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  A principal item of trade or consumption produced and/or consumed by a society. The potato was the staple commodity of consumption in Ireland before the famine of the 1840s. Production failures during the 1840s coupled with the absence of alternative strategies as a consequence of the underdevelopment of Irish agriculture, conditioned largely by its connections with the British economy and land-ownership, led to widespread famine, emigration and the decimation of the rural population. Rice Is the staple foodstuff of many parts of South-East Asia today in the sense that, like the potato in pre-famine Ireland, it forms the central contribution to diet.

Heavy dependence upon staple items of trade leaves economies vulnerable to fluctuations in demand and price and to the long-term fall in demand for naturally produced products as they are replaced by industrial alternatives. Even in more diversified and industrialized economies, the process of uneven development may lead to the emergence of a dominant staple commodity, with critical implications for sustained growth. Conversely, staples of local consumption frequently face competition from more commercial, export-orientated users of land with harmful consequences (such as those in Ethiopia during the 1980s and 1990s) for local food production and food supplies as well as for the possibilities of sustainable development.

Dependence upon staples is not restricted to the less economically developed countries. Cotton products accounted for over 50 per cent by value of British exports in 1830 (36 per cent in 1870). Such a heavy dependence serves to condition the possibilities of future development not only because alternatives are squeezed out but also because of the formative socio-economic influence of a distinctive division of labour. Even in highly developed economies like that of Canada where the production and export of resource-based staples are central to growth, they generate distinctive patterns and processes of development (Hayter and Barnes, 1990; see staples theory). (RL)

Reference Hayter, R. and Barnes, T. 1990: Innis\' staple theory, exports and recession: British Columbia, 1981-86. Economic Geography 66 2: 156-73.



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