Onion trading dates back to 2 000BC, and through the centuries it has maintained its status as one of the most consumed crops on the planet.

Onions may have been one of the earliest cultivated crops because they were less perishable than other foods of the time, were transportable, and could be grown in a variety of soils and climates. Since onions grew wild in various regions, they probably entered domestic consumption simultaneously all over the world.

Many documents from very early times describe onions’ importance as a food and its use in art, medicine and mummification. During their exodus, the Israelites lamented their desert diet, remembering how they enjoyed abundant fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic in Egypt.

By the Middle Ages, onions, beans and cabbage were the pillars of European cuisine. Onions were also prescribed as a cure for headaches, snakebites and hair loss, and served as rent payments and wedding gifts.

Today, onions are the third most-eaten vegetable, after tomatoes and potatoes.

The average annual onion consumption exceeds 6,5kg per person across the world.

Fast facts 

  • Onions, garlic, leeks and shallots are all members of the botanical genus Allium.
  • The Greeks prepared athletes for the Olympic Games by eating pounds of onions, drinking onion juice, and rubbing onions on their bodies.
  • Onions owe their antiasthma, antihistamine, antimicrobial and antiparasitic properties to the organic compound cepaenes, and a variety of thiosulfinates that are formed when they are crushed.
  • Onions are a good source of dietary fibre, folic acid, vitamin C, calcium, iron and quercetin, an antioxidant.
  • Onion juice immediately relieves the pain and burning caused by a bee sting.
  • The water soluble organic sulphur compound in onions is what stings your eyes and makes you cry.


Grown in more than 170 countries, it is estimated that over 3,7 million hectares of onions are harvested annually. Approximately 8% of this production is traded internationally. The leading onion producing countries are China, India, Australia, the United States and Pakistan. 

In South Africa, onions are produced for the fresh market in all provinces, but mainly in the Western Cape (Ceres), Northern Cape, North West and Limpopo Province.

The Klein Karoo region in the southern Cape, with its dry, warm climate, is specifically favourable for the production of onion seed for clients worldwide.

The onion industry operates in a deregulated environment where the prices are determined by the forces of demand and supply. The industry uses fresh produce markets, informal markets, processors, and direct selling to wholesalers and retailers as marketing channels.

Annually, South Africa exports more than 45 000 tonnes of onions to the European Union, Africa, Indian ocean islands, United Kingdom, Middle East and Asia.

South Africa also imports onions from other countries, especially Namibia.


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