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This article discusses the various centres of domestication out of which todays modern civilizations were formed; also the relative advantages and disadvantages of the hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, and farming modes of existence.

The article Agraria investigates the wider context of the emergence of civilization that was part of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.

Staple foods

Staple foods are the major plant components of the human diet. They provide most of the crucial energy, macronutrients, fat, carbohydrate, and protein, along with a range of general nutrients. They are usually in plentiful supply, relatively cheap, and eaten at least once a day – and they often became popular because they are easily stored. Today, along with various forages, they are also the major dietary component of domesticated animals.

While agriculture provides humanity and its domesticated animals with essential sustenance, it is also a form of land use that has had a greater impact on the natural environment than any other human activity. Cultivation of staple foods has had a greater impact on the planetary distribution, species composition, and biomass of plant species than any other human activity. Responsible stewardship of the biosphere therefore requires that we become familiar with the historical trends in factors like: the area of land appropriated for agriculture; global changes in plant distribution including species composition and biomass; methods and consequences of plant genetic modification.

This article attempts to give an account of these historical factors and the distribution of staples as they spread from their centres of domestication, from antiquity (c. 10,000-500 BCE) to the present – but ‘starting’ from the present. The map of the world in around 2000 BCE at the foot of this article provides an overview of social organization as it had developed up to this time from its domestication hubs. The interconnections of globalization – by exploration, invasion, migration, and trade – launched an accelerating process of international homogenization of systems of government, values, diets, plant species, and much more supercharged by the technology of Informatia.

The historical emergence of staple crops as a major food source marks the human cultural transition from Natura to Agraria . . .  from lives within nature to lives dominated by culture; from small bands of hunter-gatherers with a varied plant diet of locally gathered, and soon eaten, greens, nuts, fruits, roots, seeds, and fungi – to settled farming communities cultivating a small number of staple crops, mainly cereals, whose seed grains were a concentrated source of energy that could be stored in preparation for hard times. The adoption of staple foods by farming communities also marked the beginnings of a process of domestication that continues to the present day – the selection of those kinds of plants with greater yield, that are easy to harvest and store, have superior flavour, and so on.

It was this surplus of energy and the development of social organization in sedentary communities that set humanity on a path of population increase – from roaming bands, to villages, cities, and empires – the path of accelerating urbanization, industrialization, and globalization that we call civilization. It was also a major transition in the relationship between humans and their environments – from living within nature to living within culture – as surroundings changed progressively from native plants in wild communities, to cultivated plants in cultural landscapes (see map of the world in 2000 BCE at foot of this article).

Staple crops impact on human Big History because they determine regions of the world that are centres of the social organization that has determined the path of human history, so strongly related to growth in population numbers and economic activity. This focus on social organization, cities, and centres of civilization does not devalue the lives of commonfolk: it is a recognition of sources of political and economic power that have had a major influence on human history and all lives. From a plant-people perspective these are the hubs of cultivated plant globalization.

The article on the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution describes the initiation of agriculture with its settled material and symbolic culture and their advantages and disadvantages including lists of the staple crops grown in the first putative hubs of domestication.

By far the most information relates to the first centre of domestication which arose in southwest Asia and subsequently spread across Europe from its Mesopotamian core. This no doubt reflects the more complex mode of social organization that existed in this part of the world for much of history.

Global context

The table below provides a perspective on agriculture from a plant perspective – as a statistical overview of the place of major crops within the plant kingdom.

All statistics related specifically to crops are accessed from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), except where otherwise stated.


The globalization of crops was greatly accelerated in the 16th century by the connection and exchange between the Old World (wheat and sugarcane) and New World (maize) known as the Columbean Exchange (named after Columbus). However, it was during the 20th century Great Acceleration, as the world population increased from less than 2 billion to over 6 billion, that unprecedented demands were made on world resources. The wheat and maize that largely fed the developed world before WW2 were then supplemented by massive expansion of wheat and rice farming in Asia and Latin America. The FAO estimated that, while up to 50% of the world was hungry in 1960, by 1990 this figure was closer to 20% and prices had mostly decreased. But much remains to be done, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. By contrast, in 2013 over 2 billion people were considered obese. 

In the 21st century, on average, about 2/3 of crop production in a given country derives from crops of foreign origin, a figure that has increased over time. [5]

In the 20th century, post 1920s, two major exchanges emerge, the introduction of soybeans from China to the Americas, and palm oil from Africa to Southeast Asia. Although the depression of the 1930s created protectionist policies with reduced trade. Trade liberalization followed after WW2 created unusual situations such as the consumption of temperate wheat and its products in the tropics based on imports, and palm oil from the tropics consumed as imported product in subtropical and temperate regions. For the most part trade in grains and oilseeds flows from land-rich countries like the Americas to countries experiencing land or water deficiency.

Controversy arises between ‘locavores’ who encourage local farmers and local food cultures through farmers markets that involve negligible transport cost as ‘food miles’ – and ‘globalizers’ who provide cheap seasonal food from around the world.

The influence of international cuisine cannot be ignored. In the western world there has been a substantial increase in Asian rice-based, and Latin American maize-based meals while retail agribusiness has been strongly influenced by multinational (e.g. Nestle, PepsiCo, JBS) fast-food chains (e.g. Walmart, McDonalds) that have tended to standardize diets.

Number in world
Edible and widely traded
In today's human diet
Proportion that are cereals today
Major cereals
Grasses with large grains
Cereals in regional agriculture
15 (90% human diet)
60% (wheat, rice, corn, potatoes)
56 : SW Asia Mediterr. 32, E Asia 6, C America 5, Sahara 4, N America 4, Australia 2, S America 2, W Europe 1
Near East - wheat, barley; East Asia - rice; C & S America - maize; Africa - Sorghum

Land cover

In 2014 FAO launched a database gathering previously scattered information about land cover through a satellite system called the Global Land Cover SHARE database (GLC-SHARE).

tree-covered                       27.7
bare soils                             15.2
grasslands                          13.0
croplands                            12.6
snow and glaciers               9.7
shrub-covered                     9.5
sparse vegetation               7.7
inland water                         2.6
herbaceous vegn                 1.3
artificial surfaces                0.6
mangroves                            0.1


The graph below indicates the proportions of the 12.6% of global land surface that are dedicated to specific primary (unprocessed) crop groups as reported by the FAO in 2022.

Four crops (sugarcane, maize, wheat, rice) account for 50% of crop production. Between 2000 and 2019 crop production increased by 52%, vegetable oil production by 125%. ??Land available for agriculture declined 134 mha (Peru) and for forestry 99 mha (Egypt). In N America, Europe, Oceania 30% people are obese (adults age 18+ with body mass index (BMI) > 30 kg/m² .

Between 2000 and 2020, roughly two-thirds of agricultural land was used as permanent meadows and pastures (3.18 billion ha in 2020), which declined by 6 percent (0.2 billion ha). One-third of the total agricultural land was cropland (1.56 billion ha in 2020), which increased by 5 percent (0.07 billion ha). Although agricultural land area has decreased since 2000, it increased by 4% over the 1961–2020 period, with a significant expansion up to the 1990s. FAO. 2022. World Food and Agriculture – Statistical Yearbook 2022. Rome.

World primary crops - harvested area by commodity group

World primary crops – area harvested by commodity group – FAO 2022


The ‘MacCready explosion’[3] claims that 10,000 years ago humans, including their pets and livestock, comprised around 0.1% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass. Today this total has rocketed to 98%. Though a statistic that is difficult to substantiate, this is a stark reminder that beyond human demands for plant food and other resources are the demands on planetary ecosystems resulting from animal domestication.

Global agriculture

Today just six cultivated crops provide around 65% of our global supply of energy, protein, and fats. Four of these are grasses (cereals) one a legume and one a palm although some of this is animal feed and some used as seed or biofuel. Much less significant are second-order plants like potato, sorghum, and rapeseed.

The Big Six

Today’s most popular crops originate from warm temperate to tropical climates with wheat the temperate outlier, reflecting the ease of transport of favoured foods. Maize and soybeans make up about 70% of prepared animal feeds.

Rice              –    Oryza sativa                  –    487   –   3.7
Wheat         –    Triticum aestivum          –   690   –   2.9
Maize          –    Zea mays                         –   933   –   3.0
Sugarcane –    Saccharum officinarum –   182   –   3.2
Soybeans   –    Glycine max                    –   271   –   3.4
Oil palm     –    Elaeis guineensis            –      52   –   8.7

The Big Six crops.
Global production in megatons. Energy content in calories per gram

The major staple in Asia, also favoured in parts of Africa and Latin America. About 75% of rice production now uses irrigation.

Current research suggests that Oryza sativa rice was first domesticated in the Yangtze River basin in China 13,500 to 8,200 years ago, spreading by migration and trade over E Asia and eventually around the world, notably to the Americas during the Columbian exchange followed by breeding experiments during the Green Revolution producing, among other varieties, the Golden Rice that contains beta carotene, also scented varieties like basmati and jasmine rice. There are now over 40,000 cultivars.

Oryza glaberrima rice was domesticated independently in Africa 3,000 to 3,500 years ago, other wild species have also been cultivated, especially in the Americas.

rice migration

The Checkered Prehistory of Rice Movement Southwards as a Domesticated Cereal—from the Yangzi to the Equator, following language groups

Bellwood, P. (9 December 2011) Rice. 4 (3–4): 93–103 (pdf)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Geographically the most widely consumed cereal and the only truly temperate species of the Big Six. T. aestivum and T. durum of the Fertile Crescent originated from ancestral wild species, spreading west to become a staple in Europe and N Africa, and east to S Asia and China.

Early Fertile Crescent domestication, including wheat, spread to Cyprus (8500 BCE) and Anatolia (Turkey, by 8000 BCE) then across the Mediterranean Basin to the Greek mainland (7800 BCE), the Danube Valley, Italy (6000 BCE), Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Spain, Germany, Egypt (6000-5000 BCE), France, Britain, and Scandinavia (5000-4000 BCE).[17]  Wheat likely appeared in China’s lower Yellow River around 2600 BCE.

The enormous expansion of wheat production in the United States after 1860 flooded the world market, lowering prices by 40%, it also included the expansion of potato cultivation.

In 2020, world production of wheat was 761 million tonnes, second in production after maize.  Since 1960, world production of wheat and other grain crops has tripled and is expected to grow further through the middle of the 21st century.

From the 16th century it also became a staple in the Americas and Neoeuropes being created by European colonial expansion.

Maize (corn)
Currently the most important crop in the world in terms of tonnage produced and energy production being more energy-rich that wheat and barley and growing over a wide climatic range. Maize, Zea mays, is the only crop of the Big Six originating from the Americas, spreading out of Mexico and C America and then to the rest of the world in the 16th century. By the 18th and 19th centuries it was a staple in parts of SE Europe and Himalayan foothills. In E and S Africa it became popular after WW1, replacing millets and sorghum. Over the 20th century it became the dominant livestock feed in the USA and, after WW2 Japan and Europe imported maize for the same purpose, followed by Latin America and Asia. From the 2000s it has been widely used in the USA for the production of ethanol and fructose corn syrup.

The widespread consumption of this high energy source of sugar, Saccharum officinale, warrants its acceptance as a staple – although mainly as an additive. Believed to have originated in New Guinea, it then spread through Asia and parts of Africa before its major cultivation in the Americas, especially the slave plantations of the Caribbean, in the 17th century. In Europe sugarbeet, Beta vulgaris, was a temperate source of sugar providing half the world supply in 1900 but reduced to 20% in competition with sugarcane which rose to become a major world commodity in the 18-19th centuries as production shifted mainly to Java and Cuba, dominated in the late 20th century by Brazil and followed by India.

Sybean, Glycine max, emerged as a world crop in the mid- to late-20th century. Originating in N China it is the major protein ingredient of tofu. Major world production began in Manchuria (when formerly occupied by Japan) providing soybean oil to Japan and the world with soymeal from oil production becoming a sugarcane fertilizer in China and rice fertilizer in Japan. After WW2 it was grown in the USA as feed (with maize) for livestock.

Around 2000 soybeans and their products became the most valuable agricultural world commodity, trade exceeding that of wheat. Soybean meal (80% of weight of beans) with maize is now a worldwide feed for poultry, pig and dairy animals. World production has increased 20 times since 1950, now mainly in Brazil and S America, with 90% becoming livestock feed.

Palm Oil
Palm oil is extracted from both the fleshy fruit and nut kernel of Elaeis guineensis a palm tree crop from W and C Africa. Traditionally used in local cooking W African states later supplied it to Europe as lubricants and fuel. In the early 1900s it was used in large quantities in the margarine that was first manufactured in the Netherlands and Germany with mills established in what is today’s Democratic Republic of Congo. Its cultivation was later passed on to the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) where it was milled in Sumatra and exported to Europe.

There was a commercial explosion, the industry doubling size each decade from the 1970s with Indonesia and Malaysia supplying 90% of its market sufficiently cheaply to undercut other edible oils, especially as used in processed foods. It supplied >25% of the increase in dietary energy after 1990 at 9 cal/g compared with about 3 cal/g of other cereals and is (with soybean oil) also used in cosmetics, soap, industry, and biofuels. It is now the third most valuable agricultural product in an industry that is still growing.


The Big Six provide an insight into today’s global diet and a possible future for world agriculture.

Rising incomes, urbanization, and participation of women in the workforce have led to an increase in processed and convenience foods provided by expanding supermarket chains. World beverages contain more sugar, often as high fructose corn syrup. The outcome is a convergence of world diets. Cereals have tended to replace root vegetables and, across the world, more animals and animal products are being consumed.

Excessive consumption of carbohydrates, sugars, oils, and animal fats encourage obesity. Unsurprisingly these are well represented, or implied, by the Big Six. A healthy diet is diversified with essential micronutrients and includes legumes, nuts, fruit, and vegetables.


The changes that have occurred in agriculture, food systems, and culture during Informatia (1950 to the present), as understood through the Big Six, have been profound, driven by the Great Acceleration of population numbers and the economic growth created, after two world wars, by rising incomes, urbanization, and globalization,[2] most notably in North America, Europe, and Japan. In 1900 15% of the world population lived in cities but this had reached 50% by around 2010. In spite of concerns about food security ‘the 20th century was marked by an unprecedented pace of technological change that led to spectacular increases in crop yields around the world that outstripped population growth‘ and ‘for the first time in history, world food supply in the 20th century was based largely on yield increases rather than expansion of the land area sown‘.[4]

In 1950 the world population was about 2.5 billion with frequent famines in Asia and hunger affecting about half the world’s population. The world was on its path to a population of 10 billion by 2050.[2] Globalization had taken a leap forward in the late 19th century with the advent of steamships, railways, telegraph and other technological advances in transport and communication, slowed by two world wars but with renewed vigour after 1950 with much improved air and sea transport, trade liberalization, migration, tourism and cultural exchange.[2]

Over most of the 20th century wheat was the world’s most important staple, produced in America, Canada, Argentina and Australia although, by 2015 (following a brief period prior to WW1) it was the Ukraine and Russia that were the world’s major exporters.

Over the 20th century farming has remained a family business although its form may have changed from smallholding to corporate business, tending to become larger and more specialized in developed countries, but tied into rural communities and their traditions, and with a few corporate mega-farms established at the end of the century with palm oil and sugarcane a form of plantation farming. Sugarcane especially has expanded massively under the influence of new technology. In Asia average farm size has decreased as land has been divided up for children.

Twentieth century environmental concerns, gathering momentum with the environmental movement in the 1960s, included loss of biodiversity – not only the species extinction resulting from farmland appropriation of wilderness, but of the genetic diversity of ancient crops, leading tp the establishment of gene banks like the Paul Mangelsdorf collection of maize varieties first housed at Harvard University in the 1950s and the vault of food plant germplasm established in the Arctic at Svalbard, Norway in 2008, now with nearly 1 million seed samples, and the Millennium Seed Bank held by Kew Gardens, England, that looks beyond food plants to all wild plants around the world. Controversy arises over whether such germplasm should be available to all as human heritage, or to restrict pirating of research by privatizing the commons using intellectual property.

The appropriation of grasslands for cereal crops across the world continued into the early 20th century, notably in America and Australia but was set back in the 1930s by the emergence of dust bowls.

Over the temperate world land is now gradually being reclaimed by reforesting and rewilding, but in the tropics deforestation has accelerated through the 20th century, notably in Thailand which cleared 28% of its forests from 1955 to 1975. Population growth and the desire for profitable exports have fuelled this development. Attractive profits to be made from soybeans (in Latin America, notably the Cerrado in Brazil, the world’s ‘soy basket’) and palm oil (in Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s fastest rate of deforestation and highest emissions resulting from land use change) have alienated millions of hectares of land in tropical forests and savannahs. This at a time when the world was learning of the influence of forests as sources of carbon sequestration, climate control, as well as biodiversity.


Around 1900 the awareness of Mendel’s laws of inheritance transformed genetics. In the late 19th century crop breeding experiments were based largely in France and other industrializing countries including Australia where William Farrer (1845-1906) crossed Australian and Indian varieties to produce rust-resistant, early maturing, dryland varieties that greatly expanded Australia’s wheatlands. Cereal yields under breeding experiments in the early 20th century increased – notably wheat in England, rice in Japan, hybrid maize in the USA on its path to cereal dominance at centuries end. The introduction before WW2 of synthetic fertilizers like superphosphate, and the Haber-Bosch process for nitrogenous fertilizer, would transform agriculture in several countries and has never looked back.

The tropics and subtropics were largely under European colonial regimes until the mid-20th century, serving their desire for crops that included rubber, beverages, and the sugar researched by the Dutch in Java and the British in Barbados.

By the 1960s, with population assuming its Great Acceleration the possibility of world famine was a major concern. However, this coincided with the development of fertilizer-responsive dwarf varieties of rice and wheat that flourished in Asia and Latin America. This was led by the work of Norman Borlaug (awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 1970) on wheat varieties grown in Mexico in the 1950s which launched the Green Revolution. But there was increasing awareness also of agriculture’s negative impacts – erosion, species extinction, dust bowls, eutrophication from fertilizers, harmful effects of agrochemicals and the complex of problems related to the increasing resource consumption of an exploding world population.

With the deciphering of DNA in 1953 came a new era of biotechnology and, sometimes contentious, genetic engineering that began in the 1970s, the first GM crops in the USA being maize and soybeans introduced in 1996.


Farming traditions, we believe, developed independently in about seven centres of domestication in the ‘lucky latitudes’ where, after the last Ice Age, climate and general environmental conditions suitable for farming arose in regions where there were plants and animals that were amenable to domestication. The major regions of domestication were in the Americas (Eastern United States, Mesoamerica, Mexico), Europe (Near East, Southwest Asia), Asia (North and Southern China Yellow and Yangtze River valleys), sub-Saharan Africa, and New Guinea. These regions were centres of civilization as well as food production – hubs of material and symbolic culture whose influence would spread to surrounding territories by a complicated process of trade, invasion, migration, and cultural diffusion.

The following is a list of foundational staple crops arranged according to their regions of origin.

   North America – sunflower
   C America, Mexico – maize, beans, potato, cassava, cottonseed oil
   Andes – beans, potato, quinoa
   Caribbean – cottonseed oil
   Tropical S America – cassava, potato, cottonseed oil, groundnut, yams
   Temperate S America – quinoa

   SW Europe – chickpeas, olives, sugarbeet, linseed, rape & mustard
   S & E Mediterranean – linseed, peas, chickpeas, lentils, sugarbeet, olives, wheat, rape & mustard
   SE Europe – peas, olives, mustard & rape, sugarbeet, linseed, safflower
   N Europe – sesame, sugarbeet, linseed

   W Asia – faba beans, olives, safflower, peas, chickpeas, linseed, olives, wheat, rye, barley
   S Asia – bananas & plantain, sugarcane, chickpeas, coconut, lentils, pigeon peas, yams, taro
   C Asia – linseed. barley, rye, safflower
   E Asia – rice, millets, soybean
   SE Asia – bananas & plantain, millets, coconut, rice, yams, taro
   Pacific – coconut, taro, bananas & plantain, sugarcane

   W Africa  – oil palm, millets, rice, sorghum, yams, groundnuts
   E Africa – maize, beans, potato, cassava, cottonseed oil
   C Africa – ground nuts, oil palm, rice, sorghum
   S Africa – cottonseed oil, groundnuts, sorghum, millets

Origins and primary regions of diversity of staple food crops.

Adapted from Khoury, C.H. et al. 2016. Origins of Food Crops Connect Countries Worldwide. Proc. Roy. Soc. B, 283 (1832): 20160792

Southwest Asia

The Mesopotamian core of western civilization arose about 1,500 BP in the river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates of what is now Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Here the first cities emerged in about 5000-3000 BCE. This was the home of the 8 ‘founder crops’ as early staple foods.

Emmer wheatTriticum dicoccum (descended from the wild T. dicoccoides)
Einkorn wheatTriticum monococcum, (descended from the wild T. boeoticum)
Hulled BarleyHordeum vulgare/H. sativum (descended from the wild H. spontaneum)
LentilLens culinaris
PeaPisum sativum
ChickpeaCicer arietinum
Bitter VeitchVicia ervilia
FlaxLinum usitatissimum (a clothing plant)

As food these plants translated into breads of various kinds and beer, soups and porridges. A text from the early second millennium BCE written in both Sumerian and Akkadian and known as the Mesopotamian Great Encyclopaedia lists about 200 different kinds of bread and its additives including many different shapes; its cultural significance was evident in social ritual.[1]


The way that Informatia plays out will depend to a large degree on how we manage global land use as it affects societies and economies.

With agriculture so crucial to our lives it is unsurprising that its future environmental, social, and economic methods and goals attract controversy.

One approach is to simply increase the productivity of existing systems with the careful use of science to monitor environmental and health outcomes. Others think that this is not enough – that we need much closer attention to organic farming, animal welfare, biotechnology, use of agro-chemicals, local produce, and self-sufficiency at many levels, rather than a globalized food system run by multinational corporations.

We can all unite to encourage healthier diets – most obviously the reduction or replacement of animal protein by using the plant protein of legumes, nuts, and vegetables – and the maximum possible environmental protection, by encouraging careful attention to the management of land, greenhouse emissions, water use, biodiversity, chemicals, and other technologies.

First published on the internet – 1 January 2023

A map of the world, circa 2000 BCE
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – User:Briangotts

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10,000    –    0.002
8000    -    0.005
6000    –    0.011
4000    –    0.028
2000    –    0.072
1000    –    0.115

1      –    0.30
500     –    0.20   
1000      –    0.31      
1100      –    0.33      
1200      –    0.38      
1300      –    0.35      
1400    -
1500    -    0.43–0.50
1600    -    0.50–0.58
1700    -    0.60–0.68
1800    -    0.89–0.98
1900    -    1.56–1.71
2000    -    6.06–6.15
2100    -    c. 10–13   

CITY POPULATIONS (millions)[1]

           WEST                      EAST


2000 - New Yk/16.7          Tokyo/26.7
1900 - London/6.6            Tokyo/1.75
1800 - London/0.9            Beijing/1.1
1700 - London/0.6            Beijing/0.65
     + Constantinople
1600 - Const'ople/0.4       Beijing/0.7
1500 - Const'ople/0.1       Beijing/0.6
1400 - Cairo/0.125            Nanjing/0.5
1200 - Baghdad/0.25        Hangzhou/0.8
     + Cairo, + Const'ople
1000 - Cordoba/0.2          Kaifeng/1
800 -   Dam'cus/0.175      Chang'an/1
600 -  Const'ople/0.125    Chang-an/0.25
400 -  Rome/0.5                 Luoyang/0.15
200 -  Rome/0.8                 Luoyang/0.12


1 -      Rome/1                     Chang-an/0.5
200 -  Alex'ia/0.3                Linzi/0.125
500 -  Babylon/0.15           Luoyang/0.08
           + Linzi
1000 - Susa/0.025             Qi/0.035
1200 - Bab'n/0.08              Anyang/0.05
           + Thebes
1500 - Uruk/0.075         Zhengzhou/0.035
          + Thebes                             + Yanshi
<2000 - Memphis/0.06     Erlitou/0.015
3000 - Uruk/0.045             Dadiwan/0.002
4000 - Uruk/0.005             ?Xipo/<0.001
          +Tell Brak                        +?Dadiwan/

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