03 September 2009

A corny story, Pt. II

So how did corn get to be the king crop in America anyway? What about it makes it so valuable?

First of all, corn is easily manipulated. It's male and female parts are far enough away from each other that humans (ehh... scientists) can create entire new breeds by crossing plants to select for certain traits and characteristics that have been deemed desirable. Some of these traits include the ability to be grown much closer together and a mechanism to produce its own pesticide. Both of these traits (produced by scientists and corporations) have dramactically increased crops yields (which also means a lower price).

Corn is a C4 plant (whereas most plants are C3). Without getting into a whole mess of details, C4 plants are much less picky when it comes to the carbon isotopes it utilizes in photosynthesis. More carbon equals more carbohydrates. Those kernels on the corn pack a whole lot of starch (and also a whole lot of calories) compared to other crops.

Basically, we can grow a whole lot of corn and a whole lot of calories.

What most people don't realize is that this isn't the corn you get at your farmer's market to take home and eat. No. This isn't food. This stuff is a product. Michael Pollan even calls it a commodity.

This stuff gets ground up into corn oil (for margarine), high fructose corn syrup (for soda), xanthan gum (for processed foods), citric acid (for keeping things "fresh"), ethanol (for beer and cars), and also the stuff we feed our livestock. That's probably the most disturbing part. We have so much corn, we've started looking for new and inventive ways to use it.

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