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← How corn conquered the world - Chris Kniesly

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Showing Revision 1 created 11/22/2019 by lauren mcalpine .

  1. Corn currently accounts for more than
    one tenth of our global crop production.
  2. The United States alone has enough
    cornfields to cover Germany.
  3. But while other crops we grow
    come in a range of varieties,
  4. over 99% of cultivated corn is the
    exact same type: Yellow Dent #2.
  5. This means that humans grow
    more Yellow Dent #2
  6. than any other plant on the planet.
  7. So how did this single variety
    of this single plant
  8. become the biggest success story
    in agricultural history?
  9. Nearly 9,000 years ago, corn,
    also called maize,

  10. was first domesticated from teosinte,
    a grass native to Mesoamerica.
  11. Teosinte’s rock-hard seeds
    were barely edible,
  12. but its fibrous husk could be turned
    into a versatile material.
  13. Over the next 4,700 years, farmers bred
    the plant into a staple crop,
  14. with larger cobs and edible kernels.
  15. As maize spread throughout the Americas,
    it took on an important role,
  16. with multiple indigenous societies
    revering a “Corn Mother”
  17. as the goddess who created agriculture.
  18. When Europeans first arrived in America,
    they shunned the strange plant.

  19. Many even believed it was the source of
    physical and cultural differences
  20. between them and the Mesoamericans.
  21. However,
  22. their attempts to cultivate European crops
    in American soil quickly failed,
  23. and the settlers were forced
    to expand their diet.
  24. Finding the crop to their taste,
    maize soon crossed the Atlantic,
  25. where its ability to grow in diverse
    climates made it a popular grain
  26. in many European countries.
  27. But the newly established United States
    was still the corn capital of the world.

  28. In the early 1800’s, different regions
    across the country
  29. produced strains of varying
    size and taste.
  30. In the 1850’s, however,
  31. these unique varieties proved difficult
    for train operators to package,
  32. and for traders to sell.
  33. Trade boards in rail hubs like Chicago
    encouraged corn farmers
  34. to breed one standardized crop.
  35. This dream would finally be
    realized at 1893’s World’s Fair,
  36. where James Reid’s yellow dent corn
    won the Blue Ribbon.
  37. Over the next 50 years, yellow dent
    corn swept the nation.

  38. Following the technological
    developments of World War II,
  39. mechanized harvesters became
    widely available.
  40. This meant a batch of corn that previously
    took a full day to harvest by hand
  41. could now be collected in just 5 minutes.
  42. Another wartime technology, the chemical
    explosive ammonium nitrate,
  43. also found new life on the farm.
  44. With this new synthetic fertilizer,
  45. farmers could plant dense fields
    of corn year after year,
  46. without the need to rotate their crops
    and restore nitrogen to the soil.
  47. While these advances made corn an
    attractive crop to American farmers,

  48. US agricultural policy limited the
    amount farmers could grow
  49. to ensure high sale prices.
  50. But in 1972, President Richard Nixon
    removed these limitations
  51. while negotiating massive grain
    sales to the Soviet Union.
  52. With this new trade deal
    and WWII technology,
  53. corn production exploded into
    a global phenomenon.
  54. These mountains of maize inspired
    numerous corn concoctions.

  55. Cornstarch could be used as a thickening
    agent for everything from gasoline to glue
  56. or processed into a low-cost sweetener
    known as High-Fructose Corn Syrup.
  57. Maize quickly became one of the
    cheapest animal feeds worldwide.
  58. This allowed for inexpensive
    meat production,
  59. which in turn increased the demand
    for meat and corn feed.
  60. Today, humans eat only 40% of
    all cultivated corn,
  61. while the remaining 60% supports consumer
    good industries worldwide.
  62. Yet the spread of this wonder-crop
    has come at a price.

  63. Global water sources are polluted by
    excess ammonium nitrate from cornfields.
  64. Corn accounts for a large portion of
    agriculture-related carbon emissions,
  65. partly due to the increased meat
    production it enables.
  66. The use of high fructose corn syrup may
    be a contributor to diabetes and obesity.
  67. And the rise of monoculture farming
  68. has left our food supply dangerously
    vulnerable to pests and pathogens—
  69. a single virus could infect the world’s
    supply of this ubiquitous crop.
  70. Corn has gone from a bushy grass
  71. to an essential element of the
    world’s industries.
  72. But only time will tell if it has led us
    into a maze of unsustainability.