Are Tomatoes Really From Italy?

Tomatoes
Purple tomatoes in Norwich, United Kingdom, on October 27, 2008. Italy's tomatoes actually originate from elsewhere, a study reveals. John Innes Centre UK/Getty Images

A study published today reveals that many foods we associate with certain regions actually originate from a different country altogether, showing that no country has a diet of purely native crops.

The research, which assessed 151 different crops in 177 countries, showed the interconnectness of the world food supply and demonstrated, for example, that Italy’s tomatoes and Thailand’s chillies originated in the Americas.

Following Christopher Columbus's 1492 arrival in South America, the Columbian exchange occurred, which saw the movement of crops, culture and technology to Europe. “It is surprising how quickly new foods were accepted and adopted as their own by cultures," Dr Colin Khoury, lead researcher and a crop diversity specialist from the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), told BBC News.

Dr Khoury said his research is the first to focus on where 98 percent of global crops originate from. “It has taken a lot of information to come together, including linguistics, genetics and archaeological data, in order to reach this level of understanding. The connections between where people grow and eat food and where they come from are incredibly extensive, nations generally connect to so many different regions around the world,” he said.

The study’s findings shed light on the importance of the near East, north America and west Africa as origins for a wide variety of foods. Khoury and his team built on the work of early 20th-century Russian scientist Nikolai Vavilov and identified 23 food-producing regions. The research highlighted the importance of crop diversity, the interdependence of food systems and the value of “international collaboration” to ensure that world food production can respond effectively to threats such as climate change.

"It is very clear in science that genetic diversity is the biological base for being able to survive and adapt," Dr Khoury said.