Crops that feed the world

Monroe gives us a whistlestop tour of six crops that feed the world: rice, wheat, potatoes, bananas, maize and beans.

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  • Rice is the world’s number-one food crop, feeding around half the global population.
  • Archaeological finds suggest it was cultivated in South Korea and China 11,000 years ago.
  • It is a thirsty crop: on average 3,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of rice.
  • Rice yields were boosted in the 1960s during the Green Revolution when rapid technological advance in the production of staple foods prevented famine and disaster at a time of huge population growth. There was, for instance, a threefold increase in rice production in India.

Where it grows

Originally from the Yangtze Valley, China but now cultivated all over the world. Rice fields are flooded when seeds reach seedling stage.

Common uses

Rice is such an important and widespread source of food, it has gained other meanings. In Asia ‘rice is life’: it is culturally and spiritually crucial to people’s lives. Freshly harvested, unmilled rice grains are used all over Asia in ceremonies and rituals especially those related to fertility. A freshly harvested panicle of rice is often placed over the inside of the house or rice store doorway as a blessing and as protection for the occupants and contents of the house.

In Malaysia the ‘Bario’ cultivar is the most prized and expensive rice because of its wonderful aroma and taste. It is only grown in the remote Kelabit highlands of Sarawak in Borneo. Local people call it ‘money rice’.


Annual: lives for a year or less.