The Globalisation of Crops

by The Editorial Team Published on: 25th December 2001

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As the Muslims advanced, they introduced methods and machinery of the Ancient Near East, and also certain crops which could not have been grown with the typically classical agricultural methods.

Elaborating on the Islamic agricultural revolution, Watson holds that the picture that emerges is that of `a large unified region which for three or four centuries, and in places still longer, was unusually receptive to all that was new. It was also unusually able to diffuse novelties: both to effect the initial transfer which introduced an element into a region and to carry out the secondary diffusion which changed rarities into commonplaces. Attitudes, social structure, institutions, infrastructure, scientific progress and economic development all played a part in the making of this medium of diffusion. And not only agriculture but also other spheres of the economy-and other aspects of life that lay outside the economy such as administration, science, architecture, art, etc.- were touched by this capacity to absorb and to transmit.’ Indeed, as the Muslims advanced, Forbes explains, they introduced methods and machinery of the Ancient Near East, and also certain crops which could not have been grown with the typically classical agricultural methods.

The Romans had imported rice but had never grown it on a large scale. The Muslims started to grow it on irrigated fields in Sicily and Spain, whence it came to the Pisan plain (1468) and Lombardy (1475). In the words of Wickens, Spain received (apart from a legendary high culture), all manner of agricultural and fruit-growing processes, together with a vast number of new plants, fruit and vegetables that we all now take for granted. These new crops included sugar cane, rice, citrus fruit, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines, saffron… Others, previously known, were developed further. Muslims also brought to that country rice, oranges, sugar cane and cotton (end note 33), and sub-tropical crops such as bananas and sugar cane were grown on the coastal parts of the country, many to be taken later to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Also owing to the Muslim influence, a silk industry flourished, flax was cultivated and linen exported, and esparto grass, which grew wild in the more arid parts, was collected and turned into various types of articles. In Sicily, crops and techniques introduced by the Muslims still constitute up till now the foundations of the economy.

Much of the transfer of such crops often owes to the enthusiasm of individual persons. Hence, Abd al-Rahman I, out of nostalgia for the Syrian landscape was personally responsible for the introduction of several species, including the date palm. A variety of pomegranate was introduced from Damascus by the chief judge of Cordoba, Mu`awiya b Salih, and a Jordanian soldier named Safar took a fig cutting and planted it on his estate in the Malaga region. This species, called safri after the soldier, subsequently became widely diffused.

It was also the Muslims who had introduced sugar cane into Ethiopia, and who made the East African island of Zanzibar famous for its high quality sugar. In general, `it would make a whole book,” Baron Carra de Vaux observes, `and not the least interesting, on the history of flowers, plants and animals that had come from the Orient, and which are used in agriculture, pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts’. He lists tulips, hyacinths, narcissi, Lilacs, jasmine, roses, peaches, prunes, sheep of `barbary’ lands, goats, Angora cats, Persian coqs, silk, cotton, plants and products used for dyeing, etc.

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