On an impromptu trip to the Indiana State Museum this year in Indianapolis, I stumbled upon an exhibit called “Amazing Maize” and had to roll my eyes and chuckle at the backwards, redneck state in which I live. Only in Indiana would they think corn is important enough for a museum exhibit and call it “Amazing” at that. Despite my superior attitude, I found myself wandering into the exhibit. Okay, fine. I’ll admit it. Corn IS king of amazing. Prior to viewing the exhibit, my notion of corn is that sweet corn is an essential summer treat and it tastes great with butter. I never took much time to consider how corn is an inextricable symbol of my upbringing in the Midwestern United States, or its pervasive presence in so many of the items I utilize in daily life. Corn feeds the livestock that sustains Americans all over the nation, it’s the basis for hundreds of products Americans eat and drink every day, and the Midwestern economy.
Commercials in the 1990s for Indiana Beach Amusement Resort in Monticello, Indiana used the tagline “There’s more than corn in Indiana” in an attempt to draw visitors to the park. Little do they know that most Americans should be happy that there is so much corn in Indiana, Iowa, and other corn-producing states in the Midwest. Considering how essential corn is to American life, it’s easy to conclude that the Midwest, as the “breadbasket” of America that produces the corn and wheat that keeps the nation going, is the foundation upon which American life and commerce is built.
The Indiana State Museum noted in their exhibit that, “it takes 25 corn plants per person per day to support the American way of life” (Indiana State Museum, 1). Corn is used in many of the foods American eat from corn chips to the high fructose corn syrup in popular beverages, but our corn consumption goes beyond ingestible items. Corn is also used to make fuel, biodegradable plastics, packing peanuts, Cosmetics, kitty litter, poster paints, and a variety of paper goods. I was surprised to discover that corn is also used to make textiles and Ford Motor Company makes various automobile components from corn (Indiana State Museum 2-3). We knew we were eating corn on a daily basis, but it’s hard to imagine that we are driving it as well.
The versatility of corn is apparent when you reflect on the variety of items produced with its parts from stem to kernel. The most obvious area is that it is used in food. Corn’s presence in our diets extends far beyond the ears of sweet corn we enjoy during summer months. Consider that the cows and poultry Americans eat every day have been fed corn and cornstalks as much of their diet. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that “about 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is consumed by domestic and overseas livestock, poultry, and fish production.” They note that only about 12% of U.S. corn crops end up in food that are consumed directly like corn chips or indirectly like the high fructose corn syrup in many foods (EPA). This is interesting because we consume about three pounds per day in the form of milk, poultry, cheese, meat, butter and other products made from corn (Lee). The brown and gold coloring added to soft drinks and pudding to make them enticing are corn-based, canned foods are preserved in a liquid containing corn, and candy is dusted with corn starch to prevent stickiness. Corn Syrup provides body to thin food such as sauces and soups and is the basis for candy and ketchup. Corn oil is used to make soap, mayonnaise, and salad dressings (Lee). Corn is present in so many of the products we use on a daily basis. American life as we know it would be impossible without the corn provided by Midwestern states.
Corn is not only used to make the foods we eat, but to transport and package them as well. The purple marks stamped onto meats are made with corn and it is also used to make cartons and cardboard used in packaging. Corn is also used to make pain relievers, toothpaste, detergent, match heads, charcoal briquettes, metal and plastic molds, antibiotics, ceramic spark-plug insulators, and embalming fluid (Lee). Not a day goes by in the life of any American that they are not using a product made from this Midwestern staple. While the Midwestern United States is not the only place in the world where corn is grown, it is the largest producer of corn in the world. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that in 2000, the U.S. produced nearly 10 billion bushels of the 23 billion bushels produced in the world (EPA). Most of these crops are grown in the Midwest, with Iowa being the top producer. Iowa has been the top corn producer in the U.S. for nearly two decades, growing almost 2.3 billion bushels of corn on 13.7 million acres last year. Iowa grows three times more corn than Mexico, the country that introduced corn to the world (ICPB/ICGA). The American Midwest produces and exports a product that not only fuels American lifestyles, but has a global impact.
Native Americans gave the first European settlers corn seeds and taught them how to grow it. Legend has it that the Native Americans came along and taught Colonists how to cultivate corn out of kindness, but it was more likely coercion. Kemps and Tassore, two Pawhatans held captive by Virginian Colonists in 1609 were likely forced to teach corn cultivation. Previous attempts to grow corn before the abduction had garnered disappointing results (Warman, 151). Captain John Smith referred to the Spring of 1609 as “the starving time” and said, “for one basket of corn they would have sold their souls” (Fussell, 154). Squanto famously added to Colonial knowledge of corn growth in 1621, such as the trick to fertilize seeds by burying a fish with them. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated that year to commemorate their first successful harvest. It was not to become a national holiday until Lincoln’s presidency (Warman, 152-153). Corn was at the forefront of the creation of the nation’s favorite food fest, but the story is not as glossy and romantic as school children are lead to believe.
Once the colonists became adept at cultivating corn, it became an integral part of daily life. Since the Colonies lacked a currency, rent, taxes, and debts were commonly paid with corn (Hays, 71). Colonists had no dairy cattle, so they made ersatz milk from the juices of corn, chestnuts, and hickory nuts (Robbins, X1). Without corn to nourish early European settlers, the history of North America would have been quite different. Corn was also the catalyst for development of Midwestern lands. The rich, fertile soils of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio proved ideal for the crop. These were areas where corn had not traditionally been grown in ancient times (Gibson). This area is commonly referred to as the “Corn Belt.”
While most Americans undoubtedly take corn for granted much like I did, scientists have been working hard for decades to determine the genetic make-up of corn. Genetic mapping of the corn genome was completed in 2009. Through this research scientists found that the teosinte plant is the ancestor of modern corn (Indiana State Museum, 3). The domestication of teosinte has been traced to the Balsas River Valley in south central Mexico. Nearly 10,000 years ago, humans first began selecting maize plants for desirable characteristics and the corn plant began its humble beginnings (Indiana State Museum, 3). There are five main types of corn: dent, sweet, flint, flour, and popcorn. All of these varieties were developed by Native Americans before Europeans were first exposed to corn in 1493. By then, Native American tribes such as the Hopi and Iroquois were already saving seeds for particular traits. They staggered planting times and separated fields of different varieties to preserve each type’s distinct traits (Indiana State Museum, 4). These early people had begun the cultivation of a plant that would eventually become one of the most important crops in the world and would put the American Midwest at the forefront of production.
The nomadic nature of many Native American tribes helped spread the corn seed from its origin in the Balsa River Valley of Mexico. An archeological study of bat caves in New Mexico found corn cobs that are 5,600 years old. Corn pollen grain found from drill cores cut 200 feet below Mexico City were determined to be 80,000 years old (Gibson). Corn was an essential crop for ancient people in southern North American and people in the Andes Mountains of South America for thousands of years (Fussell, 89). These people, like the Native Americans mentioned previously, showed great ingenuity and agricultural sophistication with their use and cultivation of corn.
Not only does the American Midwest owe much of its economic success in agriculture to the humble corn plant, the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures all relied on corn crops as an essential source of food and materials for making products such as mats, trays, cushions, bottle stoppers, combs, and hammocks. Corn shucks were also useful for making inexpensive mattresses (Fussell, 244). Products manufactured from corn in modern times required complex machinery and chemical processes, but much like ancient tribes, we are still using corn plants to create a multitude of products. No other plant lends itself to such a myriad of uses. Sources claim there are anywhere from 500 to 3500 different documented uses for corn leaves, stalks, husks, and cobs. The Native American word “maize” means both “bread of life” and “grain-of-the-gods” (Hays, 72). This moniker makes perfect sense when one considers the integral part corn has played in the development and success of so many cultures and societies.
Corn left North American and went global with Christopher Columbus. He first brought it back to Spain and from there it spread throughout Europe. By the 16th century, corn had spread all over the world at a remarkably fast rate. (Indiana State Museum, 4) These developments proved problematic in some areas. In Africa, the presence of corn fueled a growing slave trade. Slavery was practiced in some form on every continent by the mid-fifteenth century. America before the arrival of Columbus was no exception (Warman, 51). Slaves were purchased with goods from Europe rather than money (Warman, 56). The Portugese were leaders of the European slave trade around the time Columbus first brought corn to Europe. This is likely how corn ended up in Africa. Corn became the dietary mainstay of the slave trade (Warman, 60). Corn did not create the slave trade and slavery would certainly have continued without it, but it offered an inexpensive, hearty plant with multiple uses that could be used to feed the millions of slaves moved across the Atlantic Ocean.
The increased availability of corn in Africa lead to population increase due to an abundant food supply. Growing tribes competing for land and resources began fighting and selling each other off to the slave trade to survive. To this day corn comprises up to 90 percent of some African’s diets (Indiana State Museum, 5). A humble grain that kept early colonists alive and has delighted millions of people at Midwestern county fairs helped sustain one of the most abhorrent inhumanities in the history of man. The “bread of life” was used to take life away from the innocent. This smear on the good name of corn is only part of the grain’s mostly unblemished history, but it is part that should not be ignored or forgotten.
By the mid-nineteenth century, corn had been a staple of western life for thousands of years. It did not, however, become big business until after the Civil War. In the 1940s, corn production increased from an average of 20 – 30 bushels per acre to an astounding 50 bushels per acre (Fussell, 67). Corn is now grown on fewer acres than in the past, but the yield per acre is much higher. Modern farmers grow five times more corn than in the 1930s on 20 percent less land (CFI). Indiana is the fifth-leading corn producer in the U.S. It is the second-most in popcorn production. In 2011, $32 billion in corn was sold by Indiana farmers (CFI).
Corn was partly the catalyst for the growth of the University system in America. June 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act of 1862. Signed into effect by Abraham Lincoln the same year as the Homestead Act and Emancipation Proclamation, the Act provided government-funded stipends through 30,000 acres of land given to each state to provide for institutions of higher education with an emphasis on agriculture and mechanic arts. Prior to the Morrill Act, most universities adhered to a traditional emphasis of liberal arts education (Brown). Americans with little access to higher education had a unique opportunity to learn methods practical to their lives as farmers and engineers. The Morrill Act “scratched several itches,” said CSU President Tony Frank. “There was obviously a big federal push about how do we feed this growing country. You also have a society that is shifting from an agricultural foundation to an industrial foundation,” Frank said (Brown). The government knew that an uneducated workforce could not develop new methods to increase corn production. A more educated populous could better provide for the growing population and bring American agricultural production into a new era.
Most of the land-grant universities are now large schools offering a variety of areas of study. Schools like Purdue University, Iowa State University, Rutgers, Cornell, Ohio State University, Texas A&M (the A stands for Agriculture and the M for mechanics), and University of Wisconsin-Madison all began as land-grant schools (USDA). Corn was not the only crop to benefit from the innovations of land-grant schools, but it was at the forefront of research for Midwestern schools. In 1896, P.G. Holden became the first professor of agronomy in the United States when he joined the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He became famous after he moved to Iowa State University and began his “corn gospel trains” where he would teach secrets to corn cultivation success while traveling on a train. He became known as a “corn evangelist” for his early efforts at public programing (Indiana State Museum, 6). A modern student may be dumbfounded at the concept of people jumping onto a train to learn how to better grown corn, but it was still the basis of many family’s livelihood and there were few methods available to communicate this precious information.
Corn has been an essential part to building up American society, but is it now destroying our health? Debate has been raging on both sides of the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) issue for years with no clear winner in sight. Corn farmers lean toward the opinion that HFCS is a scapegoat for the larger problem of a growing sedentary lifestyle in America and an over-consumption of calories. In 2010, the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), asking that “corn sugar” be used as a substitute for high fructose corn syrup. They opine that it’s more descriptive because HFCS is a sugar made from corn. The FDA denied their petition in May 2012 (Corn Refiners Association).
CBS News released a report about a study published November 27, 2012 by Dr. Michael Goran, co-director of the Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. Dr. Goran and his colleagues found that Daily calorie intake, BMI, and total sugar intake are similar regardless of where people live in the world. They found that countries with the highest levels of high fructose corn syrup consumption also had higher rates of Type 2 diabetes compared to countries with lower consumption (Castillo). Dr. Goran noted that while table sugar has a stable level of 50 percent fructose, 50 percent glucose, the level of fructose fluctuates from 42 to 65 percent in high fructose corn syrup. He further states that how we metabolize these sugars vary from sugars found naturally in fruit because the fiber content in fruit slows absorption (Castillo). Refined fructose is absorbed into the blood faster creating unhealthy spikes in levels. The debate will likely continue with new studies and evidence supporting claims on either side.
Corn has been our salvation in the United States, providing the sustenance to survive the first winters in a new country and has potentially become part of our downfall as a contributor to the rise in obesity and Type 2 diabetes. It has been a part of some of our greatest moments with the building of the land-grant university system that has provided quality education to millions of Americans to the lowest points in humanity with the African slave trade. Along the way, it has always adapted to whatever humans have done to it and remained a strong part of feeding the growing global population. The Midwestern United States is at the heart of the production of the grain that fuels the world’s people with nutritious food and cars with ethanol blended gasoline. We have yet to see all of the places corn production will take us and the various forms it will take. We do know that the American Midwest will be at the heart of it all, feeding the world and supporting modern living.
Brown, Fred. 150 Years of the Morrill Act of 1862. Colorado State University. May 2012. Web. 27, Nov. 2012. <http://www.colostate.edu/morrillact/>
Castillo, Michelle. Rising Type 2 Diabetes Linked to Increases in High Fructose Corn Syrup Consumption. CBSNews.com. CBS News. 27, Nov. 2012.
Center for Food Integrity (CFI). Indiana Farmers Feed Us: Indiana Corn Farmer. N.d. Web. 27, Nov. 2012. < http://www.farmersfeedus.org/in/corn/10>
Corn Refiner’s Association. Sweet Surprise: The Facts about High Fructose Corn Syrup. n.d. Web. 27, Nov. 2012 <http://sweetsurprise.com/hfcs-faqs>
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ag Center: Ag 101. 23, Oct. 2012. Web. 27, Nov. 2012. http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/printcrop.html
Fussell, Betty. The Story of Corn: The Myths and History, The Culture and Agriculture, The Art and Science of America’s Quintessential Crop. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992.
Gibson, Lance and Garren Benson. Origin, History, and Uses of Corn (Zea mays). Agronomy 212: Crop Growth, Production, and Management. Iowa State University Department of Agronomy. Jan. 2002. Web. 27, Nov. 2012. <http://www.agron.iastate.edu/courses/agron212/Readings/Corn_history.htm>
Hays, Wilma and R. Vernon Vernon. Foods the Indians Gave Us. How to Plant, Harvest, and Cook the Natural Indian Way. New York: Ives Washburn, Inc., 1973.
Indiana State Museum. Museum Exhibit Tells Story of Corn, Humankind. Indianapolis: ISM, 8, March, 2011. Web. 27, Nov. 2012. <http://www.incorn.org/>
Iowa Corn Promotion Board / Iowa Corn Growers Association (ICPB/ICGA). Iowa Corn: Creating Opportunities for Long-Term Iowa Corn Grower Profitablility. n.d. Web 27, Nov. 2012. < http://www.iowacorn.org/en/corn_use_education/faq/>
Lee, Hilde. “The Versatility of Corn.” Daily Progress. 5 Sept. 2012, Web. Entertainment Sec. 27, Nov. 2012. <www.dailyprogress.com>
Robbins, Maria Polushkin. American Corn. New York: St. Martin’s Press., 1989.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Land-Grant Colleges and Universities (1862, 1890, and 1994). National Institute of Food and Agriculture is the former Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES). n.d. Web. 27, Nov. 2012. <http://www.csrees.usda.gov/qlinks/partners/partners_list.pdf>
Warman, Arturo. Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance. Trans. Nancy L. Westrate. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press: 2003. Print.