Artwork created under supervision of Bernardino de Sahagún between 1540 and 1585.
Corn has been an important food source, critical to human survival for thousands of years.
Corn rules when it comes to a crop that produces calories. Each person on this planet needs about one million calories a year in order to survive. Of course we need vitamins, minerals, protein and fats. However, without the necessary minimum caloric intake we are toast—regardless how nutritious the food we eat might be.
I’m fairly well convinced that without corn, and without indigenous people’s efforts in the Americas to improve it, the human race might have starved to death long before the 21st century. Scientists have traced the origin of corn back to a Mexican grass, teosinte. Historical evidence shows that people saved seeds from more desirable plants over the years to make corn more edible and help it to evolve into what looks like corn today.
Down at the garden I’ve planted three different types of corn in tribute to this important crop—all non-GMO of course: Golden Bantam Improved—introduced by W. Atlee Burpee in 1902; Oaxacan Green Dent—grown for centuries by the Zapotec Indians southern Mexico where it is used to make green flour tamales; and Black Aztec corn—a delicious heirloom corn said to have been grown by the Aztecs 2,000 years ago. James Gregory introduced Black Aztec corn to the seed trade in the 1860’s. This corn makes excellent blue cornmeal.
If you visit the garden daily over the next two weeks, you can see the corn growing. Yesterday I was down there and it was only about 3 inches tall. Today a friend called and told me it was six inches high.
Today's Unethical Uses of Corn Crops
The primary goal of any agricultural system should be to feed people. American corn is not used primarily to feed people. Instead it is used primarily for ethanol, animal feed and high fructose corn syrup. It consumes natural resources and receives preferential treatment from the politicians in Washington because its primary purpose is not to feed people but to make money for a few.
As Jonathan Foley points out in a Scientific American Article titled “It’s time to Rethink America’s Corn System: “. . .The USA corn system uses a large amount of natural resources. Even though it does not deliver as much food as comparable systems around the globe, the American corn system continues to use a large proportion of our country’s natural resources.
In the USA corn uses more land than any other crop, spanning an area roughly the size of California.
U.S. corn also uses a large amount of our freshwater resources, including an estimated 5.6 cubic miles per year of irrigation water withdrawn from America’s rivers and aquifers. Fertilizer use for corn includes over 5.6 million tons of nitrogen each year through chemical fertilizers and nearly a million tons of nitrogen from manure. Much of this fertilizer, along with large amounts of soil, washes into the nation’s lakes, rivers and coastal oceans, polluting waters and damaging ecosystems along the way. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest, and most iconic, example of this. . .”
We can do better—much better.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development estimates CO2 and climate benefits from replacing petroleum fuels with biofuels like ethanol are zero (IISD). They claim it would be almost 100 times more effective, and much less costly, to significantly reduce vehicle emissions through more stringent standards, and to increase CAFE standards on all cars and light trucks to over 40 miles per gallon as was done in Japan just a few years ago.
Once upon a time not so long ago in 2000, 90% of the U.S. corn crop went to feed people and livestock. Less than 5% was used to produce ethanol. By 2013, however, priorities had shifted: 40% went to produce ethanol, 45% was used to feed livestock, and only 15% was used for food and beverage (AgMRC).
The USA uses over 130 billions of gasoline a year. One bushel of corn can produce slightly less than three gallons of ethanol. If all present production of corn in the U.S. were converted into ethanol, it would only displace 25% of the 130 billion gallons of gas we use annually. Corn is not the answer to replacing fossil fuels.
Mandatory vehicle requirements for fuel efficiencies of 40 mpg would eliminate the need to starve people to death in order to produce fuel for our vehicles.
The U.S. used almost 5 billion bushels of corn in 2014 to produce over 13 billion gallons of ethanol fuel. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon gas tank with ethanol can feed one person for a year. Thus, the corn used to make 13 billion gallons of ethanol was not used to feed the almost 500 million people it was feeding in 2000. This is the entire population of the Western Hemisphere outside of the United States. We can do better.
Corn is big business in the USA.
It receives more subsidies from the US government than any other crop—about $90 billion between 1995 and 2010—not including ethanol subsidies which helped drive up the cost of corn. Our government subsidizes large agricultural corporations to the tune of billions of dollars every years—and not for producing food.
Of course, with all this attention to corn we have much scientific activity directed to how we can make more, bigger, better plants—not necessarily for the benefit of feeding people but so that wealthy investors can make even more money. Also a great deal of attention is paid to ensure that fewer people can have control over the genetics of corn seed through genetic manipulation and experimentation.
And that’s why it’s important for folks like you and I who live in urban areas to make sure that we plant heirloom seeds and save them and pass them on to our friends to plant the next year. Once the genetic code for a seed is lost—that code is gone forever.
With Earth Day just around the corner, it's interesting to consider that Thomas Jefferson had a better understanding of the importance of maintaining biodiversity than many of our leaders today:
"For if one link in nature's chain might be lost, another might be lost, until the whole of things will vanish by piecemeal."
Heirloom seeds from organically grown plants are always the best choice.
There is always a tradeoff in the creation of a hybrid or genetically modified seed. In order to “improve” a plant in one way, the subtraction or minimization of an original characteristic must be undertaken. For example, to create hybrid flowers, the fragrance is often sacrificed; for herbs, their potency; for vegetables, their flavor.
One in five of the world’s plant species is threatened with extinction, according to the first global assessment of flora, putting supplies of food and medicines at risk. But this same report also found that 2,000 new species of plants are discovered every year, raising hopes of new sources of food that are resilient to disease and climate change. [Source: The State of the World’s Plants report, by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew,]
We can only hope that nature can stay ahead of human greed.