You may know corn as a delicious addition to chili or a barbecue. But corn is far from a humble side dish. Corn was valued so highly in ancient Mesoamerica that it was used as currency for trade and considered to be a gift from the gods.
Corn, also known as maize in many countries, continues to be a vital crop in our modern world. In 2017, corn crops in the United States alone were worth nearly $48 billion. And corn is now grown on all continents except Antarctica.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes corn such an important plant.
1. Corn is unable to live in the wild without human care.
Corn as we know it does not exist in the wild, it is a purely human invention. A wild grass known as teosinte, native to southern Mexico, is believed to be corn’s ancestor.
About 10,000 years ago, ancient farmers began selecting teosinte plants that had bigger and tastier kernels (seeds), then replanting these higher-quality plants year after year. This naturally developed plants with larger cobs that held more and better kernels. The first crops that looked like today’s corn appeared about 7,000 years ago.
Corn became a popular crop throughout North and South America, and then spread to most other parts of the world once Europeans arrived. But to this day, corn can only survive if humans cultivate and care for it.
2. There are over 3,500 different uses for corn.
You’re likely familiar with many of the ways corn is used in food. It’s processed into ingredients like corn syrup, corn starch, corn oil, corn meal and corn flour that are added to a great number of commercial food products, from ice cream to soft drinks to chewing gum.
But corn’s uses don’t stop at food. Corn products are also commonly added to a vast array of items, such as fireworks and matchsticks, carpets and textiles, batteries, cosmetics, vitamins and medications, crayons, glues and laundry detergents. Corn is even being made into biodegradable plastics.
3. Corn and soybeans are the largest crops grown in the US.
Corn and soybeans are tied as the largest and most important crops grown in the United States. The US produces more of both crops than any other country. In 2018, about 90 million acres of land in the US were planted with corn, which is nearly the size of California. Another 90 million acres were planted with soybeans. By comparison, wheat only used about 47 million acres. And all fresh vegetable production in 2017 totaled about 2.5 million acres.
4. Today, 90 percent of corn grown in the United States is genetically modified.
Many varieties of genetically modified (GM) corn are grown throughout the US, including varieties of both sweet corn and field corn. Sweet corn is typically eaten as corn on the cob or frozen corn. Whereas, field corn is allowed to mature on the cob before it is processed into products such as corn starch or high fructose corn syrup. Mature field corn is also what’s fed to animals and used for ethanol production.
Considering that GM corn is so common, you’ve most likely eaten at least some of it in food products without even knowing. This wide-spread use of GM corn is concerning because GM food has been linked to certain health risks as well as many environmental threats.
5. Only 5 to 10 percent of all corn grown in the US is eaten by people.
Currently, about 40 percent of the entire US annual corn crop is used to produce ethanol. Another 40 percent is used as animal feed, and 10 to 20 percent is exported each year. That leaves about 5 to 10 percent of the national crop to be used as food for humans, and a significant amount of that gets processed into high-fructose corn syrup.
Many scientists suggest this is an inappropriate use of a valuable crop. Ethanol was meant to be a renewable, green energy source, but it has been proven to be essentially pointless for mitigating climate change. It’s simply too resource-intensive to produce and inefficient as a fuel to have any benefit.
Also, feeding corn to people would have far more benefit than feeding it to animals. An acre of corn has the potential to provide 15 million calories per year if people ate the corn directly, including in corn meal, corn flour or other products. But, when corn is fed to animals, people only receive about 3 million calories of food per acre of corn per year, mostly as dairy and meat products. This is an unnecessary waste of food that could be greatly reduced with more sustainable and diverse farming practices.
Corn is an amazing plant that has provided people with food and vital materials for thousands of years. But we need to make sure this resource is not wasted and can live on to help feed and support future generations.