Fall in Iowa is not just about crisp cool days and the beautiful autumn leaves, but also corn. Autumn is harvest time, and farmers have been running their combines day and night to bring in the crop. But this cereal grain is not just crucial to Iowa, it has become one of the most important and versatile crops in the world.
The history of corn, also known as maize, dates back thousands of years. It was first domesticated about 9,000 years ago by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. Corn was an essential food crop but also central in their cultural and religious practices. It was viewed as sacred, a symbol of life and fertility, a gift from the gods.
Through trade, corn gradually spread both south and north. Archeologists have found evidence of corn in what is now Peru dating back to about 6,700 years and it first appeared in what is now the Southwestern United States about 4,000 years ago. With the arrival of the European traders and colonists, corn was brought back to Europe and quickly adopted as a staple crop due to its high yield and adaptability to various climates.
Today, corn is a critical food source for billions of people around the world. It is consumed not only in its natural form but also processed into numerous products such as cornmeal, corn oil, corn syrup, and cornstarch. It is likewise a key ingredient in livestock feed, further influencing the global food supply. The impact of corn even goes beyond food. Corn serves as a raw material for a wide range of other products, such as biofuels, plastics, textiles, and industrial chemicals.
Corn is not without controversy, however. First, corn is one of the most widely genetically modified crops in the world. The introduction of GMO corn has led to concerns about its impact on the environment and human health, in addition to the questionable business practices of seed and agrochemical companies. Further, its use as a clean biofuel has not met expectations. A 2022 study found that not only does the use of corn for biofuels drive up food prices, ethanol is likely at least 24% more carbon-intensive than gasoline due to changes in land use to grow corn and processing and production emissions. Ethanol production has also negatively affected water quality and conservation efforts. The seemingly ubiquitous presence of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in processed foods and beverages has also raised concern. Numerous studies have linked HFCS consumption to several health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver disease, obesity, hypertension, and cancer.
Nonetheless, one cannot deny corn has shaped the course of history and continues to play an essential role in our lives. It is truly a-maize-ing! To learn more about corn, its history, and uses check out our book display on the fourth floor by the elevator.