starch.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Solanum tuberosum L.

  • 96726_88_88 Plantae > Convolvulaceae

    Ipomoea batatas

    Sweet Potato

    Cultivated mainly for the tuber, used as vegetable, eaten boiled, baked fried, or dried and ground into flour to make biscuits, bread, and other pastries. Tubers also dehydrated in chips, canned, cooked and frozen, creamed and used as pie fillings, much like pumpkin. Leafy tops eaten as vegetable and sold in markets in Malaysia. Greatly esteemed as feed for farm animals; with 3 kg green sweet potatoes equivalent to 1 kg of corn, with a food value rated 95–100% that of corn. Dry vines have feed value which compares favorably with alfalfa hay as forage.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam.

  • 48107_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Pennisetum glaucum

    Pearl Millet

    Pearl or cattail millet (Pennisetum glaucum) originated in the African savannah and grown since prehistoric time. It is grown extensively in Africa, Asia, India and Near East as a food grain. It was introduced into the United States at an early date but was seldom grown until 1875. It is primarily grown in southern United States as a temporary pasture. It is preferred over sudangrass as a forage crop in the south. Varieties planted at Rosemount, Minnesota produced very little seed, and their forage yield was low compared to foxtail varieties.

    Source: Alternative Field Crops Manual: Millets

  • 94538_88_88 Plantae > Dioscoreaceae

    Dioscorea alata

    Water Yam

    This member of the yam family (Dioscoreaceae) produces edible underground tubers. (Though most yams contain an acrid component, cooking makes them edible.) The large underground tubers of winged yam can weigh up to 100 pounds. Like air potato, winged yam also produces large numbers of aerial tubers, which are potato-like growths attached to the stems. These grow into new plants. Dioscorea species are cultivated for their edible tubers in West Africa where they are important commodities. Uncultivated forms (as in Florida) however are reported to be bitter and even poisonous. Dioscorea varieties, containing the steroid diosgenin, are a principal material used in the manufacture of birth-control pills. Research has shown that winged yam has antifungal properties.

    Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension: Winged Yam

  • 29709_88_88 Plantae > Araceae

    Xanthosoma sagittifolium

    Arrowleaf Elephant's Ear

    Central and South Americans use the tubers of elephant ear tubers in various meals. The tuber is one of the most popular foods in the country and provides a basic diet for many. The tubers can be harvested and stored for several weeks if refrigerated. Elephant ear is cultivated in many of the Central and South American countries. Taro is native to Africa and was brought as a food crop for slaves. It is also widely eaten in many areas of the Pacific.

    Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension: Elephant Ear

  • 90809_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Setaria italica

    Foxtail Millet

    Foxtail millet (Setaria italica L.) probably originated in southern Asia and is the oldest of the cultivated millets. Today, foxtail millet is grown primarily in eastern Asia. Proso millet is grown in the Soviet Union, mainland China, India and western Europe. In the United States, both millets are grown principally in the Dakotas, Colorado and Nebraska. Foxtail millet is usually grown for hay or silage often as a short-season emergency hay crop.

    Source: Alternative Field Crops Manual: Millets

  • 72832_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Hordeum vulgare


    Cultivated barley is one of the primary cereal crops in many areas of the world and has played an important role in human history. Nutritious, like wheat, but able to withstand drier conditions and poorer soils, barley has been historically cultivated for animal feed, human food, and fermented for beer. Today, it appears in many health food products.

    Source: Zohary, D. and M. Hopf. 2000. Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. Third Edition. Oxford University Press.

  • 13235_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Avena sativa

    Wild Oat

    Oats grain is used widely for human consumption. While oats are still widely used for breakfast cereals, their use as a staple in northern Europe has decreased with the easier availability of imported wheat; a wide range of oat recipes is given by MacNeill 1929. A tall annual cereal, widely grown as a fodder in temperate and sub-tropical countries, also does well in the high-altitude tropics. Oats are only known as a cultigen, of uncertain origin, but were known to Lake Dwellers of Europe.

    Source: Grassland Species Profiles: Avena sativa

  • 00356_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Eragrostis tef


    The millet known as tef (Eragrostis tef) is a minor cereal crop on a global scale, but a major food grain in Ethiopia  and Eritrea. In 2003–2004, for example, this grass was planted on around 2 million hectares, accounting for 28% of the 8 cereal crops grown in Ethiopia, and yielded more than 1.5 million metric tons. Tef can be grown under a wide range of conditions, including situations not suitable for other cereals.

    Source: Shapiro, L. 2011. Eragrostis tef: General Description. Available from

  • 52707_88_88 Plantae > Araceae

    Colocasia esculenta


    Taro (Colocasia esculenta), believed to be one of the world's oldest food crops, was traditionally the main root crop of Samoa and was the preferred starchy staple until the cyclones of the 1990s. However, the impact of the cyclones followed by the rapid spread of taro leaf blight (Phytophthera colocasiae) resulted in a major decline in production, particularly as all cultivars proved susceptible to the disease. Whereas taro was once the largest export commodity, generating more than half of all export revenue in 1993, it currently accounts for less than one per cent of export revenue.

    Source: New Agriculturalist: A taro tale.

  • 89916_88_88 Plantae > Moraceae

    Artocarpus altilis


    The breadfruit is believed to be native to a vast area extending from New Guinea through the Indo-Malayan Archipelago to Western Micronesia. It is said to have been widely spread in the Pacific area by migrating Polynesians, and Hawaiians believed that it was brought from the Samoan island of Upalu to Oahu in the 12th Century A.D. It is said to have been first seen by Europeans in the Marquesas in 1595, then in Tahiti in 1606. At the beginning of the 18th Century, the early English explorers were loud in its praises, and its fame, together with several periods of famine in Jamaica between 1780 and 1786, inspired plantation owners in the British West Indies to petition King George III to import seedless breadfruit trees to provide food for their slaves.

    Source: Morton, J. 1987. Breadfruit. p. 50–58. In: Fruits of warm climates. Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL.

  • 95575_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Panicum miliaceum

    Proso Millet

    Proso millet (or "common millet") is both a component of grain mixes for birdfood and feed for cattle, sheep, hogs and poultry. It is also grown as a food crop and has very low water requirements, making it an excellent dryland crop.

    Source: Alternative Field Crops Manual: Millets

  • 08167_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Eleusine coracana

    Finger Millet

    Ragi, or "finger millet" is the main food grain for many peoples, especially in dry areas of India and Sri Lanka. Grain is higher in protein, fat and minerals than rice, corn, or sorghum (Reed, 1976). It is usually converted into flour and made into cakes, Puddings, or porridge. When consumed as food it provides a sustaining diet, especially for people doing hard work. Straw makes valuable fodder for both working and milking animals. A fermented drink or beer is made from the grain. Grain may also be malted and a flour of the malted grain used as a nourishing food for infants and invalids. Ragi is considered an especially wholesome food for diabetics.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.

  • 30552_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Oryza sativa


    Rice is cultivated primarily for the grain which forms an important part of the diet in many countries, especially in Asia. Native to the tropics and subtropics of Southeast Asia, rice is now cultivated in many localities throughout the world with favorable climatic conditions. More than 90% of the world rice production is in Asia; China and India being the largest producers.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Oryza sativa L.

  • 00153_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Secale cereale

    Cereal Rye

    Cereal rye is cultivated for the grain, used to make flour, the importance of which is second only to wheat. Canadian and United States whiskies are made mainly from rye. Roasted grains substitute for coffee. Grains mixed with others are used for livestock feed. As pasturage, crop grazed fall or spring and then allowed to head-out and mature. Probably native to southwestern Asia, but now widely cultivated in the temperate regions of the world. Grown in every state in the United States, often where conditions are unfavorable for wheat.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Secale cereale L.

  • 02702_88_88 Plantae > Marantaceae

    Maranta arundinacea


    Arrowroot seems to be an all-inclusive name applied to several species of plants whose roots (rhizomes) are either eaten fresh or made into flour. It is open to speculation whether the name comes from the pointed shape of the root or the belief that it cured arrow injuries. The term arrowroot applies both to the flour and the plant. Arrowroot is also called bamboo tuber, although it is not a true bamboo. The main arrowroot of commerce is West Indian, reed, or Bermuda arrowroot (M. arundinacea).

    Source: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) Extension: Arrowroot — Maranta arundinacea L.

  • 26180_88_88 Plantae > Asteraceae

    Helianthus tuberosus

    Jerusalem Artichoke

    Jerusalem artichoke is grown primarily for tubers which can be eaten fresh or raw, cooked in appetizing ways similar to Irish potatoes, or pickled. Tubers are used to fatten cattle, sheep and hogs. Stems and leaves are rich in fats, protein and pectin, and make good forage and silage. Jerusalem artichoke is a suitable crop in any soil and climate where corn will grow. It survives in poor soil and in areas as cold as Alaska. It tolerates hot to sub-zero temperatures.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Helianthus tuberosus L.

  • 44195_88_88 Plantae > Fabaceae

    Phaseolus vulgaris

    Common Bean

    Common bean is most widely cultivated of all beans in temperate regions, and widely cultivated in semitropical regions. In temperate regions the green immature pods are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Immature pods are marketed fresh, frozen or canned, whole, cut or french-cut. Mature ripe beans, variously called navy beans, white beans, northern beans, or pea beans, are widely consumed. In lower latitudes, dry beans furnish a large portion of the protein needs of low and middle class families.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Phaseolus vulgaris L.

  • 68004_88_88 Plantae > Poaceae

    Zea mays


    Maize (corn) was first domesticated in Central America about 7000 years ago and is now the third most important crop in the world. The many cultivars are grown for cereal or forage, and it is also an important source of oil, syrup, and alcohol.

    Source: Flora of China: Zea mays

  • 95690_88_88 Plantae > Fabaceae

    Cicer arietinum


    Chickpea is grown in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate regions. Kabuli type is grown in temperate regions while the desi type chickpea is grown in the semi-arid tropics (Muehlbauer and Singh, 1987; Malhotra et al., 1987). Chickpea is valued for its nutritive seeds with high protein content, 25.3-28.9 %, after dehulling (Hulse, 1991). Chickpea seeds are eaten fresh as green vegetables, parched, fried, roasted, and boiled; as snack food, sweet and condiments; seeds are ground and the flour can be used as soup, dhal, and to make bread; prepared with pepper, salt and lemon it is served as a side dish.

    Source: NewCROP FactSHEET: Cicer arietinum L.

  • 11969_88_88 Plantae > Fabaceae

    Lens culinaris


    The domestication of Lens culinaris formed an important part of the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic, along with Wheat and Barley. Although the amount harvested per unit area for Lentil is less than for Wheat and Barley, the high protein content (25%) of Lentil seeds makes them a highly nutritious (and tasty) food source.

    Source: Biodiversity Explorer: Lens culinaris (Lentil)

  • 82300_88_88 Plantae > Fabaceae

    Pisum sativum

    Garden Pea

    Peas are cultivated for the fresh green seeds, tender green pods, dried seeds and foliage (Duke, 1981). Green peas are eaten cooked as a vegetable, and are marketed fresh, canned, or frozen while ripe dried peas are used whole, split, or made into flour (Davies et al., 1985). In some parts of the world, dried peas are consumed split as dahl, roasted, parched or boiled.

    Source: NewCROP FactSHEET: Pisum sativum L.

  • 70375_88_88 Plantae > Fabaceae

    Glycine max


    Soybean seeds furnish one of the world's most important sources of oil and protein. Unripe seeds are eaten as vegetable and dried seeds eaten whole, split or sprouted. Processed they give soy milk, a valuable protein supplement in infant feeding which also provides curds and cheese. Soy sauce made from the mature fermented beans, and soy is an ingredient in other sauces.

    Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished: Glycine max (L.) Merr.