What Is a Staple Crop?

By Shelley Moore

  • Overview

    What Is a Staple Crop?
    What Is a Staple Crop?
    Staple crops are the most commonly consumed foods in the diet of people in a specific region. Staple crops vary depending on the topography of the land, type of soil and climate. They are usually cereal grains or starchy root vegetables that can be stored for a long time. In a given region, people devote a lot of land to growing the staple crops most important to that area.
  • Identification

    The most important worldwide staple crops include rice, corn, wheat and potatoes. Others are barley, buckwheat, cassava, lentils, millet, oats, rye, sorghum, soybeans, sweet potatoes and yams. Many of these are not staples across the globe, but are very important in certain parts of the world. Cassava, for instance, is a staple in parts of Asia, Africa and South America, but this starchy root crop is not common elsewhere. Millet, sorghum and yams are essential products in Asia and Africa, but less so in other regions.
  • Significance

    Staple crops become important because they are easily grown in certain types of climate and land, providing a good source of calories without excessive fat. They make a dietary foundation to which people can add other nutrient sources such as green vegetables, fruits and meat. Staple crops do not provide all the nutrition necessary for a complete diet, however, and when societies are unable to produce other food sources, the people suffer from malnutrition and starvation.

  • Features

    All the common staple crops are milled into flour or meal to create breads and other types of food, such as pasta. Rice and corn, along with the root vegetables, are also cooked and eaten in their complete form.
  • Potential

    Less common staples occur in certain small regions. Breadfruit, for instance, is a staple food source in Polynesia, while a grain called teff is a staple in Ethiopia. Olives are a staple food in rural Palestine, along with cowpeas in Niger and mangoes in St. Lucia. Since the Inuit of the Arctic and sub-Arctic obtain most of their calories from whale meat and other ocean animals and fish, their staple food is not plant-derived. These uncommon staples are typically ignored by researchers compiling lists, but are very important because they account for large percentages of a regional diet and have potential for expansion to other regions.
  • Considerations

    Some non-food products are staple crops as well, because they become vital to an economy. Cotton in certain parts of the United States is an example. Some food products also become important for other uses, such as corn for animal feed. Corn production has also taken a controversial twist because of its use in the fuel ethanol, causing divisiveness among politicians, lobbyists, farmers and environmental scientists. Since corn production involves fertilizer-heavy agriculture, large amounts of fertilizer have traveled the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico and created a dead zone, and further extended corn planting exacerbates this problem. Scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium measured the dead zone area in 2008 and found it to be over 8,000 square miles--about the size of Massachusetts.
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