The History of Corn
Corn currently accounts for more
than one tenth of our global crop production. The United States alone has
enough cornfields to cover Germany. But while other crops we grow come in a
range of varieties, over 99% of cultivated corn is the exact same type: Yellow
Dent #2. This means that humans grow more Yellow Dent #2 than any other plant
on the planet. So how did this single variety of this single plant become the
biggest success story in agricultural history?
Nearly 9,000 years ago, corn, also
called maize, was first domesticated from teosinte, a grass native to
Mesoamerica. Teosinte’s rock-hard seeds were barely edible, but its fibrous
husk could be turned into a versatile material. Over the next 4,700 years,
farmers bred the plant into a staple crop, with larger cobs and edible kernels.
As maize spread throughout the Americas, it took on an important role, with
multiple indigenous societies revering a “Corn Mother” as the goddess who
When Europeans first arrived in
America, they shunned the strange plant. Many even believed it was the source
of physical and cultural differences between them and the Mesoamericans. However,
their attempts to cultivate European crops in American soil quickly failed and
the settlers were forced to expand their diet. Finding the crop to their taste,
maize soon crossed the Atlantic where its ability to grow in diverse climates
made it a popular grain in many European countries. But the newly established
United States was still the corn capital of the world.
In the early 1800s, different
regions across the country produced strains of varying size and taste. In the
1850s, however, these unique varieties proved difficult for train operators to
package and for traders to sell. Trade boards in rail hubs like Chicago
encouraged corn farmers to breed one standardized crop. This dream would
finally be realized at 1893 World’s Fair where James Reid’s yellow dent corn
won the Blue Ribbon.
Over the next 50 years, yellow dent
corn swept the nation. Following the technological developments of World War
II, mechanised harvesters became widely available. This meant a batch of corn
that previously took a full day to harvest by hand could now be collected in
just 5 minutes. Another wartime technology, the chemical explosive ammonium
nitrate, also found new life on the farm. With this new synthetic fertilizer, farmers
could plant dense fields of corn year after year without the need to rotate
their crops and restore nitrogen to the soil.
While these advances made corn an
attractive crop to American farmers, US agricultural policy limited the amount
farmers could grow to ensure high sale prices. But in 1972, President Richard
Nixon removed these limitations while negotiating massive grain sales to the
Soviet Union. With this new trade deal and WWII technology, corn production
exploded into a global phenomenon. These mountains of maize inspired numerous
corn concoctions. Cornstarch could be used as a thickening agent for everything
from gasoline to glue or processed into a low-cost sweetener known as
High-Fructose Corn Syrup. Maize quickly became one of the cheapest animal feeds
worldwide. This allowed for inexpensive meat production, which in turn
increased the demand for meat and corn feed.
Today, humans eat only 40% of all
cultivated corn, while the remaining 60% supports consumer goods industries
worldwide. Yet the spread of this wonder-crop has come at a price. Global water
sources are polluted by excess ammonium nitrate from cornfields. Corn accounts
for a large portion of agriculture-related carbon emissions, partly due to the
increased meat production it enables. The use of high fructose corn syrup may
be a contributor to diabetes and obesity. And the rise of monoculture farming has
left our food supply dangerously vulnerable to pests and pathogens – a single
virus could infect the world’s supply of this ubiquitous crop.
Corn has gone from a bushy grass to
an essential element of the world’s industries. But only time will tell if it
has led us into a maze of unsustainability.
Source: TED Ed – Chris A. Kniesly