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A cereal is any grass cultivated for the edible components of its grain (botanically, a type of fruit called a caryopsis), composed of the endosperm, germ, and bran. The term may also refer to the resulting grain itself (specifically "cereal grain"). Cereal grain crops are grown in greater quantities and provide more food energy worldwide than any other type of crop[1] and are therefore staple crops. Edible grains from other plant families, such as buckwheat, quinoa and chia, are referred to as pseudocereals.

Various cereals and their products

In their natural, unprocessed, whole grain form, cereals are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, oils, and protein. When processed by the removal of the bran and germ the remaining endosperm is mostly carbohydrate. In some developing countries, grain in the form of rice, wheat, millet, or maize constitutes a majority of daily sustenance. In developed countries, cereal consumption is moderate and varied but still substantial, primarily in the form of refined and processed grains.[2]



Threshing of grain in ancient Egypt
Roman harvesting machine

Agriculture allowed for the support of an increased population, leading to larger societies and eventually the development of cities. It also created the need for greater organization of political power (and the creation of social stratification), as decisions had to be made regarding labor and harvest allocation and access rights to water and land. Agriculture bred immobility, as populations settled down for long periods of time, which led to the accumulation of material goods.[3]

Early Neolithic villages show evidence of the development of processing grain. The Levant is the ancient home of the ancestors of wheat, barley and peas, in which many of these villages were based. There is evidence of the cultivation of cereals in Syria approximately 9,000 years ago. Wheat, Barley, Rye, Oats and Flaxseeds were all domesticated in the Fertile Crescent during the early Neolithic. During the same period, farmers in China began to farm rice and millet, using human-made floods and fires as part of their cultivation regimen.[4] Fiber crops were domesticated as early as food crops, with China domesticating hemp, cotton being developed independently in Africa and South America, and Western Asia domesticating flax.[5] The use of soil amendments, including manure, fish, compost and ashes, appears to have begun early, and developed independently in several areas of the world, including Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and Eastern Asia.[6]

The first cereal grains were domesticated by early primitive humans.[7] About 8,000 years ago, they were domesticated by ancient farming communities in the Fertile Crescent region. Emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, and barley were three of the so-called Neolithic founder crops in the development of agriculture. Around the same time, millets and kinds of rice were starting to become domesticated in East Asia. Sorghum and millets were also being domesticated in sub-Saharan West Africa.

Ancient history and the Middle AgesEdit

Cereals were the foundation of human civilization. Cereal frontiers coincided with civilizational frontiers. The term Fertile Crescent implies the spatial dependence of civilization on cereals. The Great Wall of China and the Roman limes demarcated the same northern limit of cereal cultivation. The Silk Road stretched along the cereal belt of Eurasia. Numerous Chinese imperial edicts stated: “Agriculture is the foundation of this empire,”[8]: 86  while the foundation of agriculture were the Five Grains.[citation needed] The word “cereal” is derived from Ceres, the Roman goddess of harvest and agriculture.[9]

Cereals determined how large and for how long an army could be mobilized. For this reason, Shang Yang called agriculture and war “the One.”[8]: 62  Guan Zhong, Chanakya (the author of Arthashastra)[8]: 63–64  and Hannibal[8]: 85  expressed similar concepts. At the dawn of history, the Sumerians believed that if the agriculture of a state declines, Inanna, the goddess of war, leaves this state.[8]: 68  Several gods of antiquity combined the functions of what Shang Yang called “the One” – agriculture and war: the Hittite Sun goddess of Arinna, the Canaanite Lahmu and the Roman Janus. These were highly important gods in their time leaving their legacy until today. We still begin the year with the month of Janus (January). The Jews believe that Messiah's family will originate in the town of Lahmu (Bethlehem); in Hebrew, beit lehem literally means "house of bread". Christians believe that Jesus Christ, who is said to have been born in Bethlehem, is the messiah. Lahmu is the reason why, in Hebrew, bread (lehem) and warfare (milhama) are of the same root.[citation needed] In fact, most persistent and flourishing empires throughout history in both hemispheres were centered in regions fertile for cereals.

Early modern periodEdit

This historic pattern did not change, not even in the Industrial Age.[8]: 111–126  All modern great powers have traditionally remained first and foremost great cereal powers. The “finest hour” of the Axis powers “ended precisely the moment they threw themselves against the two largest cereal lebensraums” (the United States and the USSR).[8]: 159  The outcome of the Cold War followed the Soviet grave and long-lasting cereal crisis, exacerbated by the cereal embargo imposed on the USSR in 1980.[8]: 172  And, called “the grain basket of the world,” the most productive “cereal lebensraum” dominates the world ever since.[8]: 206 

Having analyzed the mechanism at work behind this pattern, Ostrovsky outlined that the cereal power determines the percentage of manpower available to non-agricultural sectors including the heavy industry vital for military power. He emphasized that chronologically the Industrial Revolution follows the modern Agricultural Revolution and spatially the world's industrial regions are bound to cereal regions. Taken from space, map of the global illumination is said to indicate by its brightest parts the industrial regions.[10][unreliable source?] These regions coincide with cereal regions. Ostrovsky formulized a universal indicator of national power valid for all periods: total cereal tonnage produced by one percent of nation's manpower. For the present, this indicator demonstrates a unipolar international hierarchy.[8]: 119 

Green RevolutionEdit

During the second half of the 20th century there was a significant increase in the production of high-yield cereal crops worldwide, especially wheat and rice, due to an initiative known as the Green Revolution.[11] The strategies developed by the Green Revolution focused on fending off starvation and increasing yield-per-plant, and were very successful in raising overall yields of cereal grains, but did not give sufficient relevance to nutritional quality.[12] These modern high-yield cereal crops tend to have low quality proteins, with essential amino acid deficiencies, are high in carbohydrates, and lack balanced essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and other quality factors.[12] So-called ancient grains and heirloom varieties have seen an increase in popularity with the "organic" movements of the early 21st century, but there is a tradeoff in yield-per-plant, putting pressure on resource-poor areas as food crops are replaced with cash crops.[13]


A wheat field in Dorset, England
Wheat Field in Behbahan, Iran

While each individual species has its own peculiarities, the cultivation of all cereal crops is similar. Most are annual plants; consequently one planting yields one harvest. Wheat, rye, triticale, oats, barley, and spelt are the "cool-season" cereals.[14] These are hardy plants that grow well in moderate weather and cease to grow in hot weather (approximately 30 °C or 85 °F, but this varies by species and variety). The "warm-season" cereals are tender and prefer hot weather. Barley and rye are the hardiest cereals, able to overwinter in the subarctic and Siberia. Many cool-season cereals are grown in the tropics. However, some are only grown in cooler highlands, where it ' "may" ' be possible to grow multiple crops per year.

For the past few decades, there has also been increasing interest in perennial grain plants. This interest developed due to advantages in erosion control, reduced need for fertilizer, and potentially lowered costs to the farmer. Though research is still in early stages, The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas has been able to create a few cultivars that produce a fairly good crop yield.[15]


Cereal grain seeds from left to right, top to bottom: wheat, spelt, barley, oat.

The warm-season cereals are grown in tropical lowlands year-round and in temperate climates during the frost-free season. Rice is commonly grown in flooded fields, though some strains are grown on dry land. Other warm climate cereals, such as sorghum, are adapted to arid conditions.

Cool-season cereals are well-adapted to temperate climates. Most varieties of a particular species are either winter or spring types. Winter varieties are sown in the autumn, germinate and grow vegetatively, then become dormant during winter. They resume growing in the springtime and mature in late spring or early summer. This cultivation system makes optimal use of water and frees the land for another crop early in the growing season.

Winter varieties do not flower until springtime because they require vernalization: exposure to low temperatures for a genetically determined length of time. Where winters are too warm for vernalization or exceed the hardiness of the crop (which varies by species and variety), farmers grow spring varieties. Spring cereals are planted in early springtime and mature later that same summer, without vernalization. Spring cereals typically require more irrigation and yield less than winter cereals.


Threshing; Tacuinum Sanitatis, 14th century

Once the cereal plants have grown their seeds, they have completed their life cycle. The plants die, become brown, and dry. As soon as the parent plants and their seed kernels are reasonably dry, harvest can begin.

In developed countries, cereal crops are universally machine-harvested, typically using a combine harvester, which cuts, threshes, and winnows the grain during a single pass across the field. In developing countries, a variety of harvesting methods are in use, depending on the cost of labor, from combines to hand tools such as the scythe or grain cradle.

If a crop is harvested during humid weather, the grain may not dry adequately in the field to prevent spoilage during its storage. In this case, the grain is sent to a dehydrating facility, where artificial heat dries it.

In North America, farmers commonly deliver their newly harvested grain to a grain elevator, a large storage facility that consolidates the crops of many farmers. The farmer may sell the grain at the time of delivery or maintain ownership of a share of grain in the pool for later sale. Storage facilities should be protected from small grain pests, rodents and birds.

Trade statisticsEdit

Worldwide rice production
A map of worldwide wheat production.

The following table shows the annual production of cereals in 1961,[a] 1980, 2000, 2010, 2018 and 2019/2020.

Grain Worldwide production
(millions of metric tons)
1961 1980 2000 2010 2018 2019/20
Maize (corn) 205 397 592 852 1,148 1,148 A staple food of people in the Americas, Africa, and of livestock worldwide; often called corn in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. A large portion of maize crops are grown for purposes other than human consumption.
Rice[b] Production is in milled terms. 285 397 599 480 506 755 The primary cereal of tropical and some temperate regions. Staple food in most of Brazil (both maize and manioc/cassava were once more important and their presence is still stronger in some areas), other parts of Latin America and some other Portuguese-descended cultures, parts of Africa (even more before the Columbian exchange), most of South Asia and the Far East. Largely overridden by breadfruit (a dicot tree) during the South Pacific's part of the Austronesian expansion.
Wheat 222 440 585 641 734 768 The primary cereal of temperate regions. It has a worldwide consumption but it is a staple food of North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil and much of the Greater Middle East. Wheat gluten-based meat substitutes are important in the Far East (albeit less than tofu) and said to resemble meat texture more than others.
Barley 72 157 133 123 159 Grown for malting and livestock on land too poor or too cold for wheat.
Sorghum 41 57 56 60 59 58 Important staple food in Asia and Africa and popular worldwide for livestock.
Millet 26 25 28 33 31 28 A group of similar but distinct cereals that form an important staple food in Asia and Africa.
Oats 50 41 26 20 23 Popular worldwide as a breakfast food and livestock feed. In human consumption, oats can be served as porridge as oatmeal,[16] although oats could be eaten in various different forms other than rolled oats, including unprocessed oats.[16][17]
Triticale 0 0.17 9 14 13 Hybrid of wheat and rye, grown similarly to rye.
Rye 35 25 20 12 11 13 Important in cold climates. Rye grain is used for flour, bread, beer, crispbread, some whiskeys, some vodkas, and animal fodder.
Fonio 0.18 0.15 0.31 0.56 0.63 Several varieties are grown as food crops in Africa.
World Cereal Market Total 2.646 2.706 2.951

Maize, wheat, and rice together accounted for 89% of all cereal production worldwide in 2012, and 43% of the global supply of food energy in 2009,[18] while the production of oats and rye have drastically fallen from their 1960s levels.

Other cereals not included in FAO statistics, include:

  • Teff, an ancient grain that is a staple in Ethiopia and grown in sub-Saharan Africa as a grass primarily for feeding horses. It is high in fiber and protein. Its flour is often used to make injera. It can also be eaten as a warm breakfast cereal similar to farina with a chocolate or nutty flavor. Its flour and whole grain products can usually be found in natural foods stores.
  • Wild rice, grown in small amounts in North America.

Several other species of wheat have also been domesticated, some very early in the history of agriculture:

  • Spelt, a close relative of common wheat.
  • Einkorn, a wheat species with a single grain.
  • Emmer, one of the first crops domesticated in the Fertile Crescent.
  • Durum, the only tetraploid species of wheat currently cultivated, used to make semolina flour.
  • Kamut, an ancient relative of durum with an unknown history.

In 2013 global cereal production was a then record 2,521 million tonnes. The FAO 2019/2020 global cereal production estimate released in December 2020 is 2,706 million tonnes and the forecast for the 2020/2021 season was 2.741 million tonnes.[19]

The FAO reports the major wheat exporters are Argentina, Australia, Canada, the EU, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the United States. The major coarse grain exporters are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, the EU, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the United States. The major rice exporters are India, Pakistan, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam.[citation needed] The ISO has published a series of standards regarding cereal products which are covered by ICS 67.060.[20]

Nutritional factsEdit

Some grains are deficient in the essential amino acid, lysine. That is why many vegetarian cultures, in order to get a balanced diet, combine their diet of grains with legumes. Many legumes, however, are deficient in the essential amino acid methionine, which grains contain. Thus, a combination of legumes with grains forms a well-balanced diet for vegetarians. Common examples of such combinations are dal (lentils) with rice by South Indians and Bengalis, dal with wheat in Pakistan and North India, beans with corn tortillas, tofu with rice, and peanut butter with wheat bread (as sandwiches) in several other cultures, including the Americas.[21] The amount of crude protein measured in grains is expressed as grain crude protein concentration.[22]

Cereals contain exogenous opioid food peptides called exorphins such as gluten exorphin. They mimic the actions of endorphines because they bind to the same opioid receptors in the brain.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ 1961 is the earliest year for which FAO statistics are available.
  2. ^ The weight given is for paddy rice


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