The Importance Of Corn For The United States Economy
Corn is essential to the United States economy and is one of our chief exports (Olson and Sander 1988). When the first Europeans settled in the Americas, they were introduced to corn by the Natives (Weatherwax 1950). Corn, also known as maize, was first cultivated by indigenous people in an area that is now Southern Mexico about 10,000 years ago (Weatherwax 1950). Since then it has been a staple crop in the Americas. Although corn is woven into our historical roots, there are many issues surrounding corn production today. Corn is not only bad for the health of the humans and animals that consume it frequently, it also uses substantial amounts of water and fertilizer to grow, and can even harbor fatally toxic fungi.
One of the most popular species of corn is sweet corn, which is also known as Zea mays (Coskun et al. 2006). Although corn is commonly thought of as a vegetable, it is actually a cereal grain (Coskun et al. 2006). Almost half of all corn grown is used to feed livestock (Olson and Sander 1988). Most industrial farms feed their livestock a mixture that is primarily composed of corn; swine are the largest consumers of this mixture, but cattle, chickens, sheep, and goats also consume large quantities of corn throughout their lives as well (Olson and Sander 1988).
This is beneficial for the farmers because not only is corn cost efficient, but corn has a high ratio of calories per gram, which allows the animals to gain weight quickly (Olson and Sander 1988). However, because these animals are consuming large quantities of food that is not primarily included in their diets they suffer major health issues as a result (Graber 2012). This is particularly difficult for cattle because they are ruminators and have complex digestive systems (Graber 2012).
Scientist have linked health issues, such as kidney stones, liver abscesses, and gastrointestinal infection observed in sick livestock to these unhealthy diets of corn (Graber 2012). While corn diets are significantly unhealthy in animals, they are equally unhealthy in humans. Corn is in almost all commercially made food products that we consume (White 2008). Ten percent of all American grown commercial corn is used to make high fructose corn syrup (White 2008). High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn starch that has been processed to turn some of its glucose to fructose (White 2008).
It is cheaper to produce than granulated sugar (Olson and Sander 1988). High fructose corn syrup has made its way into most sweetened products today. It adds an unnatural amount of fructose to our diets that our bodies cannot process, so it stores it as fat (White 2008). Consumption of high fructose corn syrup has been directly linked with hypertension, fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and while high in caloric content, it contains no nutrients (White 2008). Corn is not a balanced food. It contains about 65% of the nutrients we need to survive, yet it makes up a disproportionate amount of our diet as Americans (White 2008). Corn plays a prominent role in the obesity epidemic that is sweeping our nation today.
Thirty percent of American farmland is occupied by corn, and almost all of that area is centrally located in the Corn Belt states (Olson and Sander 1988). The Corn Belt consists of MidAmerican states with a moist continental climate and rich soils that are optimal for growing corn (Olson and Sander 1988). The corn produced in the United States annually makes up over half of the total world’s supply (Olson and Sander 1988). Corn can survive and thrive in a wide variety of climates, and it is grown in more countries than any other commercial crop in the world (Olson and Sander 1988). The demand for corn is extremely high, so supply is increased to keep up with it. Unfortunately, corn is one of the most wasteful crops in modern agriculture (Brinsfield 1990). Corn uses disproportionately large amounts of water in relation to the crops output, which can be directly linked to the plants simultaneously high transpiration, crop water loss, and high evaporation, soil water loss, levels (Brinsfield 1990).
In dryer parts of the country, such as midwestern states, irrigation techniques are used which typically involve accessing groundwater (Brinsfield 1990). In states using these techniques, groundwater tables are reportedly dropping more and more every year (Brinsfield 1990). Corn strips the soil of its essential nutrients more than any other commercially grown crop, and it severely erodes soil (Brinsfield 1990). Corn requires a large amount of fertilizer, which leads to runoff and nitrogen pollution of nearby waterways (Brinsfield 1990). Water pollution is creating dead zones of oxygen-deprived areas of water where hardly any life can survive (Brinsfield 1990). Approximately forty percent of that pollution is nitrogen waste, and most of that comes from our ever-increasing corn production (Brinsfield 1990).
Due to its high caloric concentration, corn is an excellent breeding ground for microorganisms (Brown et al. 1999). Aspergillus flavus is a fungus that grows primarily on corn (Brown et al. 1999). Once the fungus infects the corn it produces an aflatoxin, which is highly carcinogenic to humans (Brown et al. 1999). More and more cases of Aspergillus flavus infection are being reported each year (Brown et al. 1999). Some scientists, such as plant pathologist Dr. Zhi-Yuan Chen at Louisiana State University, speculate that the increased number of fungal infection cases have a direct correlation to climate change and increasing global temperatures, which has allowed the optimal growing period for this fungus to be greatly lengthened (Brown et al.1999). Aspergillus flavus releases spores that can be fatal when ingested; symptoms of spore ingestion include jaundice, liver cancer, and internal bleeding (Brown et al.1999).
Corn is a very lucrative crop; however, due to Aspergillus flavus the agricultural industry loses more than $190 Million dollars a year (Brown et al.1999). Thanks to extensive USDA and FDA regulations and evaluations, all infected corn is identified and disposed of before processing in America; nevertheless, in less developed countries the fungus has proved fatal (Murage et al. 2017). In 2007, there were over 100 aflatoxin related fatalities in Kenya alone (Murage et al.2017). Fortunately, strides in genetically modified crops have shown progress in creating strains of corn that are resistant to the fungus (Brown et al. 1999).
Although corn has many adverse effects on our health and environment, it has many benefits as well. When consumed in excess corn can have detrimental effects on human and animal health alike, but when consumed in moderation corn has a wide variety of valuable nutrients. While corn is missing some key minerals and nutrients that we need to survive, it is a good source of fiber, vitamin E, vitamin B, vitamin B6, folate, thiamin, niacin, zinc, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium (White 2008). Insoluble fiber, such as hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin, are the primary fibers that make up a corn’s matrix (White 2008). The concentration of carotenoids in the corn’s cells have been directly linked with a reduced risk for formation of cataracts later in life (White 2008). Using corn scientists have been able to make great strides in the field of genetic engineering; for example, they have been able to genetically modify corn to be resistant to insects and pests so that harmful carcinogenic pesticides do not need to be used on the crops (Liao et al. 2016).
Commercial corn production employs millions of workers all around the world (Olson and Sander 1988). Starches from corn are also used in the production of plastics, fabrics, and adhesives (Olson and Sander 1988). Progress has also been made in turning corn into a bio-fuel that could possibly replace fossil-fuels in the near future. Corn is used as the primary stock in the production of ethanol fuel (Liao et al. 2016). Ethanol is mixed with gasoline to decrease the amount of pollutants emitted when used to fuel motor vehicles and to reduce the overall amount petroleum used (Liao et al. 2016). Corn is also used as an environmental remediator (Liao et al. 2016). Corn has tremendous potential to help deplete greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. By using carbon sequestration practices, corn can remove large amount of carbon dioxide from the soil (Liao et al. 2016). While corn is an integral part of the United States economy, it is currently harmful to our health and environment. Though corn does have its benefits, like everything, it requires moderation.
Our dependence on this crop as a nation is too high. If we make changes, such as making substitutions in our livestock feed to reduce unhealthy amounts of corn, reducing our overall sugar intake as a nation, rotating our crops so that plants with high water and fertilization needs do not damage our environment, and continuing our agriculture monitoring and regulation to ensure our crops are safe to eat, then we should be able to reach an equilibrium that will allow us to consume corn in a responsible and healthy manner while still enjoying this staple crop that helped shape our nation.
- Brinsfield, R.B. and Staver, K.W. 1990. Patterns of Soil Nitrate Availability in Corn Production Systems. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 45:318-323
- Brown, R.L., Chen, Z.Y., Cleveland, T.E., and Russin, J.S. 1999. Advances in the Development of Host Resistance in Corn to Aflatoxin Contamination by Aspergillus flavus. Phytopathology 89:113-117
- Coskun, M.B., Ozarslan, C., and Yalcin, I. 2006. Physical Properties of Sweet Corn (Zea mays). Journal of Food Engineering 74:523-528
- Graber, R. 2012. A Difficult Reality to Digest: The Effects of a Corn-Based Diet on the Digestive System of Cattle. Eukaryon. 8:51-54
- Liao, J.C., Luo, S., Mi, L., and Pontrelli, S. 2016. Fueling the Future: Microbial Engineering for the Production of Sustainable Biofuels. Nature Reviews Microbiology 14:288-304
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