Earth Watch: Like it or not, corn is here to stay

By Dennis Keeney
Friday, August 14, 2009 11:06 PM CDT, Ames Tribune > News

Drive (or bike) out of Ames in any direction during the summer, and you see field corn (not
sweet corn), interspersed with soybeans. This year has been good for corn; it stands tall and
green and already is heading toward the final round in its short life, filling out ears, tassels
waving in the wind. Corn- environmentalists love to hate it, capitalists love to love it, farmers
love to worry about it, but most don’t think much about it. But where would we be without corn?
What would the world look like if corn yielded only 40 bushels per acre, the static yields before
hybrid seed corn was introduced?

Corn (also called maize) was derived by the early Mayans from teosinte, a grass that has its seed
at the top of the stem. Scientists put the origin of corn around 8700 BC in a valley close to
Mexico City. The Mayans were keen observers of nature and kept the important plant changes as
corn was developed. Corn’s history since 1500 parallels the development of modern civilization.
While it already was the key staple for Mesoamerica, it got a worldwide boost when Columbus
introduced corn to the rest of the world.

Now corn is grown worldwide and is our most widely consumed grain if one counts its use as
animal feed. If all products from beef to ethanol are considered, the average U.S. citizen
consumes over five pounds of corn per person per day, most as animal meats. According to
information from Allen Trenkle, Animal Science Department at ISU, feedlot cattle require 7.5
pounds of corn for a pound of beef, a pound of pork requires 3.1 pounds of corn, and a pound of
chicken or turkeys requires 2.4 pounds of corn.

Very little corn is consumed directly. About 90 pounds of corn per person per year is consumed
indirectly as high fructose corn syrup in sweetened drinks. Corn is in most of our prepared foods,
and hundreds of industrial and medical products are made wholly or partially of corn. It is an
incredibly useful crop.

Corn has huge advantages over other cereal crops. It grows rapidly during a short season, has
high yields and is readily altered through crop breeding because of its open pollination nature.
Henry A. Wallace, Raymond Baker, Jay Newlin and others founded Pioneer Hi-Bred in the
1930’s. They were the first to produce seed corn. This paved the way for the incredible cornyields and performance of today. Average corn yields have trended upward for decades, increasing about two bushels per acre per year since 1960. We expect more than 180 bushels per acre this year if the excellent weather holds.

Corn is inextricably linked to the history of the Americas and is still treated reverently in Latin
America. Corn was the staple food for poor people and was one reason sharecroppers could
survive in the south during reconstruction.

But corn does not have a balanced suite of amino acids, and when it is the dominant food
consumed without supplementation, a deadly disease known as pellagra may develop.

Corn is a major part of U.S. farm programs. State and Federal organizations promote corn
production through insurance programs and subsidies, production research and ways to use corn,
including exports, biofuels and marketing. Federal and state laboratories, including Iowa State,
research ways to increase corn production.

Corn is critical to the agricultural economies of several Midwest states including Iowa.
Chemical and seed companies such as Monsanto, Dow and DuPont (that now owns Pioneer), and
processors and exporters such as Cargill and ADM have flourished. John Deere is now the
dominant agricultural machinery manufacturer. Corn requires considerable energy for production
and it is the main user of commercial nitrogen fertilizers.

Corn has made possible an industrialized agriculture and a biofuels industry in the Corn Belt.
Many of the ills of rural Iowa can be blamed on our intensive corn-soybean landscape. This
includes loss of rural population, the decline in diverse landscapes and more soil erosion, water
pollution by nitrate, phosphorus and pesticides. It is often blamed for the increase in nitrate in the
Gulf of Mexico causing hypoxia. Importantly, because of intensive corn and soybean production,
we have lost the options to create a diverse Leopold-envisioned landscape.

It is wrong to blame corn when the industrialized corn-soybean cropping system is at fault.
Like it or not, corn is here to stay. It’s what’s for dinner. Enjoy.

Dennis Keeney was the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is an
emeritus professor at Iowa State University. He resides in Ames and can be reached at

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