From  the  writings  of  Michael  Pollan


Descendants of the Maya living in Mexico still sometimes refer to themselves as "the corn people." The phrase is not intended as metaphor. Rather, it's meant to acknowledge their abiding dependence on this miraculous grass, the staple of their diet for almost nine thousand years. Forty percent of the calories a Mexican eats in a day comes directly from corn, most of it in the form of tortillas. So when a Mexican says "I am maize" or "corn walking," it is simply a statement of fact: The very substance of the Mexican's body is to a considerable extent a manifestation of this plant.

For an American like me, growing up linked to a very different food chain, yet one that is also rooted in a field of corn, not to think of himself as a corn person suggests either a failure of imagination or a triumph of capitalism. Or perhaps a little of both. It does take some imagination to recognize the ear of corn in the Coke bottle or the Big Mac. At the same time, the food industry has done a good job of persuading us that the forty-five thousand different items or SKUs (stock keeping units) in the supermarket—seventeen thousand new ones every year—represent genuine variety rather than so many clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant.

You are what you eat, it's often said, and if this is true, then what we mostly are is corn—or, more precisely, processed corn. This proposition is susceptible to scientific proof: The same scientists who glean the composition of ancient diets from mummified human remains can do the same for you or me, using a snip of hair or fingernail. The science works by identifying stable isotopes of carbon in human tissue that bear the signatures, in effect, of the different types of plants that originally took them from the air and introduced them into the food chain. The intricacies of this process are worth following, since they go some distance toward explaining how corn could have conquered our diet and, in turn, more of the earth's surface than virtually any other domesticated species, our own included.....

"Corn was the means that permitted successive waves of pioneers to settle new territories," writes Arturo Warman, a Mexican historian. "Once the setlers had fully grasped the secrets and potential of corn, they no longer needed the Native Americans." Squanto had handed the white man precisely the tool he needed to dispossess the Indian. Without the "fruitfulness" of Indian corn, the nineteenth-century English writer William Cobbett declared, the colonists would never have been able to build "a powerful nation." Maize, he wrote, was "the greatest blessing God ever gave to man.".....

 Corn's dual identity, as food and commodity, has allowed many of the peasant communities that have embraced it to make the leap from a subsistence to a market economy. The dual identity also made corn indispensable to the slave trade: Corn was both the currency traders used to pay for slaves in Africa and the food upon which slaves subsisted during their passage to America. Corn is the protocapitalist plant.

                                          MARRIED TO MAN

But while both the new and the native Americans were substantially dependent on corn, the plant's dependence on the Americans had become total. Had maize failed to find favor among the conquerors, it would have risked extinction, because without humans to plant it every spring, corn would have disappeared from the earth in a matter of a few years. The novel cob-and-husk arrangement that makes corn such a convenient grain for us renders the plant utterly dependent for its survival on an animal in possession of the opposable thumb needed to remove the husk, separate the seeds, and plant them.....

It is tempting to think of maize as a human artifact, since the plant is so closely linked to us and so strikingly different from any wild species. There are in fact no wild maize plants, and teosinte, the weedy grass from which corn is believed to have descended (the word is Nahuatl for "mother of corn"), has no ear, bears its handful of tiny naked seeds on a terminal rachis like most other grasses, and generally looks nothing whatsoever like maize. The current thinking among botanists is that several thousand years ago teosinte underwent an abrupt series of mutations that turned it into corn; geneticists calculate that changes on as few as four chromosomes could account for the main traits that distinguish teosinte from maize. Taken together, these mutations amounted to (in the words of botanist Hugh litis) a "catastrophic sexual transmutation": the transfer of the plant's female organs from the top of the grass to a monstrous sheathed ear in the middle of the stalk. The male organs stayed put, remaining in the tassel.

It is, for a grass, a bizarre arrangement with crucial implications: The ear's central location halfway down the stalk allows it to capture far more nutrients than it would up top, so suddenly producing hundreds of gigantic seeds becomes metabolically feasible. Yet because those seeds are now trapped in a tough husk, the plant has lost its ability to reproduce itself—hence the catastrophe in teosinte's sex change. A mutation this freakish and maladaptive would have swifly brought the plant to an evolutionary dead end had one of these freaks not happened to catch the eye of a human somewhere in Central America who, looking for something to eat, peeled open the husk to free the seeds. What would have been an unheralded botanical catastrophe in a world without humans became an incalculable evolutionary boon. If you look hard enough, you can still find teosinte growing in certain Central American highlands; you can find maize, its mutant offspring, anywhere you find people.

(Very interesting:  did  God  bring  about  maize [corn on the cob]  just  for  mankind  to  find  for  food  and  hence  to  renew  it's  life  by  the  hand  of  man.  Could  very  well  be  -  Keith Hunt)

                                              CORN SEX

Maize is self-fertilized and wind-pollinated, botanical terms that don't begin to describe the beauty and wonder of corn sex. The tassel at the top of the plant houses the male organs, hundreds of pendant anthers that over the course of a few summer days release a super abundance of powdery yellow pollen: 14 million to 18 million grains per plant, 20,000 for every potential kernel. ("Better safe than sorry" or "more is more" being nature's general rule for male genes.) A meter or so below await the female organs, hundreds of minuscule flowers arranged in tidy rows along a tiny, sheathed cob that juts upward from the stalk at the crotch of a leaf midway between tassel and earth. That the male anthers resemble flowers and the female cob a phallus is not the only oddity in the sex life of corn.

Each of the four hundred to eight hundred flowers on a cob has the potential to develop into a kernel—but only if a grain of pollen can find its way to its ovary, a task complicated by the distance the pollen has to travel and the intervening husk in which the cob is tightly wrapped. To surmount this last problem, each flower sends out through the tip of the husk a single, sticky strand of silk (technically its "style") to snag its own grain of pollen. The silks emerge from the husk on the very day the tassel is set to shower its yellow dust.

What happens next is very strange. After a grain of pollen has fallen through the air and alighted on the moistened tip of silk, its nucleus divides in two, creating a pair of twins, each with the same set of genes but a completely different role to perform in the creation of the kernel. The first twin's job is to tunnel a microscopic tube down through the center of the silk thread. That accomplished, its clone slides down through the tunnel, past the husk, and into the waiting flower, a journey of between six and eight inches that takes several hours to complete. Upon arrival in the flower the second twin fuses with the egg to form the embryo—the germ of the future kernel. Then the first twin follows, entering the now fertilized flower, where it sets about forming the endosperm—the big, starchy part of the kernel. Every kernel of corn is the product of this intricate menage a trois; the tiny, stunted kernels you often see at the narrow end of a cob are flowers whose silk no pollen grain ever penetrated. Within a day of conception, the now superfluous silk dries up, eventually turning reddish brown; fifty or so days later, the kernels are mature.*......

 Long before scientists understood hybridization, Native Americans had discovered that by taking the pollen from the tassel of one corn plant and dusting it on the silks of another, they could create new plants that combined the traits of both parents. American Indians were the world's first plant breeders, developing literally thousands of distinct cultivars for every conceivable environment and use......

*My account of the sex life of corn is drawn from Betty Fussell's The Story of Corn (1992) and Frederick Sargent's Corn Plants (1901).

                                            THE  FARM

.....The story of the Naylor farm since 1919, when George's grandfather bought it, closely tracks the twentieth-century story of American agriculture, its achievements as well as its disasters. It begins with a farmer supporting a family on a dozen different species of plants and animals. There would have been a fair amount of corn then too, but also fruits and other vegetables, as well as oats, hay, and alfalfa to feed the pigs, cattle, chickens, and horses—horses being the tractors of that time. One of every four Americans lived on a farm when Naylor's grandfather arrived here in Churdan; his land and labor supplied enough food to feed his family and twelve other Americans besides. Less than a century after, fewer than 2 million Americans still farm—and they grow enough to feed the rest of us. What that means is that Naylor's grandson, raising nothing but corn and soybeans on a fairly typical Iowa farm, is so astoundingly productive that he is, in effect, feeding some 129 Americans. Measured in terms of output per worker, American farmers like Naylor are the most productive humans who have ever lived.

Yet George Naylor is all but going broke—and he's doing better than many of his neighbors. (Partly because he's still driving that 1975 tractor.) For though this farm might feed 129, it can no longer support the four who live on it: The Naylor farm survives by the grace of Peggy Naylor's paycheck (she works for a social services agency in Jefferson) and an annual subsidy payment from Washington, D.C. Nor can the Naylor farm literally feed the Naylor family, as it did in grandfather Naylor's day. George's crops are basically inedible—they're commodities that must be processed or fed to livestock before they can feed people. Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink: Like most of Iowa, which now imports 80 percent of its food, George's farm (apart from his garden, his laying hens, and his fruit trees) is basically a food desert.

The 129 people who depend on George Naylor for their sustenance are all strangers, living at the far end of a food chain so long, intricate, and obscure that neither producer nor consumer has any reason to know the first thing about the other. Ask one of those eaters where their steak or soda comes from and she'll tell you "the supermarket." Ask George Naylor whom he's growing all that corn for and he'll tell you "the military-industrial complex." Both are partly right.

I came to George Naylor's farm as an unelected representative of the Group of 129, curious to learn whom, and what, I'd find at the far end of the food chain that keeps me alive.There's no way of knowing whether George Naylor is literally growing the corn that feeds the steer that becomes my steak, or that sweetened my son's soft drink, or that supplied the dozen or so corn-derived ingredients from which his chicken nugget is constructed. But given the complexly ramifying fate of a bushel of commodity corn, the coundess forking paths followed by its ninety thousand kernels as they're dispersed across the nation's sprawling food system, the odds are good that at least one of the kernels grown on the Naylor farm has, like the proverbial atom from Caesar's dying breath, made its way to me. And if not me, then certainly you. This Iowa cornfield (and all the others just like it) is the place most of our food comes from......

                                VANISHING SPECIES

A case can be made that the corn plant's population explosion in places like Iowa is responsible for pushing out not only other plants but the animals and then finally the people, too. When Naylor's grandfather arrived in America the population of Greene County was near its peak: 16,467 people. In the most recent census it had fallen to 10,366.There are many reasons for the depopulation of the American Farm Belt, but the triumph of corn deserves a large share of the blame—or the credit, depending on your point of view.

When George Naylor's grandfather was farming, the typical Iowa farm was home to whole families of different plant and animal species, corn being only the fourth most common. Horses were the first, because every farm needed working animals (there were only 225 tractors in all of America in 1920), followed by cattle, chickens, and then corn. After corn came hogs, apples, hay, oats, potatoes, and cherries; many Iowa farms also grew wheat, plums, grapes, and pears. This diversity allowed the farm not only to substantially feed itself—and by that I don't mean feed only the farmers, but also the soil and the livestock— but to withstand a collapse in the market for any one of those crops. It also produced a completely different landscape than the Iowa of today.

"You had fences everywhere," George recalled, "and of course pastures. Everyone had livestock, so large parts of the farm would be green most of the year. The ground never used to be this bare this long." For much of the year, from the October harvest to the emergence of the corn in mid-May, Greene County is black now, a great tarmac only slightly more hospitable to wildlife than asphalt. Even in May the only green you see are the moats of lawn surrounding the houses, the narrow strips of grass dividing one farm from another, and the roadside ditches. The fences were pulled up when the animals left, beginning in the fifties and sixties, or when they moved indoors, as Iowa's hogs have more recently done; hogs now spend their lives in aluminum sheds perched atop manure pits. Greene County in the spring has become a monotonous landscape, vast plowed fields relieved only by a dwindling number of farmsteads, increasingly lonesome islands of white wood and green grass marooned in a sea of black. Without the fences and hedgerows to slow it down, Naylor says, the winds blow more fiercely in Iowa today than they once did.

Corn isn't solely responsible for remaking this landscape: It was the tractor, after all, that put the horses out of work, and with the horses went the fields of oats and some of the pasture. But corn was the crop that put cash in the farmer's pocket, so as corn yields began to soar at midcentury, the temptation was to give the miracle crop more and more land. Of course, every other farmer in America was thinking the same way (having been encouraged to do so by government policies), with the inevitable result that the price of corn declined. One might think falling corn prices would lead farmers to plant less of it, but the economics and psychology of agriculture are such that exacdy the opposite happened.

Beginning in the fifties and sixties, the flood tide of cheap corn made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots instead of on grass, and to raise chickens in giant factories rather than in farmyards. Iowa livestock farmers couldn't compete with the factory-farmed animals their own cheap corn had helped spawn, so the chickens and cattle disappeared from the farm, and with them the pastures and hay fields and fences. In their place the farmers planted more of the one crop they could grow more of than anything else: corn. And whenever the price of corn slipped they planted a little more of it, to cover expenses and stay even. By the 1980s the diversified family farm was history in Iowa, and corn was king......