Corn was the great invention of the Maya, yet we take it for granted.
Even though corn is used as an essential provision, along with other staples to feed the world, corn is more than food because it is also used as currency and the building blocks for a cornucopia of modern products. Corn is a crop that has changed the way we eat, drink, and live our lives. The golden kernels have grown to be integral to society. Not only does it feed billions of people, but it has been used for cash for thousands of years and as the building blocks of everyday products used by people from around the globe.
The plant originated in the Yucatan Peninsula more than six thousand years ago, during the latter half of the Neolithic Age. Corn is a purely human engineered plant, starting from what is known as Teosinte, a group of grass genus with some external similarities to the modern plant, most notably the tassels. Over the course of several thousand years of direct human farming, this tall grass transformed itself into corn as we know it. Several major civilizations of the region exploited the use of corn including the Aztecs of central Mexico; the Mayans of what is now southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala; and the Incas of modern day Peru.
Corn shares the world stage with wheat, rice, and potatoes, as a staple to feed the population of the planet. Although the other food stocks have fed billions, none of them stand up to the influence that corn has exerted over the globe. More and more farmers are seeing the value in corn, in more than just food but also in a global perspective of cash and resources.
In states such as Kansas, which grows 1/5th the total wheat yields of the United States, more and more farmers are switching to corn. In Africa, a country beset with hunger and starvation, corn has grown ever increasingly more abundant than wheat. In 2009, 12 percent less wheat was planted and an increase of 10.93 percent of corn was planted in the African continent. Often when we think of rice, Asia comes to our thoughts, but even in the Asian continent, corn is winning out. Rice is a rich source of calories for poor starving nations, but it is also very labor intensive and requires large quantities of water. Corn on the other hand takes less than 120 days to come to yield and can be sown in practically any terrain, environment, or temperature (except for very dry climates or arctic conditions). There are a number of reasons why rice continually declines over the use of corn, but specifically the Law of Diminishing Returns and the increased cost of hydraulic works are the chief claims. Lastly, potatoes are another source of protein to feed the world, but the plant also has many problems associated with its planting, harvesting, and distribution. Much like rice, potatoes are not cost effective in the amount of labor needed to produce, although unlike rice which requires watershed lowlands, potatoes require far more tolerant land resources than corn.
Most people do not realize that corn has become more than something you pop in a microwave oven or gobble down on the ear during the summer months. “Edible corn for humans, whether fresh, canned, frozen or in the form of cornmeal, makes up less than one percent of the American corn market, a tiny amount that nonetheless adds up to about three pounds of corn per person per day.” In the United States alone, corn is grown on more than eighty million acres of land with yields of 384 million tons yearly. Most of that corn is neither popcorn nor sweet corn, but a variety called dent corn (the name derived from the dimple on the tuft of the corn kernel). Dent is also known as field corn or deer corn. The plant in America is used in the production of plastics, from which innumerable products can be fashioned, such as plastic bottles, paper plates, and utensils. The plant’s harvest is also used in the manufacturing of corn syrup, a sweetener that can be found in bread, cereals, pasta, soda pop, ketchup, juices mayonnaise, and thousands of other supermarket items. Finally, corn has been used to make ethanol, and in the last twenty years the production of that kind of alcohol has accelerated as car manufacturers have converted automobiles from using gasoline and diesel fuel to new bio-fuels.
When the Spaniards came to the New World they were in search of gold to fill the coffers of their kingdom back home. Unbeknownst to them, time after time, these conquerors stared blankly at the true gold of the New World, and it wasn’t that of the lustrous metal that the Incans used to lavish on their buildings, but the simple plant in the common man’s backyard. “The wealth generated by plants probably has increased at a rate and in a more sustained fashion than any other American resource. In any given year – 1980, for example – the annual value of American crops, was on the order of 200 billion dollars, probably is higher than the total value of all the precious metals exported to the Iberian colonies over the course of the entire colonial period.” Often the conquerors were so close to discovering that beyond the gold ingots and silver bars, the metal would pale against the incredible power of the corn in later centuries. Instead of the gold fever that existed at the time, they should have monopolized the plant rather than precious metals.
Corn made its transoceanic move in the latter half of the 15th Century CE, but the plant was not thought of as a spoil or treasure by the Spaniards at first. It was not until Peter Martyr d’Anghiera wrote, “Affixed by nature in a wondrous manner and in form and size like garden peas, white when young,” that we heard the first mention of corn. Although Peter’s work was not published until 1511 in a book called ‘De Orbe Nova’, the word mahiz was being used excitedly throughout the old world by this time.
Another account of corn being discovered by the Spaniards, written by Juan De Cardenas, was in an abridgment of an encounter on November 6th 1492 when Columbus decided to gather a small party of explorers to search the interior of lands he thought was China. When the soldiers returned, they did not talk about large Asian cities or courts of royalty, but rather brought back baskets full of golden grain as if they were coins, called maize.
We repeatedly see how Spanish explorers took maize as payment for tribute from indigenous peoples of Central and South America, such as in 1519 when Hernando Cortes confronted the Aztecs and they were given thousands of bushels of corn along with gold and silver bars. Again, we see in 1531 when DeSoto confronted the Incans, he was given 5000 bushels of maize as tribute. Even as late as 1650, when by now the Spanish pushed into the American Midwest and the lower extremities of Canada, maize continued to show up as both a food and a bargaining tool (currency). However, even though it is obvious that the people of the New World thought corn was a hard currency, the Spaniards often would dispose of it as they did with the 5000 bushels of maize given to them by the Incans, for gold and silver metal.
It took less than forty years after its discovery in the New World for corn to make its way to tropical Africa, for which the exact date is lost because the Portuguese who brought it over did not refer to it by any given name. Corn became the common man’s currency in the escalating colonial Africa. The plant had become a commodity and a dietary mainstay, something few agricultural products possessed with such flexibility. Wherever the sixteenth century Portuguese landed their ships, corn spread. By 1517, it was grown principally around the slave-trade ports of the west in order to supply cheap fodder for the slaves during their transport and as a method of payment for trading with interior indigenous people for goods and services.
Corn quickly became the primary dietary caloric consumption in African. By the latter half of the twentieth century, corn had spread to every corner of continent, save for the very wet and very dry localities. Without any surprise the countries that consumed the highest amounts of corn are also the countries with the smallest percentages of hunger, disease, and political instability.
Africa is a diverse continent with equally rich, robust economies. One of the continuing issues with Africa, even from the start of European involvement in the early 16th and 17th Century CE to the present, is the scarcity of food resources. Most of the rural economies have struggled with water and food, with the latter often being traded as a cash commodity as more advance cultures use currency to pay debt.
For the most part livestock and fishing make up very little in the excess food stocks, with almost 80 percent of tropical Africa having less than a single head of cattle per capital. Even though goat populations are relatively larger, they still rank less than .5 per capita. With less reliable data on fishing, no direct correlation can be made suffice to say that other than in local communities along the Atlantic and Indian oceans, food from the sea make up very little of the excess food stores. The two largest commodities, traded both among internal economies and also the broader world economies, are manioc (a starchy tuber also called yucca or cassava) and corn. Yields from 1957 and 1958 show more than 70,000 metric tons of manioc and almost 60,000 tons of corn were traded. There appears to be five principle categories of food in Africa, used as a delicacy, insurance against famine, secondary staple, primary staple, and as production for cash crops. In each of these categories various foods rank higher or lower, but in almost every African nation, corn is at the top of the list for being used as a cash crop.
Today, Africa still grows corn to feed its population, but also relies on foreign governments to send relief aid often in the form of corn. “Six Southern Africa countries – Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland – were facing severe food shortages and an estimated 14 million people in the region needed about 4 million metric tons of food aid to meet minimum consumption requirements before the next harvest in April 2003.” Many U.S. companies use corn crops to feed desperate third world countries, with just one company alone producing 130,000 metric tons in 2009 of special corn biscuits to be given to countries in need.
No other place in the world has corn reigned supreme than in the United States. In the burgeoning technocracy of the twenty-first century, corn has become the Holy Grail of genetic manipulation, turning the plant into the building blocks for everything Americans eat and drink; pump into their automobiles as fuel; feed their livestock, chemically change into plastics and cloth; and biologically mutate into fiber for utilization of paper to particle board.
The United States produces nearly 40 percent of the world’s corn and has learned how to genetically alter the plant to such a degree that most people fail to realize that the plant cannot grow in the wild, but must be modified into hybrids each year to create the seeds for the next season’s planting. Each year, corn is created by mating two different corn hybrids to create a new strain of corn; often the result is a new type of corn that is better than either of its parent strains. So, even though the plant is highly dependent on mankind in its reproduction, it earns its next year’s prodigy with its incredible characteristics allowing it to be manufactured into more than three thousand food sources and four hundred non-consumable products.
Dent corn can be modified into a high fructose sugar, cheaper to produce than cane sugar. According to CornSugar [www.CornSugar.com], “sugar is sugar and that high fructose corn syrup is nutritionally equivalent to sucrose.” The website goes on to say that there is not a shred of evidence that these products are different biologically and are just as healthy as foods derived from sugar cane. The commercial use of corn syrup is as a thickener, sweetener, and humectant (the ability for food to stay soft and moist). Suffice to say, corn syrup is used in thousands of foods consumed by Americans.
At present there are more than 400 non-consumption products being engineered from chemically synthesized corn byproducts. Most plastics today are created from limited-recurring resins such as oil. Nature requires 100 million years of fermentation to create oil, but with the recent advancements in corn manufacturing in the United States, engineers hope to cut that down to less than 100 days. The first polymer resin known as polylactic acid or PLA is derived from corn and is a crystalline or amorphous sheet of plastic like material. Although you cannot eat this material, though derived from corn, it is bio-degradable. PLA products are very sensitive to heat so it makes it unusable in cooking ware, engine parts, aircraft panels, or other heat intolerant applications, but can be used as bottles to hold liquids (such as water, soda, juices), plates and utensils (such as given out at fast food restaurants), and medical applications. PLA is just the start to many similar organic chemicals that will be used to formulate new and wondrous plastics.
One of a select few manufacturers to start producing biopolymers (plastic from plants) is a firm called NatureWorks LLC. This company is at the forefront of the new science which can produce plastics that are completely bio-degradable and have very low carbon footprints on the environment. Within the last month the company began producing yogurt cups made of this new material, with a savings of 48 percent of carbon emissions over standard plastic. In the next few years, more corn will be grown to create ethanol than used for the production of food. The history of bio-fuels has been an epic struggle against the cheaper and, at the present, more easily accessible petroleum. If it wasn’t for some short sighted government officials who saw ethanol as a way for moonshiners (illegal corn whiskey manufacturers) to gain legal rights to production of alcohol, we may never have had need for gasoline. As early as 1862, alcohol was being taxed at $2 a gallon, forcing inventors like German engineer Nikolas Otto and American industrialist Henry Ford to re-examine the use of ethanol as a fuel for vehicles – even though Ford had a working prototype of the Model T running completely on ethanol. The use of alcohol as a primary agent in combustion engines was dashed in the early 20th century in America with the passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: basically prohibiting the manufacture of all alcohol (even for combustion). Ethanol never recovered from that stroke of the pen, even though the law was repealed years later.
Alcohol is still heavily taxed in the United States and would make its use as combustion still very expensive compared to gasoline. To circumvent the taxation, the alcohol goes through a process called “denaturing” in which the ethanol is subjected to various bittering agents such as benzoates and methanol, making it poisonous to consume. In this form, farmers are not levied tax on the alcohol. With improvements of ethanol production, the US Congress has mandated that production of bio-fuels increase from its present state of 12 billion gallons a year, to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
Today, American farmers grow corn to turn into E10 or E85, which is a mixture of gasoline and ethanol. E10 is 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent alcohol, while E85 is 85 percent alcohol and 15 percent gasoline. E10 can be used in any car today, even those that are not designated to be used for ethanol. The E85 mixture requires special automobiles and is often limited to warmer climates, with the present technology, that do not have extended frigid temperatures. It has been statistically proven that ethanol is better for the environment than carbon based fuel sources (oil), even after considering that most farm equipment still use gas or diesel for the production of the corn.
Beyond the use of the kernels of corn, researchers are now utilizing every facet and part of the corn plant. Recently, corn stalks are being analyzed for its ability to be used for medium density particle boards – used in many applications including framing homes and commercial buildings throughout the world. Analysis of the fibers suggests they have a chemical composition similar to softwood a-cellulose, common in softwood deciduous trees. The advantages, of course, is that it takes less than 120 days to grow a single harvest of corn compared to years, if not decades, for many forests.
As we move into the early part of the twenty-first century, corn is going to increase in its varied uses to feed the planet and become the building blocks for everything from clothing, plastic, fuel, domesticated feed, new construction material, and everyday consumer goods. Vast portions of the planet are still locked in a day-to-day struggle with feeding the inhabitants. In these areas, corn will still be used as a staple, as a form of currency, or as a way to barter for services. As much as corn is intrinsically bound to humanity in its survival, so too will mankind be linked to the ancient tall grass that was born in the lowlands of central Mexico because corn has become more than food, it has weaved itself into every aspect of our global society.