Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500–2000 (Paperback)
  • Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500–2000 (Paperback)

Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500–2000 (Paperback)

Paperback 304 Pages
Published: 01/09/2007
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Sometime around 1500 AD, an African farmer planted a maize seed imported from the New World. That act set in motion the remarkable saga of one of the world’s most influential crops—one that would transform the future of Africa and of the Atlantic world. Africa’s experience with maize is distinctive but also instructive from a global perspective: experts predict that by 2020 maize will become the world’s most cultivated crop.

James C. McCann moves easily from the village level to the continental scale, from the medieval to the modern, as he explains the science of maize production and explores how the crop has imprinted itself on Africa’s agrarian and urban landscapes. Today, maize accounts for more than half the calories people consume in many African countries. During the twentieth century, a tidal wave of maize engulfed the continent, and supplanted Africa’s own historical grain crops—sorghum, millet, and rice. In the metamorphosis of maize from an exotic visitor into a quintessentially African crop, in its transformation from vegetable to grain, and from curiosity to staple, lies a revealing story of cultural adaptation. As it unfolds, we see how this sixteenth-century stranger has become indispensable to Africa’s fields, storehouses, and diets, and has embedded itself in Africa’s political, economic, and social relations.

The recent spread of maize has been alarmingly fast, with implications largely overlooked by the media and policymakers. McCann’s compelling history offers insight into the profound influence of a single crop on African culture, health, technological innovation, and the future of the world’s food supply.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674025578
Number of pages: 304
Dimensions: 202 x 130 mm


McCann's book is as amazing as its title - the botanical properties of the cultigen itself (clearly delineated for the botanically challenged), the continent's unique modern dependence on the crop, the complicated and varied political and economic histories of how it came to be that way, how his Ethiopian research partner's local knowledge connected maize with malaria, and more. Maize and Grace is a readable, highly original, penetrating and comprehensive study of exemplary quality. - Joseph Miller, University of Virginia

Maize transformed life in Africa, initially alleviating hunger during that crucial period before other crops ripened and now providing an increasingly important source of food, fodder, fuel and cash. McCann's eloquent narrative traces the path of this crop from its introduction as a snack into the land of Prester John to its present eminence throughout Africa. - Andrew Spielman, School of Public Health, Harvard University

A captivating account of the introduction and spread of maize in Africa. This book provides excellent analysis of the legacy and opportunity of maize in addressing Africa's food crisis, as well as powerful insight into emerging social, cultural, health and environmental issues. - Dr. Alemneh Dejene, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Maize and Grace offers a compelling counterpoint to the maize success story accepted by most agricultural economists. McCann sheds light on previously unexplored connections between the political, health, and food security dimensions of maize in Africa, some of which have major implications for development policy. - T.S. Jayne, Michigan State University

A sweeping, deeply-learned, beautifully-written, and well-nigh comprehensive account of how maize changed Africa and how Africa changed maize. The level of botanical historical, cultural, and agricultural knowledge that underwrites this volume makes it a model of scholarship as meticulous as it is ambitious. Henceforth, none of my students will be released into the world without having read it. - James C. Scott, Program in Agrarian Studies, Yale University

Maize and Grace shows how a New World crop contributed to the emergence of modern-day Africa. Some parts of Africa now have higher maize consumption per capita than Mexico and Guatemala, where the crop originated...Rather than describing sweeping historical currents, the book offers the reader a series of vignettes that provide opportunities to appreciate the paradoxes of maize development policy and to contemplate some enduring themes in agricultural history. - Robert Tripp, Nature

McCann has written a fascinating social history of the propagation of maize throughout sub-Saharan Africa since it was first brought there from the New World, probably in the cargo of a slave ship, around 1500. He chronicles the ways in which maize has adapted itself to African conditions, slowly becoming a major African food staple. Since World War II, in fact, the emergence of hybrid maize has resulted in a sharp rise in maize cultivation in Africa, displacing traditional indigenous crops. McCann celebrates the ingenuity of African farmers as they adapted the crop to local customs and climactic conditions, but he argues that the policy world has largely ignored the socioeconomic and environmental implications of the emergence of maize as a staple. In the book's most fascinating chapter, he convincingly links a major malaria epidemic in the highlands of Ethiopia in 1998 to the widespread adoption of maize in the area over the preceding decade. - Nicholas Van De Walle, Foreign Affairs

The author's botanical descriptions and us comprehend the long history of maize in Africa. It arrived during the sixteenth century from all directions-north and south, east and west, Christian and Muslim--to become a major food source during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. McCann provides thoughtful histories of its early decades in northern Italy and Ethiopia, demonstrating how politics affects agriculture profoundly--and vice versa as well. - Alfred W. Crosby, Technology and Culture

With a captivating title, Maize and Grace, James McCann considers the ambiguities of African development through a handful of creatively researched maize stories that demonstrate his well-honed investigatory and interpretative skills as a distinguished Africanist environmental historian...From an informed use of oral tradition, little-used agronomic research records, statistical analysis, and artistic and photographic evidence--shared through almost forty illustrations--McCann reveals how an environmental history of maize in Africa illustrates both the triumphs and tripwires of development science and politics. - James Bingen, African Studies Review

As a field crop produced primarily to feed livestock and chicken, maize may appear to be a far cry from being considered a "grace" to humanity as the title of the book, Maize and Grace might suggest. However, considering the distinctive character it plays in human diets, it is not difficult to perceive maize as a blessing or grace. James McCann has chosen an ambitious task and has done it well. He set out to tell the remarkable saga of maize's ascension as a major dramatis persona in Africa's food supply over the past half millennium. As a historian, McCann has brought a different perspective to the importance of maize in the evolution of African agricultural systems...Maize and Grace is a fascinating book, and a joy to read. The book, based on painstaking research and historical data, provides a comprehensive account of how maize and humans have interacted since it was first introduced in Africa over half a millennium ago. It is eloquently written and loaded with a wealth of historical, social, cultural, botanical, ecological, and agricultural information and knowledge, as well as fresh, ingenious, and original insights. Professor McCann is to be commended and congratulated for his valuable scholarly contribution to agricultural literature. Can maize be Africa's "saving grace?" It is a question left for the reader to decide. - Chung L. Huang, American Journal of Agricultural Economics

In this concise yet comprehensive monograph, James McCann deploys his considerable skills as a synthesizer to explain how maize, despite its nutritional and environmental constraints, has come to be the dominant food crop in Africa...In the end, what makes this book impressive is the way that it combines original fieldwork with a deep understanding of a by now formidable interdisciplinary literature...His approach allows this important book to make a significant contribution to the new literature on the history of African crop cultivation...It will become a must-read for students of agricultural and environmental history, geography and African history more generally. - Jamie Monson, African History

A fascinating tour of five centuries of African history...[It] should attract some general readers as well as students of African agriculture. - Danny Yee’s Book Reviews

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