Grain is the harvested seed of grasses such as wheat, oats, rice, and corn. Other important grains include sorghum, millet, rye, and barley. Around the globe, grains, also called cereals, are the most important staple food. Humans get an average of 48 percent of their calories, or food energy, from grains. Grains are also used to feed livestock and to manufacture some cooking oils, fuels, cosmetics, and alcohols.
Almost half of the grains grown around the world are harvested for people to eat directly. People turn wheat flour into bread, steam rice, and make corn tortillas. Grains are a food staple in almost every culture on Earth. A food staple is food that is eaten frequently, often at every meal. Staple foods can be eaten fresh or stored for use all year. Rice, corn, and wheat are the most common staple foods on Earth.
Grains are so important because they are a good source of important nutrients called carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are a type of sugar that provides energy for organisms to function. Grains have carbohydrates as well as other important nutrients, such as vitamins. While grains fill many nutritional needs, they often lack some important proteins. In many cultures, grains are part of a staple diet when combined with protein-rich legumes, such as beans. Together, grains and legumes make a healthy diet: corn and beans, rice and tofu, wheat bread and peanut butter.
A third of the world’s grain supply is fed to animals. Most domestic animals, from cattle to dogs, are fed food rich in grains and grain products.
The rest of the world’s grain supply is used in the manufacture of industrial products. Biodiesel is a fuel used for vehicles. One type of biodiesel is ethanol, which can be made from corn.
Grains are annual plants. This means they have only one growing season per year, yielding one crop. Every growing season, grasses grow, reach maturity, produce seeds, and then die. Grains are harvested from dead, or dry, grasses.
Some grains are winter grains, such as rye. They are able to withstand cold, wet climates. Others are summer grains, such as corn. Corn usually grows best in warm weather.
Grains can grow in almost any climate. Rice is the most important grain in many tropical areas, where it is hot and humid year-round. Rice is especially common in Asia. In Southeast Asia, rice is grown and harvested in flooded fields called paddies. Rice paddies can be flat or terraced. Terraced rice paddies look like steps on a green hill. This type of grain agriculture has been used for centuries.
Unlike rice, sorghum does not grow well in a wet climate. Sorghum favors an arid climate. The nations of West Africa, including Senegal, the Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Cape Verde, are the world’s largest producers of sorghum.
In temperate areas—those with warm summers and cold winters—wheat is the most common grain. Wheat fields are common in the Great Plains of the United States and Canada, for instance. Corn, which is native to the Americas, is now grown in many temperate areas throughout the world. Oats, another grain that grows in temperate areas, are also used as a livestock feed.
People first began eating grains about 75,000 years ago in western Asia. These grains, including einkorn and emmer, were ancestors of today’s wheat. Einkorn and emmer grew wild near the banks of rivers. People harvested the grasses that grew naturally near their communities.
People began cultivating, or growing, grain more recently. In 2009, scientists announced that they had discovered the world’s oldest known grain silos at Dhra in what is now the nation of Jordan. The silos, which date back 11,000 years, contained remnants of barley and an early type of wheat.
Ancient people ate grains in much the same way we do today. Wheat grains were made into flour and used in breads. Rice was steamed and eaten hot or cold. Oats were mashed with water or milk to make oatmeal. Beer, one of the oldest manufactured beverages in the world, is made from grain such as barley. Ancient beers had a very low alcohol content, but were good sources of carbohydrates.
In some ancient civilizations, grain products served as wages or forms of currency. Many of the workers who built Egypt’s pyramids at Giza, for instance, were often paid in bread and beer.
Today, grain silos are a familiar sight to many people in the developed world. Harvesting is done almost entirely with enormous, expensive machinery. The most important piece of agricultural machinery for grain crops is the combine harvester. This remarkable machine does three jobs: it cuts the grain, threshes the grain, and winnows the grain. Cutting, of course, is removing the grain from the stalk of grass. Threshing is loosening the edible grain from its casing, called the chaff. (Chaff is inedible; organisms cannot digest it.) Winnowing is the process of removing the grain from the chaff. Combine harvesters help farmers expand the amount of grains they can harvest by combining three activities into one.
In the developing world, few farmers have the huge fields of grain that agribusinesses in the developed world do. Farmers in the developing world typically have a few acres, and provide grain for their local community. These farmers usually thresh and winnow with separate machines (threshers and winnowers) after harvesting the field. In many places, harvesting is still done with hand tools such as the sickle, a long, curved blade used for cutting many stalks of grain at once.