February 2015

Bounty of the Columbian Exchange


Enrique Lamadrid and Armando Lamadrid


Most schoolchildren know that corn comes from México and potatoes are from Perú. In history class they learn about the potato famine in Ireland and may have heard about the perils of monocropping, that is, the planting of only one kind of plant. Fewer realize that tomatoes are not from Italy but, rather, from México. And very few have heard that chile did not originate in México but, instead, from Bolivia, as recent DNA studies have shown. However, México was the jumping-off place from which chile traveled west on the Manila galleons and took Asia and India by storm. The so-called Columbian Exchange of flora and fauna between Europe and America after 1492 is more than dinner-table trivia. As it spread to Asia and Africa, it changed the history of the world.


The potato story is epic. It is such a complete food that populations exploded wherever it went. It became the culinary infrastructure of empires, but it also allowed peasants to survive the destruction of marauding armies. Soldiers could easily steal away with entire stores of grain from a barn. But they never had time to dig up potatoes, which stayed safe in the ground for people to use as they needed them.


The corn story is epic. Three times more productive than wheat, it became the staple of the poorest parts of Europe. Since milling technology there was excellent, the key step of lime processing used in México was skipped. Corn was ground directly into meal and consumed as porridge and polenta. Millions of people ate little else. First came persistent diarrhea, then extreme dermatitis. Sun-exposed areas of skin simply peeled off. The sour-skin disease—pellagra in Italian—in end stages resulted in dementia. Pellagra killed hundreds of thousands. Eighteenth-century scientists in Spain and Italy ruled out fungus and spoiling as causes, then discovered that the nutrition of corn goes unreleased with milling alone. It is the chemical action of lime that makes the niacin in corn digestible to the body.


The tomato story is epic. It is a brilliant member of Solanacea, the same generous nightshade family that includes potatoes, chile and eggplants, which were India’s gift to the world. Europe regained its health because of the vitamin-laden tomato, and it became a life-saving staple in many countries. What it lacked in calories it made up for in flavor and nutrients.


Beans and other legumes traveled both ways across the Atlantic, increasing the ranges in which they could grow and bringing more flavors to the table. Rarely included in the legume list because people don’t eat it directly is alfalfa, with its Arabic name and its nitrogen-fixing talent of improving soils wherever it goes. The great Cucurbitaceae family of squashes also traveled both ways, and America fell in love instantly with sweet melons, Persia’s gift to the world.


The great Exchange began the moment Christopher Columbus landed on Guanahani island in the Bahaman archipelago on Oct. 12, 1492, and was framed for centuries by Eurocentric scholars as the “discovery” and conquest of the Americas. Now, postcolonial scholars more objectively call it the Euro-American Encounter. Imperial politics aside, the flora and fauna of the so-called Columbian Exchange were globalized. Every voyage to and from the Americas took plants and animals—as well as diseases—back and forth across the Atlantic, eliminating the watery barrier that had separated the continents.


In the Caribbean, introduced plants like sugarcane, bananas, coconut palms and rice changed economy and society forever. After Old World plagues like smallpox and malaria decimated the indigenous population, a new labor force with enhanced immunity to these diseases was introduced from Africa, and slavery was institutionalized. When the Spanish conquest extended through Mesoamerica and the Andes, the Exchange intensified.


With the new diversity of domestic flora and fauna, in the next five centuries people were able to adapt the bounty to the different climates they inhabited, from the tropics to the temperate zones, from rainforests to deserts. Since the Iberian Peninsula was largely arid, the Spanish also brought their expertise in the ancient art of irrigation and added it to the knowledge of the people they encountered. For the one vital source for all life is water.


The impact of American agriculture was huge in Europe. In the Americas, European cereals, fruits and legumes thrived in temperate climates, but the biggest impact was from domestic animals, of which there were few in the Americas. The horse changed the political balance, and the other grazing animals changed the face of the landscape forever, especially when overgrazing began degrading the land. Politics and empires aside, the bounty of the Columbian Exchange set the stage for the huge increases in population that threaten our generous but finite planet in the 21st century.







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