Maize (Zea mays), also known as corn in North America or mealie in South Africa, is the most planted food in the world. It covers more land than even humans, than any plant or animal. And yet if humans died out, it would die out a few years later – it does not grow wild.
Thanks to Meso-Americans, it grows well in the tropics. Thanks to the Mound Builders, it grows well in the temperate zone too, allowing it to spread to Europe and northern China.
Colours: yellow, red, blue, orange, black, pink, purple, creamy white, multicoloured.
- -6000: gathered in Mexico (looks like baby corn).
- -5000: planted in Mexico.
- -2000: spreads to South America.
- -1500: yields are high enough to support the rise of Meso-American civilization.
- +800: spreads to eastern North America. Rise of the Mound Builders – Cahokia, the Natchez, etc.
- 1500s: spreads to Europe, Africa and Asia. Viewed with suspicion, fed to animals. Catches on in West Africa, indirectly supporting the transatlantic slave trade.
- 1700s: catches on in Europe and northern China, first among the poor out of necessity.
- 1800s: leads to pellagra in Europe (maize lacks niacin) and drunkenness in the US (maize makes whisky cheaper).
- 1900s: leads to obesity in the US (cheap corn policy).
The Three Sisters: Meso-Americans balanced maize with beans and squash, in both the eating and the planting (milpas). Done that way they needed little meat and did not wear out the soil.
Yields through the ages (tons per hectare):
- -1500: 0.2 (Olmec)
- +1700: 0.5 (colonial Mexico)
- 1900: 1 (US)
- 1950: 4 (US)
- 2000: 11 (US)
The higher yields of the 1900s were made possible by:
- hybrid maize (1930s) that could be planted closer together because it had thicker stalks and stronger roots.
- The Haber-Bosch process (1911) which made heavy use of fertilizers possible.
Food chain: Most of that high-yield maize tastes like sawdust! You would never know because it is fed to cows, chickens and pigs (giving us meat, milk and eggs) or made into grits, cornflakes, whisky, ethanol, plastic, oils, starches, sweeteners, thickeners, adhesives, viscosity-control agents, flour, processed food and many of those hard-to-pronounce ingredients you see on a food label.
At McDonald’s: % of carbon atoms that come from maize, directly or indirectly:
- 100% Coca-Cola
- 78% milk shake
- 65% salad dressing
- 56% chicken nuggets
- 23% French fries
Most of the carbon atoms people are made of in the US also comes from maize.
US cheap corn policy: In the 1970s the US government started pouring billions into maize, driving down its price. That led to:
- The rise of agribusiness – and the slow death of the family farm.
- Factory farms: cows, chickens and pigs are moved indoors to be fattened on cheap maize. Fences begin to disappear. Maize makes cows so sick they have be fed antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to be ready for market.
- High fructose corn syrup, as sweet as sugar, but much cheaper.
- Rising obesity: Food is cheaper and sweeter, making people fatter. Super size me!
Maize to meat: It takes about 14 pounds of maize to produce one pound of beef. For chicken it is 2 to 1.
– Abagond, 2016.
Sources: Mainly “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006) by Michael Pollan; “The Structures of Everyday Life” (1985) by Fernand Braudel; “The Human Web” (2003) by J.R. McNeill and William M. McNeill; “1491” (2011) by Charles C. Mann; “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” (2014) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
- Welcome to Native American Heritage Month 2016
- Mound Builders
- Columbian Exchange
- related films:
- high fructose corn syrup
- Fritz Haber
- transatlantic slave trade