Sunday, January 16, 2011

Low Tech Companion 3: Other Food Crops and Other Possibilities

In the lecture Origins of Civilization by Professor Scott MacEachern I learned that civilizations depended greatly in the time it takes to domesticate their primary food crop. In the examples of Rice, Maize, Teff, African Millet, and Sorgum these civilizations got their momentum once these plants became more reliable and cost efficient.

For the World Builders out there, I highly recommend the lectures and the perspective and appreciation one gains from this. What I see is that world builders can really see the economic and developmental impact of Food crops in their settings. the understanding highlights key differences in other cultures from the kind of labor and work that goes into their food production.

When i first learned that there were other food crops other than the one's we mostly hear about, being asian living in a tropical environment I've already have the appreciation with the food crops locally and what is available from western cultural contributions.

So these African Cereal Crops really caught my attention. Particularly since I've never heard of them and I'm intensely curious how they would taste like and the variety of methods of preparations. How are they when applied the the methods of fermentation, breadmaking, boiling (Porridge) and refining?

Gaming does open us to a lot of worlds, but I can't help but be curious about the alien or least understood things within our own and imagining the potential.

The composition of tef is similar to that of millet, although it contains generally higher amounts of the essential amino acids. The amino acid composition of tef is excellent, its lysine content is higher than that of all cereals except rice and oats, it has good mineral content and its straw is nutritious.


In Ethiopia, tef is traditionally grown as a cereal crop. The grain is ground to a flour which is mainly used for making a popular pancake -- like the local bread called enjera -- and sometimes for making porridge. The grain is also used to make local alcoholic drinks, called tela and katikala. Tef straw, besides being the most appreciated feed for cattle, is also used to reinforce mud and plaster the walls of tukuls and local grain storage facilities called gotera. Tef grain, owing to its high mineral content, has started to be used in mixtures with soybean, chickpea and other grains in the baby food industry.

Enjera made from tef is traditionally consumed with wot, a sauce made of meat or ground pulses like lentil, faba bean, field pea, broad bean and chickpea. The traditional way of consuming tef with wot provides a well balanced diet.

Limitations of the crop

The small size of tef seed poses problems during sowing, and indirectly during weeding and threshing. At sowing, the very small seed size makes it difficult to control population density and its distribution. This remains true whether one broadcasts the seed by hand, uses a broadcaster or a seed driller.

The uneven plant stand after germination has an impact on nutrient use, efficiency of the crop and crop yield. Owing to the scattered plant stand, farmers find it difficult to use mechanical weeding implements and are forced to either hand-weed or to use chemical herbicides.

Since there is very little research on this, Use Wheat Stats in GURPS LTC3 (p10) The Trade off with Tef is that it has high calcium (higher than its comparitive cereal). I guess this is a good crop for Races or People to exhibit better calcium nutrition. If Calcium vs Calorie is a trade off, to the farmers and the lower classes means having to eat more or supplement their diet. Basically it affects Macro Economically to a slightly smaller population support (-10% pop as would a wheat). This would make for taller and bigger social Elites, especially if they have milk and protein access.

Other Crops
Food as a Building Material. Rice was discovered as a the secret ingredient in medieval Chinese mortar in examples of Ming Dnasty (1368-1644CE). Teff straw is used to reinforce building materials. Fibrousness and Stickiness give a mechanical advantage to food as an aid to building. (Archeology 9/2010-10/2010).

All things being equal. If One were to design a World where different food crops were domesticated about the same time, and have particular trade offs, but still worth while to choose farming as a successful survival strategy one can probably conceive of the kinds of Peoples would develop from such.

What would be the crops that would result with Elf-like, Dwarf-Like race, Halfling-Like race?

America or African Continent being the Old World?
If Maize, Tubers, African food crops were domesticated 2000 years earlier, how would the world look. Those with the very high productive foods: Maize and Tubers would have expanded alarmingly quick and advanced much faster having a larger amount of population, not producing food but working on Organization/Administration, Thinking, Writing, etc. ?

Would that have made the new world, the Old world instead? How much of the world would have changed?

What if the Americas underwent the extensive agricultural transformation its undergoing now given the food demand much earlier? The way Germany was once a sea of forests, what if South and Meso America was systematically cleared and cultivated using these high yield crop? Would it reach China's pre-industrial levels of 500M (5000 years of Chinese history, From Yao to Mao) or even surpass it? How much earlier, what kind of empires would result?

According to the Origins of Civilization, maize came about more by chance than by human or animal selection. What if the mutation came much earlier? What if the New world weren't occupied by hunter gathering/herding Native Americans, but Byzantine Empires with complex politics and diplomacy, steel weapons and a tradition of warfare that existed for few millenia, and urban diseases of their own? Will the geography of the American Continent allow for an Empire like China or a Balkanized and competing set of Kingdomes like Europe? Would they have domesticated the buffalo, the lamma's or other animals to serve as the horse or elephant in warfare?

Ooo... someone make this setting and I'll play it.

1 comment:

Dariel said...

Another point of consideration could be the resistance or susceptibility of the crop to diseases and pests. The most obvious example is the Irish famine of the 1800s caused by the spread of potato blight.

One hidden cost of today's food is the amount of drugs and pesticides going into our food crops and domestic animals because industrialized farming tries to increase efficiency by raising fewer varieties of crops. The threat in that practice is that all plants of a certain variety share the same vulnerabilities.

Before this development, farmers used to hedge their bets by sowing multiple varieties of some crops; for example, we have a lot of varieties of rice, but only a few of these are still propagated in quantity nowadays. Even if disease wiped out all the sowing of one variety, the farmer could still count on at least part of his crop surviving.

Another plant fact I like to base my world-building on is the flowering behavior of bamboo. There are varieties of bamboo that flower only ever so many decades, then all plants of that bamboo variety die - simultaneously. What if in your world a major food crop behaves like this?

I used the hook in an adventure I wrote set in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom, positing that mantalia, a plant whose sap is a staple of the green men barbarians, has this behavior. When the mass flowering and die off occurred, a massive migration of green men followed, threatening to destroy all civilization on Mars.