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Environmental Effects of The Columbian Exchange

Environmental Effects of The Columbian Exchange

The environmental impact of the Columbian Exchange is, in fact, the influence of the exchange of plants and crops between the New and Old World. This exchange of plants and crops profoundly affects every continent and civilization. How did the environmental changes impact the Americas? Europe? Africa? What are the lasting influences of these environmental changes?

Demographic and Environmental Effects of the Columbian Exchange

The environmental effects of the Columbian Exchange began with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. The plants, crops, and food his crew brought on their journey would have been the first Old World plants in North and South America.

Any plants or crops Columbus discovered, traded for, or took back to Spain would have been the first of those plants to Europe, Africa, and Asia. The table below lists the notable plants exchanged between the New World and the Old World in the decades following Columbus’s voyages.

Plants and Crops of the Columbian Exchange

From the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia:

From Europe, Africa, and Asia to the Americas:

  • Squash

  • Pumpkins

  • Peanuts

  • Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes

  • Tomatoes

  • Corn

  • Peppers

  • Tobacco

  • Pineapples

  • Cocoa

  • Beans

  • Vanilla

  • Sugarcane

  • Bananas

  • Grapes

  • Citrus Fruits

  • Onions

  • Olives

  • Turnips

  • Coffee

  • Peaches

  • Pears

  • Wheat

  • Rice

Environmental Effects of the Columbian Exchange on the Americas

Europeans brought with them to the New World not just diseases but cultivated plants for food, fiber, and profit. Early explorers attempted to recreate European diets in their discovered world. Crops such as wheat and rice were introduced as most European settlers understood their cultivation and usage in their diets. Over time, these crops and others, such as turnips and onions, combined with the indigenous plants blended into a new cuisine. Let us look at the crop that had the most significant impact on the Americas: sugarcane.

Environmental Effects of Columbian exchange Sugarcane StudySmarterFig. 1 - An image of a sugarcane plantation in Cuba circa 1903

The Impact of Sugarcane

The effects of sugarcane in the Americas are immense. Sugarcane is a labor-intensive crop that takes many person-hours to plant, cultivate, harvest, and produce. It grows in tropical and subtropical climates. And, when produced correctly, it can be incredibly profitable.

In the early 1500s, the crop was already profitable for Spain and Portugal in Europe. The discovery of new land across the Atlantic opened up the opportunity for more cultivation. The first sugarcane plant was brought to the Caribbean in 1493. The plant's production spread across the Caribbean into Central America, South America, and southern North America.

Why is sugarcane so crucial to lasting effects on the Americas? Sugarcane produces the profits to entice more Spanish and Portuguese settlers to move to the New World. Sugarcane created the first demand for mass enslaved labor, first from the indigenous populations and then from the slave trade from Africa. Because of sugarcane, the first Africans are brought to the New World by the Portuguese.

The sugarcane production model is replicated by the other cash crop industries that will permeate the Americas: tobacco, rice, and cotton. Without sugarcane, these industries would not have been as successful as quickly as they were.

Did you know?

During the American Revolution, delegates at the Continental Congress came from varying backgrounds, but most were wealthy merchants, businesspeople, and planters. The most affluent representatives did not come from Virginia or Massachusetts but from South Carolina–the largest producer of sugarcane in the colonies.

Environmental Effects of the Columbian Exchange on Europe

Just as crops transformed the Americas economically and culinarily, the same occurred in Europe with plants from the Americas. It is hard to imagine Italian cuisine without tomato sauce or Irish and eastern European dishes without potatoes. The crops of primary importance in Europe have been beans, corn, and, most significantly, potatoes.

Environmental Effects of Columbian exchange Potato Farmers StudySmarterFig. 2 - Three Irish workers harvest potatoes circa 1900

Of these crops–beans, corn, and potato–the potato is the most important. Easily cultivated even in the worst soils and climates high in nutritional value, the potato spread in popularity throughout Europe during the 1600s. The potato could produce more overall nutrition from the average piece of land in Europe, especially northern Europe, than any other crop.

Did you know?

By the early 1900s, Europe would produce two-thirds of the world's potatoes.

Environmental Effects of the Columbian Exchange on Africa

The importance of New World foods in Africa is more influential than in any other continent of the Old World. The bean, tomato, sweet potato, cacao, and peanut have been and are vital to the population of Africa. The last two, cacao and peanut, are essential cash crops for exportation. The two most important consumed crops are corn and manioc.

Once corn was introduced to Africa, it was under heavy cultivation on the continent, especially in West Africa and tropical regions, by the late 1500s. Before the introduction of corn, the main grains for consumption were millet and sorghums. By the 1900s, corn could be found virtually everywhere on the continent, and all other grains except for rice were exceeded in production.

Even more impressive than the spread of corn is that of manioc. Its ability to grow in any soil and climate, its resistance to African pests, and the amount you can produce in a small area made it essential to the African farmer and family. The manioc is now so common in Africa that many insist it must have originated on the continent.

Environmental Effects of Columbian exchange Manioc Roots  StudySmarterFig. 3 - Manioc Roots, indigenous to South America, the root has become prevalent on the African continent.

Environmental Effects of the Columbian Exchange: Most Significant

  • The most significant environmental effect of the Columbian Exchange is its impact on the demographics of the planet
  • The most critical factor in the environmental changes of the Columbian Exchange is the drastic population growth across the world
    • The one factor that will promote population growth, even considering death rates, birth rates, wars, and the massive effects of disease on the Americas, is increasing and improving the food supply
    • The Columbian Exchange allowed cultures to improve the production of standard (consumed) crops; new plants found utilization in previous soils and seasons usually went to waste, causing more production and, thus, more population.
    • In addition, most crops that were exchanged and spread in popularity were generally of more excellent nutritional value than the crops they replaced

Rapid worldwide population growth had only occurred twice before the Columbian Exchange in human history: when humans invented tools and then when humans created agriculture. Then it happened again with the Columbian Exchange once trade routes were established across the Atlantic Ocean with the New World, and more routes were established around Africa to India and Asia.

All these factors combined created a population boom across the 1600s and 1700s that expanded the populations of the Old-World countries and could grow through the settlement of the people of the New World even as the indigenous populations rapidly declined.

Environmental Impacts of Conquest - Key takeaways

  • The environmental effects of the Columbian Exchange began with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492.
  • Europeans brought with them to the New World not just diseases but cultivated plants for food, fiber, and profit.
  • Early explorers attempted to recreate European diets in their discovered world. This transformation was well underway by 1500 and was irrevocable by 1550.
  • Just as crops transformed the Americas economically and culinarily, the same occurred in Europe with plants from the Americas.
  • The importance of New World foods in Africa is more influential than in any other continent of the Old World.
  • The most critical factor in the environmental changes of the Columbian Exchange is the drastic population growth across the world.

Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Effects of The Columbian Exchange

The environmental effects of the Columbian Exchange began with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. The plants, crops, and food his crew brought on their journey would have been the first Old World plants in North and South America. Any plants or crops Columbus discovered, traded for, or took back to Spain would have been the first of those plants to Europe, Africa, and Asia. 

Just as crops transformed the Americas economically and culinarily, the same occurred in Europe with plants from the Americas. It is hard to imagine Italian cuisine without tomato sauce or Irish and eastern European dishes without potatoes. The crops of primary importance in Europe have been beans, corn, and, most significantly, potatoes.  

Europeans brought with them to the New World not just diseases but cultivated plants for food, fiber, and profit. Early explorers attempted to recreate European diets in their discovered world. This transformation was well underway by 1500 and was irrevocable by 1550. Crops such as wheat and rice were introduced as most European settlers understood their cultivation and usage in their diets. Over time, these crops and others, such as turnips and onions, combined with the indigenous plants, blended into a new cuisine. 

The most significant environmental effect of the Columbian Exchange is its impact on the demographics of the planet. The single most important factor in the environmental changes of the Columbian Exchange is the drastic population growth across the world.  

The effects of sugarcane in the Americas are immense. Sugarcane is a labor-intensive crop that takes many person-hours to plant, cultivate, harvest, and produce. It grows in tropical and subtropical climates. And, when produced correctly, it can be incredibly profitable. In the early 1500s, the crop was already profitable for Spain and Portugal in Europe. The discovery of new land across the Atlantic opened up the opportunity for more cultivation. The first sugarcane plant was brought to the Caribbean in 1493. The plant's production spread across the Caribbean into Central America, South America, and parts of southern North America. 


Final Environmental Effects of The Columbian Exchange Quiz

Question

The transfer of flora, fauna, commodities, diseases, and ideas between the New World and the Old World from 1492 to the 1600s is called ________________. 

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Answer

The Columbian Exchange. 

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Question

Which of the following crops did not originate in the Americas? 

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Answer

Sugarcane

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Question

Which of the following crops did not originate in the Old World? 

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Answer

Tomatoes 

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Question

Of all the crops exchanged between the New and the Old World, ________ had the greatest impact on the New World, especially in Central and South America. 

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Answer

Sugarcane. 

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Question

Sugarcane had such a great economic impact that which of the following American Colonies was the wealthiest due to it's cultivation? 

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Answer

South Carolina

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Question

Of all the crops exchanged from the New World to the Old, the _________ had the most significant impact on the Old World. 

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Answer

Potato. 

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Question

Why did the potato have such a significant impact on the Old World? 

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Answer

The potato could grow in climates, regions, and soil that could not support other high-calorie crops. 

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Question

Which of the following are the most significant crops introduced to the continent of Africa? 

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Answer

Corn. 

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Question

What "exchange" other than crops and animals, had the greatest impact on the Old World? 

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Answer

Disease. 

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Question

_____________ is the most significant environmental impact of the conquest of the New World. 

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Answer

Global Population Growth.

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