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How America became dependent on corn is a weird story of genetics and politics

1 7 20

Autumn, now officially upon us, is a season widely associated with corn in the United States. Farmers are preparing to harvest their crops, hoping for profitable yields. The savory cylindrical vegetable will be a culinary staple for holidays and football-watching parties, displayed as an ornament in cornucopias and other decorations; meanwhile, millions of Americans will traverse a corn maze, an entertaining staple of the fall season.

Yet corn is not just a delicious and nutritious food. It is the fuel that drives one of the most lucrative and economically indispensable industries in America; a marvel that attests to humanity's mastery of genetics; and, for those who perform the grueling labor of cultivating it, a lifestyle. As President Dwight Eisenhower famously put it, "Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field."

It was even more difficult — unimaginably so — to actually create modern corn. And the story of how it came to be — and how it came to be so dominant in American diets and imagination — is a weird, unlikely earful.

Genetic children of the corn

While the 1,500 miles of America's corn belt might mislead you into thinking corn is a wild crop, it was actually created roughly 9,000 years ago through selective breeding of a Mexican grass called teosinte. Geneticists have determined that farmers who likely lived in what is now Mexico's tropical Central Balsas River Valley must have seen food potential in the thin, extremely hard teosinte in their area, which would have only had a handful of kernels on their tiny cobs. Despite living in small societies and traveling with the seasons, the indigenous farmers managed over thousands of years to breed a variant that did not pack its kernels in hard cases, had cobs that stayed intact when you tried to pick off kernels and could be easily managed as a large-scale crop. This was the corn discovered, and........

© Salon

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