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Corn – A Unique And Versatile Crop

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The Origin of Corn

Corn is not a self-sustaining crop, and could not have survived this long without humans to keep it alive. Corn originated in Mexico thousands of years ago, and is believed to have come from a plant called teosinte. Teosinte is similar to corn, however the kernels are small and spread out. As corn spread across North and South America, different varieties began to exist. However, corn’s importance stayed the same, and the Indians throughout North and South America relied heavily on this crop.

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Corn has changed significantly since the Indians were using it. Teosinte originally contained a simple spike with five to seven seeds. However, over time corn has evolved to a cob containing hundreds of kernels. There are many different speculations as to how corn became what we know it as today. One idea is that it was progressive over a long period of time, however another idea is that human intervention caused a rapid shift in hybridization. The idea of a rapid shift is becoming increasingly popular as more scientific evidence is found suggesting that hybridization occurred within a few generations.

The Spread of Corn

As Indians migrated to North and South America, they brought corn with them. In the new environments, the corn began to change. Over the course of thousands of years, the varieties of corn were passed across North and South America, often replacing or mixing with whichever variety of corn was growing there before. Despite the slight changes in it, corn was still very important to survival for the Indians. Corn continued its spread as the Europeans came to the new world. They had never seen corn before, and when they saw its versatility, they immediately brought it back to Europe with them.

Corn was important to the Indians because it had many different applications. It could be ground into cornmeal, which could be used to make cornbread or corn pudding, or it could be dried and preserved for winter months. Dried corn could also be used to make hominy, which is still made today. Corn was also used as a food source for farm animals, such as cattle, goats, and pigs. Not only were the kernels of corn important, but the husk had many uses as well. The husk could be woven into a basket, shoes, sleeping mat, mask, or dolls. Families who grew corn did not let any part of it go to waste. It was also important because it often provided food during times of the year when other foods were scarce. Because there were many different varieties of corn while it spread, different types of corn had different purposes. For example, larger varieties of corn would have been used to provide a better source carbohydrates than smaller varieties.

Modern Modifications

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been increasingly popular in produce and meats. Although corn was modified by humans thousands of years ago during the initial spread, scientists are now taking it one step further by increasing hormones in crops that promote good nutrients and increase the size of the product. Genetically-engineered crops are made to produce higher crop yields with less impact on the environment, while also posing no health risks to the consumer. Organic produce is available that doesn’t contain GMOs, however it can sometimes be more expensive and isn’t as readily available to some parts of the world. GMOs in corn have shown to increase the crop yield, but they also increase the price of production for the farmer. The biotech corn is engineered to contain a pesticide to prevent European cornborers that are known for killing corn crops. However, studies have shown that resistance to the pesticide in biotech corn is increasing faster than scientists anticipated. The nutritional value for non-GMO corn is no different than GMO corn, but GMO corn costs significantly more to produce. There are many studies that question if GMO corn needs to continue to be produced or if it is safe for long term consumption. None of these studies have found conclusive evidence of which corn needs to continue to be produced, and some have found that there are side effects to GMO corn. However, it is evident that more studies need to be conducted not just on the long-term effects of GMO corn, but on the long-term effects of GMO produce overall.

Societal Impacts

Corn contains many different macronutrients essential to human health. It contains starch, non-starch polysaccharides, protein, and lipids. One reason the Indians relied so heavily on corn is because it was a significant source of both protein and starch, so it provided nourishing meals for them. Although corn in its natural form is healthy, it can also be converted into less healthy forms. For example, high fructose is a man-made sweetener. It can be found in all different types of foods, such as soda, candy, yogurt, and granola bars. High fructose corn syrup is mostly found in processed foods, and it sweeter and cheaper than regular sugar. Although the body metabolically breaks down high fructose corn syrup and sugar the same way, the levels of sugar the body receives from high fructose corn syrup can become toxic. Not all versions of corn are unhealthy or unsafe. For example, corn silk is used in Iraq to produce medicine to treat urinary tract infections. Corn silk is also believed to have other medicinal properties that treat bladder infections and kidney stones.

Not only does corn have health benefits, but it also can have significant environmental impacts. For example, corn can be used to produce biofuel, an alternative to the ethanol gasoline that’s hurting our environment. The biofuel is made of corn stover, which is waste from corn production. A 2017 study conducted about the impacts of corn biofuel and bio-refineries states that corn stover biofuel production could prove beneficial over the next few years. However, it also states that it might be less effective in different areas during different seasons, when corn production is not as abundant. This study does not talk about the impacts it has on the environment, but instead reports on how successful biofuel production would be. It is heavily debated that biofuels made from corn release more greenhouse gas in early years than gasoline, despite being better in the long run.

Corn is used for a lot more products than just food or biofuel. Surprisingly, it can be found in products such as cosmetics, hand soap, toothpaste, spark plugs, and drywall. Corn can be turned into an oil, adhesive, starch, or sugar, which can then be used for numerous products. This versatility of corn is unique, which is why humans have continued to keep this crop alive for thousands of years.

10 December 2020

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