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Agriculture and Biogeography

Most of the world's cuisines are defined by particular ingredients that are unique to that region—curry spices in Indian food, cilantro in Mexican food, and maple syrup in Canadian food (okay, that one might be a stretch). The reason that certain spices and ingredients are so prevalent in these regional foods is because they grow well there. 

Of course, in our modern globalized society, ingredients travel all over the world. Not everything in a culture's cuisine is native to that area. Tomatoes, for example, did not appear in Italian food until after colonialism…tomatoes are native to South America and were spread around the world thanks to Spanish trade. Imagine spaghetti and meatballs without tomato sauce.

Modern agriculture has definitely revamped the accessibility of many foods. However, there are still some ingredients that are only cultivated in certain places, including two of the world's most important vices: chocolate and coffee. 

Chocolate has a long history, going back to the Aztecs, but was spread to Europe and the rest of the world thanks to Christopher Columbus. And boy, did it spread. Americans eat 12 pounds of chocolate a year. Yum. Even though chocolate is well-loved by Americans (and Europeans…we're looking at you, Belgium), it doesn't grow in Europe or the US. Chocolate comes from the fruit of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao. The cacao tree is a tropical rainforest tree and grows best in shade (like the shady understory of a forest). Even though people cultivate cacao on plantations, cacao is only grown in tropical climates and is still harvested by hand. That's right, no heavy machinery here.

A cacao pod hanging from the tree.

Similar to chocolate, coffee trees also grow in the tropics. The coffee tree, Coffea arabica, is native to Ethiopia but other 102 other species in the Coffea genus exist all over Africa. Though coffee is native to Africa, most coffee is now produced in tropical countries of Central and South America. Coffee trees are not just tropical, but need humid forests in the mountains between 950-1950 meters above sea level. Given this specific habitat that coffee trees need, it's amazing that so many people all over the world consume coffee.

Other vital crops also grow in specific climates; they are just more widespread. Grains such as wheat and corn need the right temperature and precipitation regime to grow and produce the food we need. Some climate change scenarios predict that the climate of the Great Plains, the current breadbasket of North America, will shift northward into Canada in the future. We might be eating a lot more Canadian corn syrup and a lot less maple syrup if that happens.

Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota are the largest producers of corn (for human consumption) for now. This map may look a lot different in 100 years.

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