All About Corn

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Podcast Transcript

The biggest agricultural crop in the world today, by total weight, is corn. 

Also known as maize, corn is a crop of the New World. The ancients in China, India, Mesopotamia, and Rome never knew about corn.

Yet, since the Columbian Exchange, it has become one of the world’s most important commodities as a source of food, animal feed, and the basis of many manufactured food products. 

Learn more about corn, aka maize, where it came from, and how it revolutionized the world of agriculture on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get too far into this episode, I need to clarify something about the word “corn.”

In a previous episode on the Lighthouse of Alexandria, I quoted a passage from Julius Caesar’s commentaries: “The result was that safe access was secured for his corn supplies and reinforcements.”

A listener contacted me to correct me, pointing out that Caesar wouldn’t have known about corn because it came from the New World.

That is true, but that was not how the word corn was used in that passage. The word corn’s original meaning in English was as a synonym for grain. In the 19th Century, Britain enacted the Corn Laws, which lifted tariffs on all grain imports. 

It was the Americans who came to associate the word corn with the particular crop known as maize. In Britain and some other Commonwealth countries, the crop continued to be known as maize, although terms such as popcorn and sweetcorn did catch on. 

The American meaning of corn, the name for maize, has largely been catching on, and the antiquated meaning of corn as a general term for grain is losing favor. 

For the purpose of this episode, when I refer to corn, I’ll be referring to maize. 

Corn was first domesticated by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico about 9,000 years ago from a wild grass called teosinte. 

Wild teosinte looks just like grass, with a bit larger than average grass seeds. If you saw it in the wild, you probably wouldn’t look twice at it.

The transformation from teosinte to maize was a remarkable feat of agricultural engineering, involving selective breeding of plants for more desirable traits such as larger and more numerous kernels.

All varieties of corn that exist in the world today are all ancestors of this single domestication event in southern Mexico. 

Corn became the primary crop grown in the New World. It spread rapidly both north and south and south from Mexico. About 8000 years ago, corn had already reached modern-day Ecuador. It became a staple for civilizations in the Andes, and Mesoamerica, as well as with tribes in North America.

It is believed to have gotten as far as 40 degrees latitude south in what is today Chile and Argentina.

Corn-growing techniques became highly sophisticated. One such technique was to grow three crops together on the same plot of land: corn, beans, and squash. The corn stalks would grow vertically and would provide a base for the beanstalk to grow around it. The beans would replenish the nitrogen in the soil, and the squash on the ground would prevent weeds from growing. 

Corn became a central part of many of these cultures. 

The Maya people believed that the maize god Yum K’aax was the creator of all things, including the first people, which were made of corn. The Aztecs had a god of corn, as well known as Centeotl. All of these are believed to have come from an earlier Olmec god of maize. 

They consumed corn in many different ways. They did sometimes roast entire ears of corn directly.

One of the most common methods was nixtamalization, which involved soaking corn kernels in limewater. This releases niacin, making the corn easier to digest and grind. 

Ground corn was used to make cornmeal, which could be used to prepare porridges, a staple food for many Native American tribes. Cornmeal was also used to bake various forms of breads and cakes. These could be sweetened or mixed with other ingredients depending on the region and available resources.

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they found hundreds of varieties of corn that had been selectively bred for thousands of years. Some varieties grew in colder climates, warmer climates, and in the mountains. 

The Spanish saw potential in the plant, and they took it with them back to Europe. 

Corn first took root in Spain and Portugal. The climates of southern and western Iberia proved well-suited to corn cultivation, making it a popular crop among farmers due to its ability to grow in diverse soil types and its higher yield than native grains.

Here, I should note corn’s primary advantage over other grains… you can simply get more food from the same amount of land. One acre of corn will yield more food than wheat or barley. This was not dissimilar to why potatoes, another import from the New World, became so popular. 

In addition, it is more versatile in terms of where it can be grown, and like other grains, it can be stored and shipped easily.

From Spain, corn spread to Italy and the Balkan regions, where it was quickly adopted due to similar climatic conditions. It became especially prominent in areas where other cereal crops had poor yields.

Although it took longer to establish in Northern Europe, corn eventually became a part of the crop mix there, although it never became the predominant crop.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, corn became a staple crop for peasants in southern Europe and found its way into dishes such as polenta in Italy. 

As European powers established colonies worldwide, they brought corn with them. Portuguese, Spanish, and later other European colonists introduced it to Africa, Asia, and the rest of the Americas.

In Africa, corn quickly became a staple, particularly in Sub-Saharan regions, due to its adaptability to various climates and its ability to provide high yields. Corn became integral to many African diets and agricultural systems.

As popular as corn was as it spread around the world, it didn’t reach its peak until the 20th century. 

The big development was the creation of corn hybrids. 

In 1908, George Shull, working at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, began experimenting with corn plants. He discovered that by inbreeding corn lines and then crossing these inbred lines, he could produce offspring (hybrids) that were much more vigorous and productive than either parent. This phenomenon, known as “heterosis” or hybrid vigor, was groundbreaking.

Henry A. Wallace, who would later become  Vice President of the United States, and Donald F. Jones furthered Shull’s work. Wallace, through his company Pioneer Hi-Bred, was instrumental in commercializing hybrid corn. Jones, working at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, developed the “double cross” method, which was more practical for large-scale production than Shull’s single cross hybrids.

From 1865 to 1935, corn yields had remained steady at approximately 26 bushels per acre. The commercial potential of hybrid corn was finally realized during the Great Depression. Its adoption was promoted as a way to increase yield and, consequently, profitability for struggling farmers.

By 1940, hybrid corn had spread across the U.S. and was responsible for half of all corn planted.

By the 1980s, the yield in terms of bushel of corn per acre in the United States was over 100. Today, the average is about 178 bushels per acre, with some places in some years reaching over 200. 

The benefits of hybrid corn were not confined to the United States. In the decades after its discovery, hybrid corn spread worldwide and was adapted to various climates and conditions. Countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia saw significant increases in corn production due to the adoption of hybrid varieties, which helped mitigate famine risks in many developing regions.

The explosion in corn yields was only possible due to the mechanization of agriculture, which included large tractors and combines, which allowed a small number of people to harvest extremely large fields. 

The increase in corn yields and production was only half the story. The other half involves the host of new uses and products made from corn. 

One of the earliest corn products was Corn starch. 

Corn starch is derived from the endosperm of the corn kernel and was first commercially produced in the United States in the 1840s. It is used extensively in the food industry as a thickening agent, as well as in pharmaceuticals and paper manufacturing.

Corn syrup, made by breaking down cornstarch into glucose through a chemical process, was developed in the late 19th century. In the 1960s, corn syrup was used to create High-Fructose Corn Syrup, a subject I covered in a previous episode. 

This became extremely popular as a sweetener starting in the 1970s due to its low cost. 

Corn oil is extracted from the germs of corn kernels and emerged as a byproduct of the corn refining process. Initially developed to utilize excess corn from the starch and corn syrup industries, corn oil quickly found its niche due to its mild flavor and high smoke point, making it ideal for cooking and frying. The production process involves pressing the corn germ to extract the oil, followed by refining, bleaching, and deodorizing to produce a clear, neutral-flavored oil. 

Another product made from corn is ethanol. Ethanol made from corn has been used as fuel since the early 20th century, but its use increased significantly in the 1970s during the oil crises. Today, corn ethanol is blended with gasoline and can be found in many areas with large-scale corn production. 

Of course, ethanol for fuel is only a short step away from alcohol for consumption. Corn is the basis for many spirits, including whiskey and some vodka. 

One of the newer uses for corn are bioplastics. Materials such as polylactic acid are a relatively recent development, gaining prominence over the last few decades. These plastics are biodegradable and can be used as an alternative to petroleum-based plastics in products like packaging materials and disposable cutlery.

Of course, I can’t forget the use of corn, which most people are familiar with, as a food. Popular snacks like popcorn, tortilla chips, corn chips, and various puffed or extruded snacks owe their existence to corn. These snacks capitalize on corn’s ability to expand and provide texture when heated or processed.

The triangle-shaped tortilla chip, which is so popular today, was actually first mass-produced in the 1940s. It was developed by a woman named Rebecca Webb Carranza who created fried tortilla chips as a way to make use of misshapen tortillas at her tortilla factory in Los Angeles. 

Tortilla chips are different from corn chips, like Fritos, made from fried cornmeal. Also, tortilla chips are usually made out of corn, which went through the nixtamalization process, whereas corn chips normally do not. 

Most of what I’ve discussed with corn deals with products that come from the corn kernel. However, there is a whole lot to a corn plan beyond the actual corn kernels. Corn cobs, stalks, and leaves are an enormous amount of byproducts that can’t be readily consumed. 

Thankfully, there are a host of uses for all the leftovers from corn production. 

One of the biggest uses is as animal fodder.  It can be fed directly to animals or processed into silage, which involves fermenting the plant material under anaerobic conditions to preserve its nutritional value for livestock consumption during times when fresh pasture is not available.

It can also be used for compost and mulch, as well as a host of novel uses such as packaging materials, building materials, paper, and abrasives. 

By weight, the amount of corn produced in the world is greater than any other agricultural product, and it is the sixth most important crop by value.

Approximately 1.2 billion metric tonnes of corn is produced globally each year, with the largest corn-producing countries being the United States, China, and Brazil. 

Given all of the things that can be done with corn, corn production will only increase over the rest of the 21st century. The fact that such an important global commodity all came from a type of grass in Mexico is truly a-maize-ing!

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Nolan7754464 on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Everything everywhere is almost perfect

I found this show because of an advertisement on the Michael Shermer podcast and started listening from the beginning. After over 200 episodes, I have only found one problem: He’s a Packers fan. This podcast is so good, though, that even as a Bears fan, I am willing to forgive him and will continue to listen and learn something new every day.

Thanks, Nolan! Let me just check the Wikipedia entry for the Packers-Bears rivalry. It says here that the longest win streak in between the teams is ten games and it occurred from 2019 to….the present. Oh. Looks like the Bears haven’t beaten the Packers this….decade. 

Best of luck with your new quarterback….which I guess is something that you can say pretty much every year.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.