A History Of The British Climate Part II (Part I Tomorrow)

It’s common knowledge that there used to be an Ice Age in this country. Something which is never clear to me is whether people generally realise that this planet has recently, i.e. in the past million years or so, undergone five ice ages, and it’s debated whether anthropogenic climate change will be sufficient to prevent the next one. As I mentioned the other day, up until the 1980s it was considered a toss-up whether the near future would involve global cooling or warming, although looking at the graph of recent global temperatures in 1977, it seemed close to inevitable that it would warm. But there have been people here for hundreds of millennia, back to the Hoxnian about four hundred millennia ago, so I will start with that, work down to the present and then go way up and repeat the process on a grander timescale.

As far as I know, and in fact I suspect I’m wrong, the earliest human remains found in what are currently these isles are the so-called “Swanscombe Man”, a Neanderthal or pre-Neanderthal woman dating from about four hundred millennia BP (before present – in fact before 1950 CE). She was found in a Swanscombe gravel pit, near Dartford in today’s Kent. The Hoxnian Stage was an interglacial lasting from 424 to 374 millennia BP, when it was slightly warmer than today on average. At the time, there were dense forests here, making it difficult for people to penetrate much of the country and they mainly stayed in river valleys, such as the Thames, then a tributary of the Rhine, where the Swanscombe remains were found. Other species sharing that environment included the straight-tusked elephant, hippos and rhinos. This is one of the startling things about British fauna, and in fact fauna in general, up until the start of the last Ice Age: it was actually quite Afrikan. Distinctive European fauna during interglacials didn’t arise until this one, referred to as the Holocene. In fact humans could be seen as an example of that, since we are originally Afrikan.

I grew up calling the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene Donau, Günz, Mindel, Rịẞ and Würm, which are apparently the wrong names for Northern Europe, where they’re called the Hamburger, Elder, Elster, Saale and Weichsel. One of the annoying things about ice ages is that they’re called different things in different parts of the world, which doesn’t generally happen with other geological periods although one of the Cenozoic epochs, can’t remember which, is said to continue in some parts of the world after it had finished in others. Possibly the Oligocene. In the case of ice ages this is to some extent justified, because as far as the Arctic regions are concerned we’ve been in one long ice age since the start of the Pleistocene. Britain, and in particular Scotland, is the northernmost land not actually considered Arctic, so it isn’t surprising that the ice ages operated somewhat differently here than they did further south. The names I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph are also the names of Alpine rivers, because the Alps were obviously more strongly affected than lower-lying parts of the European peninsula.

When the Ice Age I’m apparently supposed to call the Saale started around 374 millennia BP, glaciers completely covered what would become this archipelago, and of course Doggerland in the German Ocean/North Sea was still completely above sea level, so at this point these isles were not islands at all but a sub-peninsula of Europe. Fauna included lemmings, mammoths, woolly rhinos and musk oxen, but there would’ve been an intermediate cooling period during which horses would have arrived because the forests were thinning out. This came to an end around 130 millennia BP with the gross of centuries or so known as the Eemian or Ipswichian, during which sea level rose to six to nine metres above where it is today. Ice ages during this time are much longer than interglacials, which all seem to last about that long, which also means we’re kind of due for a new ice age, hence Nigel Calder’s fixation which I mentioned here. This is the period during which anatomically modern humans evolved, and our split between Asian and Afrikan populations. During this time there were hippos in the Thames and Rhine, and there were also straight-tusked elephants again in Britain, although we were at the limit of their range by then. They finally became extinct, or perhaps just left, at the start of the next ice age, the Weichsel.

The Weichsel, which is the most recent ice age and the one many probably just think of as the Ice Age, was less severe than the Saale, with the ice sheets only reaching as far south as the Humber and Mid-Wales, and across in Ireland in a line across from Wexford to Galway. South of those would’ve been tundra rather than actual permanent ice cover, and there were reindeer in the Peak District who used to migrate to Lincolnshire to calve. There were also still mammoths, for instance in Shropshire, until 14 000 BP, although they had previously been wiped out here because it was too cold for them. What seems to have been happening here is that local populations of mammoths were dying out and then getting replaced by others moving into the area, in a cycle. There were also bison, woolly rhinos and Irish elks. The last seem to be remembered in Irish legends. They were not closely related to elks but to fallow deer, and their last representatives vanished around 7 700 BP in Russia, at a time when mammoths were still around – they only died out around the time the pyramids were built. Irish elk appear in cave paintings and were hunted by humans.

The Holocene is actually formally defined, kind of by fiat, rather than just being the end of the last ice age. In the 1990s CE, it was proposed that a Holocene calendar be formally designated where years are numbered from the start of the epoch. Hence it started officially in 10 000 BCE or 11 950 BP. This makes it easier to use for geology and archæology, since Bede’s timing for the birth of Jesus is both arbitrary and culturally biassed, and not very useful for these purposes except that it helps us relate to the dates if one has a Christian background. That said, the onset of the Holocene is also the time of the last glacial retreat, and as such dates to around 11 650 years ago, or 9 630 BCE with spurious accuracy. All human recorded history has taken place in this period, and during this time there has been fluctuation in climate, here and elsewhere.

A big factor in the Holocene was the Bond events, which are fluctuations in ice rafting occurring from the Arctic in an approximately ten century cycle. In terms of the Common Era, these nine events took place at the following approximate dates: 9100 BCE, 8300 BCE, 7400 BCE, 6200 BCE, 3900 BCE, 2200 BCE, 800 BCE, 600 CE and 1500 CE. Some of these are associated with particular historical events or trends. What seems to be happening, and this is my interpretation, is that Arctic ice breaks up and spreads out in the North Atlantic, reflecting more heat back into space and cooling the planet globally. Then it refreezes and the planet warms up due to a smaller area being covered by ice.

The events in question sometimes had a major effect here, sometimes either not or not in a discernible way from this distance in time. Before I go on, I’ll talk about Doggerland, the formation of the Irish Sea and the English Channel. Doggerland, as you must surely know but I’ll mention it anyway, is the area now flooded by the North Sea. The Irish Sea used to be a marshy area with some lakes, the English Channel was also above sea level and even after the rest was submerged there was a narrow isthmus across the Pas De Calais until 5000 BCE. All of this was to do with ice melting and sea level rise.

Where the Bond events didn’t directly influence the climate significantly in this country, and in fact they would’ve done although without agriculture or written records the traces are harder to discern without some archæological research such as looking at tree rings, they may still have had a long-term knock on effect from what happened elsewhere. For instance, the 6200 BCE event led to a drier spell in Mesopotamia and therefore may have triggered irrigation efforts which led to the emergence of Sumer and the other cultures in that area, ultimately leading to the arrival of more advanced technology and different peoples here in the characteristic pattern where the East is south of the West. That said, the distribution of the aforementioned elephants also shows a northeast-southwest boundary and the glaciation kind of followed the same “diagonal” line. The 3900 BCE event led to the reformation of the Sahara Desert by four centuries later, whose effects can be seen in rock paintings showing animals usually found in wetter climates in that area. The Bronze Age began a couple of centuries after that. This got to Britain about a millennium later still. A later significant oscillation was the Iron Age Cold Epoch, which started around 800 BCE and coincided with the expansion of Ancient Greece and the foundation of Rome. This was followed by the Roman Warm period from 250 BCE to 400 CE, or 500 to 1150 AUC in the Roman dating system, which seems to have been fairly local, i.e. confined to Europe. Italy at the time was wetter and cooler, and it was the start of the current Subatlantic period. The temperature left to itself is slightly lower in this, current, period, than its predecessors and again this is evidence that we’re due an Ice Age, but human activity seems to be either postponing or preventing this for now. The cooling is thought to have triggered the migration of the Germanic tribes from Scandinavia down into the main part of Europe. There are then a number of named periods: the Late Antique Little Ice Age, Dark Ages Cold Period, Mediæval Warm Period and finally the well-known Little Ice Age.

The first two of these coincide to some extent, with the Late Antique Little Ice Age occurring in the middle of the Dark Ages Cold Period. In other words the former was the peak of the latter. The longer period seems to be precisely dateable to 509-865 CE, and includes for Britain most of the sub-Roman period, Augustine’s arrival and the early years of Alfred’s life until shortly before he became King. The middle of that period seems to have been worsened by volcanic eruptions reducing sunlight. The Annals of Ulster record a crop failure leading to a lack of bread in 536 and those of Innisfallen says this continued until 539. Ice cores from those years show a higher sulphur content than others. The Annales Cambriæ record “great mortality in Britain and Ireland” and also say it was King Arthur’s last battle. In various places it’s said that the Sun shone only weakly for a year and a half. In China it snowed in August 536.

This was eventually followed by the Mediæval Warm Period, lasting from around 950-1250. Sediments in the Sargasso Sea show that it was 1°C warmer than 1996 at this time. It seems that the ice-free seas of the North Atlantic were taken advantage of by the Norse people to colonise Greenland, as they called it, and Afrika was drier. After a bit of a gap, the Little Ice Age began in about 1350 and lasted up until about 1900, and this is something I find puzzling. There was a major famine here in 1315-17 which seems to have set Europe up for the Black Death later in the century because the people who were children at the time of the famine seem to have grown up rather unhealthy, laying them and the communities around them open to the ravages of the plague, if that’s what it was, as adults, and also making them a source of infection for healthier people who might otherwise have escaped. It might be expected that this was due to a series of years with bad weather conditions for growth of wheat in particular because of the climate, but in fact this doesn’t seem to be so. However, it does seem that a five-year long series of eruptions in Aotearoa/New Zealand of Mount Tarawera may have precipitated the event. Some people do extend the Little Ice Age back to 1300.

The following few centuries had such features as white Xmases and frost fairs on the Thames. There are two reasons why white Xmases used to me more frequent. One of them is pretty obvious, but the other, so I hear, is that there tends to be a snowier period shortly before the dates which are now celebrated as Christmas, and the calendar reforms moved it out of this to a less snowy stage of the winter. I’m not sure about that because it seems more likely to snow in early January than mid-December, so it seems to be in the wrong direction.

Frost fairs were held on the Thames in London from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries CE, peaking from the seventeenth century onward when the Little Ice Age was at its most severe. It’s thought that the Thames was more likely to freeze over in any case back then because of the water wheels under London Bridge slowing the flow of the river down and the pollution in the water raising the freezing point. They were in any case quite seldom held, and were much more common elsewhere in Europe. The Thames has frozen over further upstream much more recently, unsurprisingly in winter 1963. I can remember the sea freezing over to a limited extent in the Thames Estuary. It froze over for several weeks in London in the third Christian century, and in 695, the date of the first fair, then there’s a gap until 1608, when it first used name. The biggest was in 1683-4, when the ice was half a metre thick. The last one was in February 1814, when the ice supported an elephant. I don’t want to ignore the cruelty of exploiting a presumably Asian elephant in that way, but note the connection with native British straight-tusked elephants living on the banks of the river in ages past. In 1831, London Bridge was pulled down and the climate was warming, meaning that it ceased to be feasible from that point on.

By Giorgiogp2 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8942703

Approaching living memory, there’s the Year Without A Summer, also known as “Eighteen Hundred And Frozen To Death”, a phrase many older people may have heard of. This is 1816. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in today’s Indonesia led to a global fall in temperature of 0.7°C. The summer temperatures were relatively lowest in France and England. There was food price inflation all over Europe and in 1819, there were typhus epidemics in Ireland and Scotland as a result of malnourishment. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ during the summer of this year because the weather was too bad for them to go outside. Also by this time, sunspots were being observed and the Sun’s surface was unusually “clean” between 1796 and 1820, a period known as the Dalton Minimum, and like other minima it coincided with a spell of colder temperatures. The better-known Maunder Minimum from 1645-1715 had also seen this, and it’s also hypothesised that there’s a rhythm instantiated by these two, meaning that an earlier Spörer Minimum had occurred from 1460-1550.

There are several ways to retrieve the record of climate change in fairly recent times, including ice core samples, tree rings, coral skeletons, cave deposits and foraminiferan skeletons from the sea bed and chalk. One of the things these show is that the industrial revolution, which at the time was fuelled by coal, began to make its presence felt by about 1830, rather surprisingly in the Southern Hemisphere more than the Northern. Antarctica has been protected from much of this by the circulation of water and air currents in the Southern Ocean, but it can be seen in other oceans and landmasses south of the Equator.

This is more or less common knowledge, so I won’t go into much depth, and I’m pretty sure I’ve covered it extensively elsewhere on this blog. Therefore I’ll just mention three events: the winters of 1947 and 1963, and the summer of 1976.

From 23rd January 1947, Britain and the rest of Europe experienced an unusually harsh winter, which incidentally is a major plot point in my novel ‘1934’. I also know someone whose life was basically ruined by it. An anticyclone was stationary over Scandinavia, preventing low pressure areas from moving towards Britain from the Atlantic and allowing winds to blow from the east across the country. The temperature dropped to -21°C, there was pack ice in the Channel and ice floes in the North Sea. Similar, and in some cases more severe, measures were taken as during the War, including lower rations, the suspension of television, the reduction of radio and there were power cuts which even affected Buckingham Palace. Four million people claimed unemployment benefit. Three million sheep died, there were many crops lost or irretrievable from the ground due to frozen soil and there were of course many human casualties. This was followed by serious flooding in March when the snow and ice melted.

The next severe winter occurred sixteen years later, and Sarada can remember this although I wasn’t born. This was known as the Big Freeze of ’63 and was the coldest since 1895. The situation began similarly to 1947 with a stationary high over Scandinavia, but this was then replaced by another over Iceland. Temperatures fell to -19°C in Scotland and the sea froze over at Herne Bay for 1.6 kilometres. January 1963 is the coldest month since January 1814. The difference between the two post-War winters is probably down to the fact that Britain had recovered economically from the War by the second, and there were also some advances in technology and the infrastructure, but that’s just my guess.

Finally for today I want to mention an incident which I can actually remember quite clearly: the summer of 1976. Although this was only the second driest summer since records began, next to 1995, it’s far more memorable for its weather than the later one. You may recall, incidentally, that 1975 was also very hot and dry, and that dryness and mildness continued through the ’75-’76 winter, meaning that more insects survived and continued to reproduce in the next year. Meanwhile the water reserves were already unusually low. The cause of the actual heatwave and drought was, surprisingly, similar to those of the winters of ’47 and ’63, with a high pressure area stuck over Europe, and in fact the whole of Europe was affected, not just Britain. Shade temperatures rose to 34°C in late July. Rivers, lakes and reservoirs dried up, the grass died and there was a plague of ladybirds. It was actually possible to fill shovels with them, and many people, including myself, discovered for the first time that they “sweat” an irritant clear yellow liquid when stressed (incidentally the same thing happened a couple of days ago to me while I was out). This was because ladybirds are predators of other insects, and their plethora had led to a population explosion. There were also standpipes in the street due to a water shortage, and I think hosepipes were banned for the first time. The Archbishop of Canterbury prayed for rain to no avail. Then, bizarrely, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson appointed a minister for drought, Denis Howell, and ordered him to do a rain dance! Then it rained and he became minster for floods. I shall now specifically invite Steve to tell us his tale of ’76.

As for me, my tenth birthday occurred during the drought. I was on holiday in the Isle Of Wight and my brother and I both went down with tonsilitis. My temperature went up to 38.3°C. However, I recovered in time to enjoy the rest of the holiday, and we went to Blackgang Chine where there was a “ride” purporting to be Hell which was very hot inside, except that it wasn’t because of the temperature outside. Two other notable features were that after it had started raining people were still using standpipes and were actually standing in the rain waiting for water, and it was stated that even if it rained every day until the year 2000 there wouldn’t be enough water to replace what there had been in 1974. There was also said to be a problem with the mud getting baked into an impermeable condition, such that the rain would just run off and fail to accumulate. There were forest fires in the South, and everyone was warned to take extreme care. However, these have actually served to replenish heathland in the long run. Deaths went up by twenty percent.

That, then, is the history of climate in this country from the life of Swanscombe Woman four hundred millennia ago into the late twentieth century. Tomorrow I will cover the history of climate here from deep in prehistory up until the advent of the latest spate of Ice Ages.


As I covered cassava the other day, it would be unbalanced of me not to cover millets at some point. As far as many White Brits are concerned, millet is just this grain you give to budgies, not something I’ve ever done owing to not encountering the birds much in my everyday life, except once outside Leicester Prison, drinking from a puddle. That said, I did go through a phase of cooking with millet. I treated it exactly as I would couscous or bulgur, so I wasn’t exactly adventurous with it. But just as cassava is the go-to energy crop in the wet, millet is in the dry, and unlike manioc it is quite nutritious in terms of micronutrients. However, there isn’t just one millet but at least a dozen different cultivated species, depending on how you count them, and again unlike yuca, some millet is native to temperate regions.

With the exception of maize, grain crops often resemble one common grass or another which grows wild. I have to admit I’m not good at identifying species of grass. I presume the grasses that look like millet are in the eragrostidæ, which all use C4 photosynthesis which means they could outlast other plants when the carbon dioxide levels drop in a few hundred million years time if they’re still around by then. Some of them can also be used to absorb cæsium, a common and particularly hazardous pollutant from nuclear power disasters such as the one at Cernobyl, but obviously those are not going to be used as food. They are, however, used as food for grazing animals such as bovids and sheep, though the ones concerned don’t look much like millet. Apart from sorghum, which isn’t always counted, millets have small grains. Sorghum used to fascinate me as a child because it is for some reason not widely used in England compared to the other cereals, and being drawn to the obscure, I often used to wonder about it. During the ’70s there were attempts to cross-breed sorghum and wheat. I’ll revisit sorghum in a bit, because it’s quite distinctive.

The millets are useful crops in dry conditions, because they will often grow in poor soil with low rainfall. They can also be stored for a long time. This kind of puts them in the same position as manioc in different regions owing to their similar characteristics in this respect, but unlike tapioca they don’t need to be waxed to preserve them and they’re way better nutritionally. However, because they tend to be grown on marginal land, their yields tend to be quite low, although when they are grown in better conditions this is not so.

First then, sorghum. Sorghum is also known as great millet and guinea corn, and grows between one and five metres high. They look like maize before flowering, with somewhat broader leaves, though narrower than Zea mays, but unlike maize the root system is more extensive, allowing the plant to absorb more water. The variety in the illustration is red-grained and has a bitter taste, and is therefore more likely to be used to brew beer than be eaten directly. It originated in Afrika but has been cultivated in India and China for millennia as well, in more arid areas. It’s a very important food crop in these regions and the parts of Afrika where the conditions are similar. Like cassava, it isn’t traded internationally much. In the US and Australia it’s used as fodder for farm animals, but the stems can be used to extract a syrup like that of sugar cane, which can be used in cooking, and this is done in the US, where it’s called sorghum molasses. This just reminds me of sucking and chewing grass stalks, so I presume the same kind of thing could be done with the likes of fescue or any other grass with a relatively tall stalk, although with a smaller grass it would be pretty labour intensive. Nigeria is the leading producer of sorghum by a narrow margin, growing about an eighth of the world’s supply, followed by India, Mexico and the US, but this could be misleading as Nigeria is only half the size of Mexico. Due to its C4 photosynthesis, sorghum uses less water than most other plants, although not other millets, allowing it to compete more successfully in dry conditions with other plants. It also becomes dormant in drought conditions and rolls its leaves to prevent transpiration. The grain is covered by a husk which has to be removed to make it edible, and this was one of the tasks done by women slaves during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Due to the sugar-rich sap, it can also be used to produce alcoholic liquor and therefore ethanol for biofuel. Attempts to cross it with other cereals are motivated by the desire to grow it in colder climates, and at this point I feel there’s some missing information because there are of course temperate millets.

Bulrush millet is probably illustrated at the top of the post although I’m not sure. At this point I’m going to permit myself a bit of a digression, on the subject of the word “bulrush” and the evolution of grasses. Firstly, there’s a pedantic tendency, though I’ve not seen it recently, to “correct” people on the use of the word “bulrush” to refer to reed maces. This is silly. Words change their meanings as time goes by and if people are habitually going to call a particular plant a “bulrush”, that’s simply what it is. It also seems to be an American vs. British usage issue. Secondly, bulrushes are sedges, i.e. monocotyledonous grass-like plants which grow near or in water. I haven’t looked that deeply into it, but I’m aware that dinosaur dung shows the indigestible remnants of grasses way back into the Cretaceous, although grasses were initially just another herbaceous plant among many and actual grasslands didn’t appear until the Miocene, which is an epoch of the current geological period, the Neogene. However, back in the Mesozoic, I suspect the situation was that some sedges gradually became better at tolerating drier conditions and they began to grow away from water, becoming grasses, but that’s really just a guess.

Whatever its ancestry, bulrush millet is smaller-seeded than sorghum and the plant is about the same height as maize. Unsurprisingly its inflorescences resemble those of bulrushes, but unlike those it’s the most drought-resistant of all millets and the most widely grown crop of any kind in dry tropical areas. It’s Afrikan in origin and provides most of the food for humans in the Sudan, the north of Nigeria and the fringe of the Sahara.

Finger millet, Eleusine coracana, is so called because its ears tend to have groups of five spikes, radiating a little like a hand. It’s grown in South Asia and also in Afrika from Zimbabwe to the Sudan. Unthreshed, it can be stored for as long as five years and is again a food crop on which many of the Afrikan people in the regions where it’s grown rely in what would otherwise be times of famine. It’s often planted as the first crop after forest clearance as it can extract the minerals from ashes well. Again, finger millet is rarely traded outside its regions.

Ethiopia has its own distinct millet known as “teff”, Eragrostis abysinnica. In the Jos Plateau of Nigeria, a species known as “hungry rice”, Digitaria exilis, is cultivated, which is local to West Afrika. Then there’s Job’s Tears, Coix lachryma-jobi:

This is, like sorghum, a little apart from the others. It originates from Southeast Asia, where it’s mainly grown, and has unusually large grains for a millet which are used for decorative and ritual purposes as beads. However, they are also edible and has a very minor and apparently now extinct tradition of use in TCM.

I haven’t been at all adventurous in my own use of millet, generally just using it as a substitute for couscous when I was short of money. I don’t even know which species I used. Nutritionally, there have already been hints that the plant is good at extracting minerals from its environment because of the use of ash as manure and the clearance of cæsium-137 from polluted locales. It’s one of those plants which could easily be fed to humans instead of bovids and sheep, bypassing the inefficient use of animal products for food, particularly in parts of the world where the land isn’t particularly good for raising ungulates. It sounds like it contributes to deforestation in a similar way to the related bamboo in China, and this could be reduced by eating it directly rather than employing it as fodder for other species. Nutritionally, millet is high in manganese, although many of the minerals involved depend on the species. An individual species may be high in some minerals which are low in others and vice versa. It’s also got three times the calories of cassava and is also high in B vitamins. Being gluten-free, it can substitute for wheat in many foods. Finger millet is particularly high in calcium, bulrush millet in iron and most are comparable to wheat in protein content. They have a low glycæmic index, making them useful in preventing diabetes. Millets cannot, however, be eaten raw.

Around ninety million people in Afrika and Asia depend on millet as food. A little over half of it is produced in Afrika, forty percent in Asia and in Europe the figure is only three percent, although I will be covering temperate millets today as well. They don’t need irrigation and their funding is less dependent on pesticides and fertilisers than many other crops, which of course means that big business may not be able to make as much money out of them and therefore that they may not be promoted as much as some other food plants. One problem with millet is that development of other grains is often preferred by governments. For instance, the “Green Revolution” in South Asia concentrated on wheat and rice and supported its planting when they are in fact less nutritious than millet, leading to health problems further down the line. Rice in particular is a bit rubbish, even though I eat loads of it and enjoy it. Diets also become more like those of the developed world, and wheat, rice and maize are also easier to sell on the world market, meaning that farmers are often more likely to prefer them to millet. Millets also have a high carbon content, meaning that to some extent they can be used as carbon sinks, an influence which would be greater if more of them were grown. To this end, the UN has declared 2023 to be the International Year Of Millets (it’s currently the International Year Of Fruits and Vegetables).

One of the big dishes made from millet is Hausa koko, a West Afrikan food which is described as a kind of spicy porridge common in Ghana. It consists of millet flour boiled in water with added ginger, garlic, pepper and cloves, and is a street food sold for breakfast often eaten with koose, spicy cakes made from blackeyed beans. It can also be lightly toasted before being boiled in stock, as it is in Nasarawa, a state next to Plateau in central Nigeria, where the aforementioned Jos Plateau is located. What I do with it is closer to Thiakry, except that I don’t use milk, condensed or otherwise. Thiakry is similar to couscous but includes spices such as nutmeg , raisins and desiccated coconut, so it’s going in the sweet direction. It’s prepared like that in Senegal and therefore I presume The Gambia. However, it doesn’t seem to be eaten much in Cabo Verde, I imagine because of the Portuguese influence.

By Jschnable – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76094729

Although millets are thought of as primarily dry tropical crops, there are also temperate species. Proso millet, also known as broomcorn or hog millet, Panicum miliaceum, has been cultivated since the Neolithic in Eurasia, including southern Europe. Ezekiel 4:9 refers to a recipe for bread including this along with lentils and some other ingredients:

 וְאַתָּ֣ה קַח־לְךָ֡ חִטִּ֡ין וּ֠שְׂעֹרִים וּפ֨וֹל וַעֲדָשִׁ֜ים וְדֹ֣חַן וְכֻסְּמִ֗ים וְנָתַתָּ֤ה אוֹתָם֙ בִּכְלִ֣י אֶחָ֔ד וְעָשִׂ֧יתָ אוֹתָ֛ם לְךָ֖ לְלָ֑חֶם מִסְפַּ֨ר הַיָּמִ֜ים אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֣ה׀ שׁוֹכֵ֣ב עַֽל־צִדְּךָ֗ שְׁלֹשׁ־מֵא֧וֹת וְתִשְׁעִ֛ים י֖וֹם תֹּאכֲלֶֽנּוּ׃

  • “Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself. You are to eat it during the 390 days you lie on your side. “

It was also eaten by the Romans as milium. It’s actually ten percent protein and four percent fat, so it’s very nutritious in terms of macronutrients. This is the millet which is fed to budgerigars, and is an annual, growing about a metre in height. It tends to be found on landfill sites, probably germinated from bird seed. Another species in this genus, little millet, Panicum miliare, is shorter and is grown in South Asia on the edge of the tropics.

By STRONGlk7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20727314

Setaria italica, foxtail millet, is annual and the most popular millet in Asia, where it originated, but its English names often refer to it as Italian, German or Hungarian. This species is entirely domesticated – it either evolved while being cultivated or its wild version died out. It appears to be descended from Setaria viridis, which is a common weed. In Russia it’s used for beer and elsewhere for silage and hay. Like broomcorn it’s used as bird seed in Britain.

By James Schnable – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41655596

Echinochloa frumentacea, Japanese millet, is grown in warm regions, particularly in Japan and Korea, where it’s made into porridge. Once again it’s used for birdseed in Britain and turns up on landfill sites. It grows up to 1.4 metres in height with a fifteen centimetre ear, and produces a brown to purple grain. In India it’s eaten during religious fasting. It’s closely related to cockspur grass:

This grows in these isles and is also known as “barnyard millet”, but unfortunately is one of the worst weeds, a weed being a plant growing in a place where a human doesn’t want it to, because it tends to remove large amounts of nitrogen from the soil. It can and is, however, eaten, which I imagine would be a controversial thing to do due to its invasiveness.

Having written all that, I’m now thinking this post will get fewer eyeballs than the one on cassava, and that’s a shame because unlike cassava, millet is highly nutritious across the board and although tapioca too is vital to the survival of many people, it’s also instrumental in causing kwashiorkor or protein-energy malnutrition. If it’s all that can be grown, fair enough, but it really seems that the millets have a much healthier profile and are sadly neglected. That said, in political terms manioc and the millets can be grouped together as crops on which much of the tropical population relies and are not traded much beyond that region, meaning they are less “cash-croppy”. In the case of millets this is less so than yuca because although the former can be used to make ethanol for fuel, it seems less exploited and at the moment they seem relatively free of genetic modification and all the issues that brings with it. So I would celebrate millet, and feel a lot more enthusiastic about it than its corresponding crop in wet tropical regions, cassava.


Like many schoolchildren of the 1970s, I had my run-ins with tapioca pudding and didn’t like it. However, I had a choice. It wasn’t the only major source of calories in my diet. Moreover, as an adult I occasionally used to eat cassava chips and liked them. Again, I had a choice. As a twentieth century European with mainly Northwestern European heritage, my main sources of polysaccharides were wheat and potatoes. Not everyone gets them from those.

Potatoes in themselves are members of the Solanaceæ, which also includes deadly nightshade, henbane, bittersweet, Datura and various other rather poisonous plants, some of which I use in my practice (wrong blog, but still). We might reasonably ponder the remarkable fact that we eat of a family with such deadly members, although to be fair aubergine, peppers and tomatoes are also in there. Potatoes are of course from the Inca Empire, modern-day Perú. There is of course another macronutrient tuber from that region: that thing up there. Not as familiar to most White people as the other one of course.

Cassava, also known as tapioca, yuca and manioc, and of course Manihot esculenta, also known as M. utilissima because it is indeed very useful, is kind of similar to potato in a way. Like potatoes, it originated in South America. Also like potatoes, it belongs to a family which has a large number of poisonous species in it: the Euphorbiaceæ. This includes the notorious and irritating (physically and also just annoying) sun spurge, also the carcinogenic Croton and the also fairly nasty dog’s mercury. It isn’t particularly unusual for edible plants to be in the same family as highly toxic ones though. Another good example would be the umbellifers (“Apiaceæ” according to the newer and not very good botanical classification system), which include parsley, parsnip, carrots, fennel, celery and various culinary herbs, and also hemlock, water dropwort and other nasties. The Euphorbiaceæ is also interesting in including cactus-like succulents, a case of convergent evolution. The case of cassava is somewhat different from other poisonous plants because its very toxicity makes it useful as human food. It keeps itself free of weeds, isn’t attacked by locusts and can be left in the ground for two years after maturity (eight months to two years) without decomposing. However, they tend to become tough and bitter over this period, and they also decompose rapidly after harvesting, so for sale they tend to be coated in wax to preserve them, which of course also happens with lemons. In drier regions of the tropics, millet is more likely to be used as a go-to food when there are shortages.

Like many other plants, including everything in the rose family such as apples, cherries and almonds, cassava contains cyanide-producing compounds, which in its case need to be removed before eating. There are sweeter and more bitter varieties, the latter of which are higher in these. They are extremely poisonous when raw. To deal with this, they can be boiled for a long time or repeatedly, or ground into flour, mixed with water and left in a thin layer in sunlight for a few hours. This causes an enzyme to convert the cyanide to hydrogen cyanide gas, which escapes to the atmosphere. There is said to be an antidote to the poisoning involving cayenne pepper in rum, which makes sense, but since this is the wrong blog for that I won’t comment further.

I don’t know why this is, but I always used to think of cassava as “manioc”, which is another name for it which is, however, not used much here in Britain as far as I know. I rarely see the tuber myself right now, but I’m living in a mainly White town and I wonder if it’s exported for people who have a different heritage. I have seen it on sale in Leicester and Brittany. It’s used as a staple calorie-rich crop in wet tropical regions and is apparently not popular or easy to grow elsewhere, although in the tropics it is, and can be easily propagated from cuttings. Nor does it need canes or trellises to grow and the quality of the soil can be poor. Although it originated in the Amazon, cassava is also grown in Afrika, where it tends to be hampered by cassava mosaic virus, apparently also known as CBSD or Cassava Brown Streak Disease, and Southest Asia. The cyanide content varies according to soil and climatic conditions and is not solely down to the strain grown. As well as the tubers, the leaves can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable. The most common thing to do with the root is to peel, boil and mash it although in Brazil it’s grated to produce a flour. In West Afrika, this is called garri, at least in the Hausa language, and looks like this:

By Joel Abroad – Individual plate of garri to eat by hand with fish and greens, Baba1, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37587028

Juice from bitter manioc is sometimes boiled down to make a sauce called cassareep, which has the colour and texture of molasses and can be used as an antiseptic to preserve cooked food. The flour is also used in biscuits and confectionery in temperate parts of the world. Manioc can also be fermented and used to make an alcoholic drink, kasiri, which is sometimes prepared using saliva, whose ptyalin converts the starch to sugar which then turns to alcohol. The starch is also used in laundry.

There seem to be basically two big issues with cassava, one older than the other. The older one is that it’s not good to have to rely on it as the main source of carbohydrate in the diet because for a root crop it’s unusually low in protein and other nutrients and also contains anti-nutrients, which are substances which effectively remove nutrients from the body. For instance, it’s high in condensed tannins which impair absorption of a wide range of nutrients. Consequently it’s implicated in protein-energy malnutrition, where the body gets enough calories but not enough protein, which causes the well-known bloated abdomen and emaciated body because there’s insufficient protein in the blood to exert osmotic pressure to pull water out into the blood vessels and it tends to pool in the abdomen. The worst-affected Afrikan countries in this respect are Mali, Ethiopia and Angola, and in the last case this is particularly scandalous as it has severe economic inequality and a long coastline. There is a genetically modified version of the plant which is high in iron and provitamin A, and also more resistant to insects such as the cassava mealybug, and the virus.

200 million people in Afrika rely on cassava as their main source of energy nutrition, and also another 400 million elsewhere in the tropics. The mealybug is only a problem in Afrika because in the country of origin, Paraguay, other insects predate them. There is a species of wasp unlikely to disrupt the ecosystem in other ways who is able to predate mealybug, meaning that the genetic modification isn’t really necessary. Publicising GMO cassava is of concern to people working on control via the wasp because it may lead to cuts in funding. This is particularly an issue in Kenya, where US-based biotechnology companies are vigorously pushing the use of the GM manioc in a similar manner to Bt cotton, which I mentioned here. The technique used is known as RNAi – RNA interference – and is not well-corroborated as to its efficacy. It’s also unclear what human exposure is likely to do and there are said to be no safety studies or studies in the field. It’s also likely that viruses will evolve to circumvent the resistance. The application made in Kenya for use of this crop was oriented around online access and therefore excluded many people who were unable to do that, which is of course a general, global trend disproportionately affecting the poor. The farmers in particular cannot access this and are therefore poorly informed and unable to object via the usual channels. Manioc is also very much about food resilience, grown in areas where it can be hard to grow other crops and tends to be grown by women. If the GM manioc fails in the same way as Bt cotton did, which was serious enough, it will disproportionately disadvantage female subsistence farmers and likely cause a famine. The South African government has rejected GM cassava for trials because it wasn’t established that the genome was stable. There are also non-GM (i.e. there are cisgenic) varieties of manioc in South America.

Another significant issue with cassava is that it’s the basis of biofuel. Nigeria is to build an ethanol refinery based around cassava in the state known as Plateau, and in Zambia 1 700 farmers will be supplying manioc for ethanol for a company called Sunbird. In Nigeria, cassava-based ethanol could be bigger than the oil industry there. Unsurprisingly, plastic can also be manufactured from the starch, involving reacting it with ozone. The peel is combined with chitosan and sorbitol, meaning of course that it isn’t vegan, although it could be because fungal cell walls also contain it, but once again I wonder about landlocked states because I don’t know if freshwater crustacea are able to provide that in enough bulk. It isn’t clear to me whether the ozone process and the chitosan process are the same. Biofuels are ethically complex. On the one hand, they could increase income for farmers who wouldn’t get as much for cassava sold as food, but on the other they force up the price of crops used as biofuels which are sold for food. The same seems likely to apply to plastic, although making plastic in this way does at first seem to be less environmentally damaging. On the other hand, maybe it isn’t. For instance it might lead to soil erosion, but this is speculation on my part.

Unlike the root, the leaves are high in protein, B vitamins, vitamin C and carotenoids (provitamin A), phosphorus, magnesium and calcium and are used to make saka-saka, also known as pondu, a soup or stew consumed in central Afrika. Like the roots, they contain cyanogenic compounds, which can be removed by processing but the problem is doing this without also degrading the nutritional value. I’m guessing this is the reason for the soup being simmered for several hours. It usually involves peanuts and spinach can be added. The only form in which I’ve both eaten and enjoyed cassava is in the form of crisps, referred to as cassava “chips”. Actual cassava chips also exist, in the British sense. These are boiled and then roasted, and are popular in South America and East Afrika. It appears that most of what can be done with potatoes can also be done with yuca.

To conclude, although yuca could easily be demonised because of its low micronutrient and protein content, the same is true of many refined carbohydrate foods eaten in the developed world. It lives up to one of its Latin names, utilissima, but this could be to the disadvantage of those who use it. Just eating white rice could lead to similar nutritional problems though. The notable aspect of the plant for me here in England is that it seems to be almost exclusively eaten by non-White people except in the form of tapioca pudding, and I’ve never cooked with it in any form, and in fact I’ve only eaten it a couple of times.

Then there’s taro, but that’s another story.