Mexican corn, the wealth of Mexico

Corn is so commonplace in Mexico that one rarely realizes how extraordinary it is. The species is amazing and finding an alternative crop seems daunting.

Mexican corn, the wealth of Mexico
Mexica legend has it that corn was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl, who managed to extract grain from inside a mountain. Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Corn is so commonplace in Mexico that we rarely consider how extraordinary this species is. It's amazing in many ways, and it would be a challenge to find another plant with such goodness. Mexican corn comes from a wild form of the same species called teosinte, with a female inflorescence.

It is possible that no other species adapted to so many types of environments and exhibits such great variation as corn. The ways of corn use are also unrivaled among domesticated species. The main foods are three plant species, corn, wheat, and rice, which contribute over 2 billion tons of production annually. An amount similar to the production of the next 20 most important food species.

Corn is the species with one of the highest production in the world. This development is not free and derives directly from the genetic potential and our ability to extract it. Corn is a human work and as such its future is in our hands. It is not common for plants to generate an emotional bond as corn does.

The changes that corn has undergone under human influence are unique in the botanical realm. All domesticated species have changed in their genetic makeup under human influence. Many domesticated species depend on humans for their crops, but corn is probably the most dependent plant. A few years without our attention and it would disappear from the face of the earth.

There are more than 60 varieties of corn that are part of our daily diet.
More than 60 varieties of corn are part of our daily diet. Image: ASERCA

Environments

If we did not harvest corn, only some of the seeds would be growing the following year. In less than about five years, we would not find a single corn plant. The corn that we have is the product of a set of factors that have influenced its evolution. The different environmental conditions in which corn grew caused modifications in its genetic constitution.

Originating from a semi-warm and sub-humid environment, corn took to environments, and adaptations to particular conditions occurred. For example, at low temperatures and late maturation take advantage of as many days of growth as possible. Purple pigmentation protects it from ultraviolet light, more intense in high-altitude regions.

In dry and warm environments, the corn had short cycles to escape the droughts. The humid environments demanded maize capable of tolerating diseases typical of these environments. The preferences in different cultures caused changes. In Peru, the use as a whole grain developed corn with large and floury grains. Corn with intense purple-reddish color for chicha -a corn drink.

Nixtamalization

Mexican corn consumption means nixtamalization with lime. This is one of the great discoveries of the people of Mexico. Nixtamalization eliminates the grain's coating, making it less fibrous and creating a more elastic dough, which allows for the preparation of tortillas. It increases the calcium content of the food and the efficiency of protein assimilation. It reduces the common aflatoxins in corn and releases the niacin (vitamin B3) present in the grain.

Nixtamalization, with the use of beans, allowed the Mesoamerican population to depend on corn without nutritional problems. Beans provide amino acids in which corn is deficient and allow a balanced and healthy diet consumed with corn. Without nixtamalization and beans, the Mexican corn culture would have had to take a different course.

Many Mexicans and Guatemalans consider themselves "men and women of corn". This is not just a seductive phrase from Mesoamerican mythology. At the same time that corn became more and more dependent on humans, humans became more and more dependent on corn.

History of Mexican corn

About 3,000 years ago the mutual dependence reached the point where the Olmecs deified corn and represented the universe in its symbolic power. The model for the cycle of death and resurrection. For the union of heaven and earth. And for fertility and creativity. This lasted throughout Mesoamerican civilizations.

In these lands, the lack of corn has meant famine, while the abundance of corn allowed for leisure time, work, and social development. The Spaniards changed the local names for Mexican corn and nothing changed. The emotional bond of the Mesoamerican people remained as strong.

Lush diversity of Mexican corn

Most of us know about different types of Mexican corn but have not considered the importance and what this means. The first thing most of us notice is that there are white and yellow grains, others are blue or red. We can find orange, cream, pink, brown, purple, and black grains. There are marble ones and others that seem to have a hoof.

The shape of the bean can be round, and pointy, and some have a shrunken shape that looks corrugated. Its texture can be crystalline, floury, or waxy and there are bursting ones and sweet ones. Some grains are so small that more than 70 form one gram. In other corn, two grains are enough for one and a half grams. There are long and short grains and others so wide that they almost reach two centimeters.

These few characteristics described for the grain are a small part of what we can see. There are Mexican corn plants that pass 50 centimeters and others that reach more than five meters in height. Some with 10 leaves and others with more than 20. The stems and leaves can be green, reddish, or purple.

Characteristics

Some plants give one ear, others can have more than ten small ones. The ears can measure from about five centimeters long to more than forty and have from eight rows of grains to more than thirty. Most ears are cylindrical or conical in shape, but some are roundish. Mexican corn is one of the most adaptable plants we know.

In Mexico, cornfields rise from sea level in warm climates to more than 2,500 meters of altitude in temperate climates. Corn plants stretch from 58° North latitude in Canada and Russia to 40° South latitude in Argentina. From regions with a little more than 200 millimeters of precipitation to environments with more than four meters of rain per year. It grows in the short summers of Canada and the tropical region with permanent summer.

Corn belongs to the Poaceae or Gramineae family and is one of the oldest known food grains.
Corn is a domesticated and highly productive plant that does not grow in the wild and is therefore completely dependent on human care. Photo: Argentina.gob.ar

Modern vs traditional corn

Assumptions exist that varieties produced by educational and research institutions and commercial companies will displace traditional maize varieties. This idea is that modern varieties have become known as improved varieties, as opposed to "unimproved" farmers' varieties. This is a prejudice that does not hold up.

Some assume that modern varieties are superior to traditional ones, without thinking about the environment. A superficial interpretation of traditional varieties comes from the idea that farmers are traditional, and do not know or try the modern varieties. There has been a lack of investment in research, extension, and infrastructure by state and private initiatives.

In Mexico, of the two million households that plant corn each year, more than 80% are producers who grow less than five hectares. Almost all do so in rainfed crops -without irrigation- and on broken land that does not allow for mechanization. Many of these producers do not have sufficient resources to provide the best growing conditions for corn. Modern varieties are not superior, particularly in Mexico's semi-warm and temperate environments where traditional varieties are dominant.

Consumption of Mexican corn

Linked to the diversity of maize is its enormous potential as a crop with multiple uses. Corn is available for any type of environment. The uses of corn go beyond what we assume if we see it as a food plant. The potential of corn is limited by our imagination. Besides food, it was fodder, fuel, medicine, ceremony, and tribute.

Outside of Mesoamerica, the consumption of nixtamalized corn is rare. In Venezuela and Colombia, arepas exist, similar to chubby corn fillings. In the United States, a type of hominy with nixtamalized grains is similar to pozole. Corn consumption in Peru has been going on for millennia as choclo - boiled and shelled ripe corn. Or cancha - roasted corn - and tamales made from non-nixtamalized corn.

Many other countries consume corn as a type of thick stew with or without accompaniment. In Africa, there are countries such as Lesotho, Zambia, and Malawi, where per capita consumption is higher than in Mexico. For centuries, corn seemed unfit for humans in Europe, because its lack of gluten made it impossible to make good bread. Rejection and taboo of its consumption developed.

But some poor regions adopted corn. In Italy, like polenta, a kind of stew. After World War II, cornmeal became the most common polenta in Italy and is a gourmet dish. A national dish similar to polenta, known as mamaliga, exists in Romania. A traditional meal may consist of three or four dishes, each based on corn.

More than 60 varieties of corn are part of our daily diet, besides serving as fodder for livestock.
Tacos with corn. Mexico is home to the largest number of corn varieties.

Corn for industry

The main form of consumption of maize in many industrialized countries is indirect. It is a major component in the feed of cattle, pigs, poultry, and other animals. In the United States, the world's largest corn producer, more than half of domestic corn consumption is in this form. Meat production in industrialized countries depends on corn and corn is an important component in the preparation of several foods. More than half of American-type fast food, such as hamburgers or fried chicken, contains corn.

Corn is an important component in food and industrial products. High fructose sugar, produced from corn, has become the most important sweetener for the carbonated beverage industry. Adhesives, electric batteries, crayons, bullets, and some types of tires have corn starch as an important component. Corn oil works as a substitute for rubber, soaps, and insecticides.

The United States produces a popular corn whiskey, known as bourbon. Many food products contain corn such as processed cereals, edible oils, cakes, sauces, juices, yogurt, sweets, and drinks. In cosmetics, paper, pharmaceuticals, porcelain, rubber, alcohol, paints, lubricants, textiles, and many other industrial products. In recent years the production of fuel based on corn ethanol has become important. Of the 10 000 products found in a typical supermarket, at least 2 500 contain corn in some form.

Such potential is a problem, as corn has become one of the plants of choice for biotechnologists to produce specialty chemicals. Transgenic corn can create plastics, antibiotics, insulin, and several other pharmaceutical products. While the importance of corn in this regard is prodigious, it represents a significant risk. If this type of corn escapes into the food chain it can become a problem for people who consume it as primary food.

Caring for genetic diversity

It is not sufficient to store the genetic diversity of crops in gene banks. Most of the diversity of maize is in the fields of Mexican farmers who continue to plant traditional varieties. They prefer them for various reasons and plant them without support from government agencies.

Traditional varieties go against the interests of technicians and bureaucrats who do not understand their value. The social perception of these varieties must change. Instead of harming them from government positions, they should receive support by recognizing the value they have for their curators.

One area where everyone can support the care of traditional Mexican varieties is by consuming high-quality tortillas and other corn products. In recent decades, nixtamalized corn flour has come to dominate urban environments. There are important reasons for this. Though they may be of high quality, tortillas and other dishes made from fresh nixtamalization are unparalleled to those who know.

The time has come in Mexico to demand tortillas and other high-quality products made from fresh nixtamalized Mexican corn. This will represent support for the preservation of the diversity of Mexican corn and an important source of employment as it involves decentralized production.

The corn needs us

Treating corn as a commodity has meant neglecting its production in the country. Most households that grow corn in Mexico do so in small quantities and depend on their production for their well-being. They cannot compete with subsidized producers in the United States, where having 1,000 hectares planted with irrigation is small-scale.

Supporting large Mexican producers means neglecting the welfare of some of the poorest households. It encourages them to leave corn and migrate to the city. Corn needs attention, starting with demands that the Mexican government stops seeing it as a mere commodity. Otherwise, the extraordinary diversity ceases between international prices and imports that see only profits in this grain.

Source: Hugo R. Perales R., Source, an excerpt from the article in Revista Sciencias UNAM