the near future—there has been relatively little development of new wonder drugs from tropical plants during the last decade (Tyler, 1986; see also Farnsworth, Chapter 9 of this volume). The recent history and predicted future for new agriculture and industrial plant products from the tropics have been very positive (Balick, 1985; Schultes, 1979).


The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture. From Thomas Jefferson, 1821.

A hungry people listen not to reason, nor care for justice, nor are bent by prayers. From Seneca, ca. 60 A.D.

A hungry mob is an angry mob. From Bob Marley, 1979.

Tropical forest plants can be of use to modern agriculture in three different ways: as sources of new crops that can be brought into cultivation; as source material for breeding improved plant varieties; and as sources of new biodegradable pesticides.


Only a very small proportion of the world’s plants have ever been used as a food source on a large scale. Of the several thousand species known to be edible, only about 150 have ever become important enough to enter into world commerce (R.E.Schultes, Harvard Botanical Museum, personal communication, 1986). In the movement toward a global economy, there has been a trend to concentrate on fewer and fewer species. Today, less than 20 plant species produce most of the world’s food (Vietmeyer, 1986b). Furthermore, the four major carbohydrate crop species—wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes—feed more people than the next 26 most important crops combined (Witt, 1985).

The obvious place to turn for new crops to reduce our heavy reliance on such a relatively small number of species is the tropics. North America north of Mexico has contributed relatively little to the storehouse of economically important crop plants. If we had to live on plants that originated in the United States, our diet would consist of pecans, sunflower seeds, cranberries, blueberries, grapes, wild rice, pumpkins, squashes, and Jerusalem artichokes. Caufield (1982) estimated that 98% of U.S. crop production is based on species that originated outside our borders. Of our common foodstuffs, corn, rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, sugar, citrus fruit, bananas, tomatoes, coconuts, peanuts, red pepper, black pepper, nutmeg, mace, pineapples, chocolate, coffee, and vanilla all originated in tropical countries. A typical American breakfast of cornflakes, bananas, sugar, coffee, orange juice, hot chocolate, and hash brown potatoes is based entirely on tropical plant products.

Few people realize how much of our diet today has been determined by exploitation patterns developed when tropical countries were colonies of Europe. In many cases, the advantage that some current crop staples have over other, less-exploited tropical species is the disproportionate amount of research to which they have been subjected. Under the colonial system, only a few key species were chosen for export, and the establishment of a market for these species determined future cultivation

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