Culinary Sense

Adventures with Food and Life

Columbian Exchange

Hey Folks!

Here’s a bit of a summary I wrote for my History and Culture class. This class is about the history of food, and I am learning a lot. It turns out history can be interesting! All of you who knew me in high school… well, I hater history (for good reasons). However, the origins of food and cuisine are fun to learn about.

If you’ve never heard about the concept of the Columbian Exchange, you should totally look it up. For my class, we had to do some research, and then summarize what we found.

The paper I’m summarizing is The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas. Nathan Nunn, Harvard University, NBER, and BREAD and Nancy Qian, Yale University, NBER and BREAD. First version, September 7th, 2009.


The Columbian Exchange is considered to be the historical economic, cultural, agricultural, and health effects of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas in 1492. (Whether Columbus was in fact the first European to discover the Americas is not challenged in this paper.) The authors Nunn and Qian discuss aspects of the Columbian Exchange particularly pertaining to its effects on the Old World, and specifically the exchange of food crops, disease, and human migration. They define the Old World not only as Europe, but also the African, Asian, and Australian continents. The New World is defined as North, Central and South America.


One significant aspect of the Exchange is the transmission of diseases from the Old World to the New World, resulting in the tragic decimation of Native American population of around 80-95%. The only significant disease brought from the New World to the Old World was syphilis, which was first spread by Columbus and his crew, and quickly and on a large scale spread throughout Europe, then Africa, Asia, and reaching Australia by 1515.

Exchange and Cultivation of Crops

Several factors are important when we talk about the exchange of food and other crops between the New World and the Old World. One major advantage was the fact that previously unused soils could be used due to the different nutrient and soil demands of new crops. As the New World and Old World both follow a North-South line, it was easy to find a similar climate for the crops to grow. Also, the pests and parasites were not the same, providing another advantage.

Some of the crops that were introduced into the Old World are: potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, and cassava. These crops led to improvements in calorie and nutrient intake, and are now staple foods of many Old World countries. Tomatoes, cacao, and chili peppers also become important main ingredients for various cuisines such as Mediterranean and Asian cuisines. Some crops that were New World crops are now mostly grown in the Old World, such as soybeans, bananas and oranges. Through the Exchange, the Old World was able to expand its land use in the New World, to increase their production of sugar, coffee, and soybeans.

Here are a few key crops that have had a significant impact on the Old World:

1)    The potato has proven to sustain life and give sufficient calories when it is the only source of food. Old World countries are at the top 12 on the list of countries that consume potatoes. The potato has had significant impact on increase in population in the Old World, and also increased urbanization rates.

2)    Capsicum peppers (hot peppers) are now used in cuisines worldwide, including being the main spice for Hungarian cuisine (paprika). Some form of chili pepper is used in almost all Korean dishes and in almost every dish in South and South East Asia; hot peppers are also used in China and even Africa.

3)    The tomato is used worldwide, and has had an important effect on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food. The first accounts of tomatoes in Italy suggest they were yellow rather than red. Eight of the top ten tomato producers are Old World countries. Canning process helps improve problem of spoilage. The tomato is the most important source of vitamin and nutrients of all fruits and vegetables; cooked or canned tomatoes are an excellent source of anti-oxidants.

4)    Cacao is a crop widely produced by Old World countries, mostly in their (former) colonies. Aside from being a popular sweet candy, chocolate is a high energy food and used in physically strenuous expeditions to provide calories.

5)    Vanilla pods are fermented to create their flavor and aroma. Vanilla is now so common that in English, “vanilla” can mean plain or conventional.

6)    Tobacco was used by Native Americans during religious ceremonies, and also used as a painkiller. After its spread to Europe, it was also used as currency. In the mid 20th century, negative health effects of smoking started to emerge; smoking levels are now decreasing in developed countries, while rising in developing countries.

7)    Coca was used during religious ceremonies; it increases creativity, stamina, and decreases hunger. It is used as stimulant, most commonly in Coca-Cola (which started during prohibition). Today, coca is significant source of income for the three top producing countries: Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.

8)    Sugar cane is better to grow in New World because of the lower population density and more fuel for processing. Sugar provides and easy source of calories for Old World workers; leads to increase in welfare, and maybe even the rise of the Industrial Revolution.

9)    Quinine is derived from bark of cinchona tree native to Andes. It is used in the treatment of malaria and ensures survival of exploring and colonizing Europeans in Africa because it significantly reduces the death rate of troops and generals due to malaria.

10) Rubber comes from cutting the rubber tree and collecting its sap. Native Americans use it in various applications, including as an adhesive, containers, toys, and other things. After the discovery of vulcanization (stabilization of rubber to more stable product) there is a significant boom in Europe: it used to make shoe soles, bicycle tires (and later car tires), and as an insulation from electricity. In the Congo, there is massive loss of life and damage to the country due to forcing natives to collect rubber.

Human Migration

There is an involuntary migration from Africa to the New World (slave trade) because of the loss of the native populations due to the introduction of European or Old World diseases they had no immunity towards. The need for workers is so large that Old World producers force people to grow and process crops for them in the New World. After the abolition of the British Slave Trade, indentured laborers from India and China were moved to the New World. There is also voluntary migration from the Old World to the New World.


The Columbian Exchange not only had a significant impact on the New World in the introduction of diseases, new crops, and widespread colonization and land use by the Old World, but also had significant effects on the welfare, health, crops, and food culture of the Old World.

The introduction of new crops to the Old World increases the variety of choices of foods and caloric and nutritional intake of the population. Many New World crops become main ingredients in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, European, and various Asian cuisines. These new crops are also compatible with Old World soils and climates, without creating competition to existing crops.

The “discovery” of new lands means more area to grow food on. The Old World uses the New World to supply the high demand for various crops. Due to the increase in demand for workers, significant voluntary and involuntary migration takes place from the Old World to the New World. Furthermore, the discovery of the New World quinine enables Old World colonists to continue colonization of Africa and abduction of African people as slaves.


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One thought on “Columbian Exchange

  1. Clark on said:

    thanks alot!!!

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