The New Corn People

There is a plant so unusual, so wondrous, so fundamental to modern human society, and yet so utterly misunderstood by that same society. A plant whose very origins and continuation play tribute to man as god. Though modern man has shown himself to be as indifferent, fickle and foolish with his subject as the Greek pantheon was with theirs. These “gods,” however, would do well to look to their predecessors—those who gave birth to that which now nourishes them. After all, greed, arrogance, and disrespect have caused the demise of many an immortal.

The plant I speak is maize. Corn. For most of us non–native Americans corn is just a starchy summer vegetable we boil, grill, pop, and butter. End of story. For those just a tad tuned in to the workings of the world, it is also an artificial sweetener, a fuel, and a source of synthetic something–or–other (we’re not really sure what). 

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollen makes the case that corn has successfully exploited the human race into making it the most abundant and necessary plants in the world. It is grown in 164 different countries; the largest consumer of which is not Mexico. Not by a long–shot. It’s the United States. The 220 pounds of beef that the average American consumes each year? 96% of that is corn fed. All those ingredients you can’t pronounce on the boxes of processed foods? Those are corn–based. From the sticky substance in glue to the chemical sheen in car paint, to the preservatives and sweetener in your breakfast cereal…corn, corn, corn. In fact, although the native Mexicans consider themselves “the corn people,” U.S. Americans now consume nearly eight times more corn in its myriad forms than Mexicans do.

The reason for the overproduction of corn and its byproducts, Pollen explains, is found in US agricultural policy and the military industrial complex.

After World War II, the government encouraged the conversion of the munitions industry to fertilizer — ammonium nitrate being the main ingredient of both bombs and chemical fertilizer — and the conversion of nerve-gas research to pesticides. The government also began subsidizing commodity crops, paying farmers by the bushel for all the corn, soybeans, wheat and rice they could produce. One secretary of agriculture after another implored them to plant “fence row to fence row” and to “get big or get out.”

The chief result, especially after the Earl Butz years, was a flood of cheap grain that could be sold for substantially less than it cost farmers to grow because a government check helped make up the difference. As this artificially cheap grain worked its way up the food chain, it drove down the price of all the calories derived from that grain: the high-fructose corn syrup in the Coke, the soy oil in which the potatoes were fried, the meat and cheese in the burger.
— https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12policy-t.html

And you thought corn was little more than a summertime side dish. Oh no, my friend. The U.S. economy as we know it and your everyday existence are both completely, utterly dependent upon this humble plant.

The miracle of maize began some 10,000 years ago in the Balsas River Valley when an indigenous person discovered a mutant variety of teocintle, removed the kernels and planted them with open curiosity in her field. At least that is the common theory. You see, corn cannot exist without the aid of the human hand. It’s closest wild relative, teocintle, has no cob to store water and nutrients, and therefore only produces a few kernels. Whenever and however maize first appeared on the scene it rocketed in with a fundamental evolutionary flaw: its cob, while allowing it to produce far more calorie–rich kernels, required a human to remove those kernels and distribute them. Its seed could not simply fall to the floor like that of teosintle. What should have resulted in the rapid extinction of this new species has in fact made it one of the most biologically successful plants on earth.

Most plants create 3–carbon compounds. Corn, on the other hand, makes 4–carbon compounds, allowing it to withstand arid climates and higher temperatures. More carbon equals more calories equals more energy for its animal consumers. Corn also has an enormous amount of genetic variability, allowing it to adapt rapidly and hybridize easily. It is readily dried, making it ideal for storage and transport, which allowed for the proliferation and distribution of humans across the Americas, as well as the settlement in large communities. Without corn there would be no Olmec, no Aztec, no Mayan empire. Without corn the Spanish would never have survived the Americas.

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For the Native American, corn is a gift from the gods and to the gods. As essential as the air we breathe and the water that gives life. A foreigner looking to understand native mindset need look no further than maize.

The natives of Mexico view corn as perhaps the most sacred element of their lives. It is their main sustenance thanks to the high calorie content and the nutrients that are made available through the nixtamalization process, where corn is soaked in a calcium–water mixture before being ground to a dough. Native cultures held that the people were made of corn, and that corn required us to care for it the way it cares for us. This is why you will always see maize on altars, on tombstones, used in sacred art and ceremonies. This is why the native who is able to cultivate their own milpa is content without riches. This is why Sosima Olivera—a Oaxacan master mezcalera and leader in the artisanal mezcal community—believes that mezcal will never go the route of tequila:

the native producers are more concerned with tending to their milpas than with making bundles of money by working year–round for a mezcal brand.

Pollen would have us think that perhaps it’s the plant species that has ingeniously manipulated the human race into helping it colonize the planet. He makes a solid point. Corn is the most abundantly produced crop in the world—1 and ½ times as much as the next in line, wheat. And though we humans think a lot of ourselves for exploiting this species to our advantage, we’re paying a hefty price for it in the form of obesity, diabetes, agricultural vulnerability, nutrient–depleted soils, nutrient–deficient bodies. So who is really exploiting whom? 

On the other hand, if we’re going to anthropomorphize our dinner, I would argue that mankind has done a disservice to the sacred maize, prostituting it beyond recognition. If success of a species is defined strictly by numbers, we can say that humans and maize have benefited immensely from their mutualistic relationship. If, however, it’s defined by the quality of life, the degree of health, wellbeing, and sustainability…well, we have found ourselves deeply enmeshed in a toxic relationship.