Basic to Our Food Chain Is Plain Old Field Corn
Zamula, Evelyn, FDA Consumer
A legend about corn is that it makes a faint, crackling noise as it grows. To test this belief, firmly held by some old-time corn farmers, a group of plant scientists several years ago went deep into a midwestern cornfield on a hot, quiet night to catch the sounds. Equipped with recording instruments and wind gauges, the scientists listened. They came out of the cornfield convinced that they did indeed hear the sound of corn reaching up toward the sky.
If they were right, the sound must have swelled ino a roar in 1982, when the United States produced a record 8.4 billion bushels of corn. Not sweet or roasting corn, but field corn, our most important agricultural product. In that year, corn production completely overshadowed the next two most important crops, wheat and soybeans, which had a combined total of 5 billion bushels. The corn crop was worth $22.4 billion, just about equal to the value of wheat and soybeans combined.
Corn's popularity is well-deserved. As Dr. Paul Mangelsdorf says in his book Corn, Its Origin, Evolution and Improvement: "It is the most efficient plant that we have vor capturing the energy of the sun and converting it into food. True, we consume directly only small amounts of corn: roasting ears, breaksfast cereals, Indian pudding, and, for a somewhat different purpose, a beverage invented by a Kentucky minister of the Gospel, Bourbon whiskey. But transformed, as three-fourths of it is, into meat, milk, eggs, and other animal products, it is our basic food plant, as it was of the people who preceded us into this hemisphere."
The figures back him up. Of the 8.4 billion bushels produced in 1982, 4.6 billion bushels were fed to animals, in one form or another. (About four bushels out of 10 never leave the farm.) The United States exported 1.87 billion bushels in 1982, much of which also wad destined for animal feed.
Besides getting into the human food chain as animal feed, corn is manufactured by corn processors into other food products, including prepared cereals, cornmeals and flours, starches, corn sweeteners and oils. The corn-processing industry uses 6 to 7 percent of the total corn crop grown in the United States, or one out of every six bushels sold. Corn provides raw material for many industrial uses, too, ranging from the alcohol used in gasohol to insecticides.
Wrapped tightly in its husk, corn long ago lost the capability of releasing its kernels from the ear or spike spontaneously, and it no longer occurs as a wild plant. It must be cultivated by man, who removes the kernels from the cob to plant them. He develops new corn varieties for greater resistance to disease, greater yields, color uniformity and other specific desirable qualities.
Of the trio of grasses that feed the world--wheat, corn and rice--only corn is native to America. It was the basic food of three great pre-Columbian civilizations--the Incas of Peru, the Aztecs of Mexico, and the Mayas in Yucatan and Guatemala. The Indians of North and South America have cultivated corn about five or six thousand years. Two of Columbus' crew discovered "maiz" in Cuba in 1942. Later explorers found it growing as far south as Chile and as far north as what is now the U.S.-Canadian border, as low as sea level in Florida and as high as 10,000 feet above sea level in the Andes.
Corn played an important role in the early days of our nation. Although they had brought wheat and rye seeds from England, the Pilgrims arrived too late in the year 1620 to plant crops. Corn saved them from starvation. They had found a large supply cached by an Indian tribe that had wandered off elsewhere, and it tided them over their first winter.
When spring came, the Pilgrims had difficulty growing corn in fields bristling with tree stumps. Friendly Indians showed them how to plant the kernels without having to fell trees or plow, and fertilize them with the fish that were then so plentiful along the Atlantic coast. …