Jeff Guo in the Washington Post:
Scholars have long puzzled over the different fates of the world’s peoples. Why, on the eve of the modern world, were some societies so technologically and politically complex? For centuries, leading intellectuals from Adam Smith to Karl Marx believed that agricultural abundance had propelled the rise of advanced civilizations. The Assyrians and Babylonians of ancient Mesopotamia, for instance, flourished thanks to their fertile farms, which fed an upper class that devoted itself to religion and empire.
In his 1997 bestseller “Guns, Germs and Steel,” historian Jared Diamond argued that the availability of nutritious and easily domesticated plants and animals gave some societies a head start. In the Middle East there was barley and wheat; in Asia there was millet and rice. “People around the world who had access to the most productive crops became the most productive farmers,” Diamond later said on his PBS show. And more productivity led to more advanced civilizations.
But the staple crops associated with less-advanced peoples — like manioc, the white potato, the sweet potato and taro — weren’t necessarily less productive. In fact, manioc and the potato are superstar crops, less demanding of the soil and less thirsty for water. These plants still feed billions of people today.