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The history of the world according to corn.

Corn currently accounts for more than one tenth of our global crop production.

By Betty-AnnPublished 9 months ago 3 min read
The history of the world according to corn.
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

Corn, often referred to as maize, stands as a towering giant in the realm of global crop production, contributing to over one-tenth of the world's agricultural output. In the United States, its cultivation is so extensive that it could blanket the entire nation of Germany. Yet, this agricultural marvel is peculiar in its uniformity. Surprisingly, more than 99% of cultivated corn belongs to a single type: Yellow Dent #2. The question arises: how did this solitary variety of maize become the unrivaled success story in the annals of agriculture?

The story of corn's dominance traces its origins back nearly 9,000 years to Mesoamerica, where it was first domesticated from a wild grass called teosinte. Teosinte bore seeds that were incredibly tough to consume, but its fibrous husk held the potential for a versatile material. Over several millennia, diligent farmers selectively bred maize for larger cobs and edible kernels, transforming it into a staple crop.

By Wouter Supardi Salari on Unsplash

As maize spread across the Americas, it assumed a pivotal role in various indigenous societies. Many revered a "Corn Mother" as the deity responsible for bestowing agriculture upon humanity. However, when Europeans encountered this unfamiliar crop upon their arrival in the Americas, they harbored skepticism and even misconceptions, believing it was responsible for the perceived physical and cultural disparities between them and the native inhabitants.

Despite initial hesitations, European settlers struggled to cultivate their familiar crops in the new American soil, and they were compelled to adapt to maize as a food source. Maize eventually crossed the Atlantic, gaining popularity in diverse European climates due to its adaptability.

By Virgil Cayasa on Unsplash

In the early 1800s, different regions within the United States produced distinct maize varieties in terms of size and taste. However, this diversity posed challenges for transportation and trade, prompting trade boards in key rail hubs like Chicago to advocate for the development of a standardized corn variety. This vision became a reality at the 1893 World's Fair when James Reid's yellow dent corn earned the prestigious Blue Ribbon. Over the subsequent half-century, yellow dent corn surged in popularity.

The tide of progress further favored corn as mechanized harvesters emerged after World War II. What had previously taken a full day to harvest by hand could now be completed in a mere 5 minutes. Additionally, wartime innovations, such as the synthetic fertilizer ammonium nitrate, revitalized agriculture. With this fertilizer, farmers could cultivate dense cornfields year after year without the need for crop rotation to replenish soil nitrogen.

By Lynn Danielson on Unsplash

In 1972, President Richard Nixon removed the restrictions on corn production, coinciding with substantial grain sales to the Soviet Union. This pivotal shift, combined with the technological advances of World War II, catapulted corn production into a global phenomenon.

Corn's influence extended beyond its ubiquity in agriculture. It became the foundation for numerous products, ranging from cornstarch used as a versatile thickening agent to the low-cost sweetener High-Fructose Corn Syrup. Additionally, maize became a primary source of affordable animal feed, revolutionizing the meat industry and increasing the demand for both meat and corn feed.

By Bakd&Raw by Karolin Baitinger on Unsplash

However, this proliferation of corn has not been without consequences. The excess ammonium nitrate from cornfields has polluted global water sources. Furthermore, corn cultivation contributes significantly to agriculture-related carbon emissions, partly due to its role in promoting meat production. The widespread use of high fructose corn syrup has also raised concerns regarding its potential contribution to health issues such as diabetes and obesity. Additionally, the adoption of monoculture farming practices, centered around a single crop like corn, has made our food supply vulnerable to pests and pathogens, leaving it susceptible to catastrophic outbreaks.

In summary, corn has evolved from a humble grass to a cornerstone of various global industries. Yet, the shadow of sustainability concerns looms over this remarkable crop. Only time will unveil the intricate maze of challenges and opportunities it presents to our ever-changing world.


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    Betty-AnnWritten by Betty-Ann

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