Corn is so commonplace in Mexico that we rarely consider how extraordinary this species is. It's amazing in so many ways that it would be a challenge to find another plant with so much goodness. It comes from a wild form of the same species called teosinte, with a female inflorescence and seeds so different from those of the familiar corn, that even today it would be difficult to imagine the potential locked up in its wild ancestor if it were not known to us.
It is possible that no other species is adapted to so many types of environments and exhibits such great variation in human interest characteristics as corn. Moreover, the number of ways in which corn is used is also unrivaled among domesticated species. In fact, few species are as important to humankind as corn. Among its 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.
In the first years of this century, corn has been the species with the highest production in the world and has become the most important food plant, not only in Mexico but also in the world. This development is not free and derives directly from the genetic potential of this species and our ability to extract this potential. 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, and in Mesoamerica this bond is intense.
The changes that corn has undergone under human influence are considered unique in the botanical realm. All domesticated species have changed in their genetic makeup under human influence, yet recognizing corn in its wild ancestor is not without its surprises. Many domesticated species depend on humans for their crops, but corn is probably the most dependent plant we know; a few years without our attention and it would disappear from the face of the earth.
If we did not harvest a field of corn, only some of the more than 10 million seeds that were produced would be growing the following year and in less than about five years, we would surely not find a single corn plant in that field. The corn that we have is the product of a set of factors that have influenced its evolution and conformation. When corn was dispersed through Mexico, the rest of America, and other continents, the different environmental conditions in which it was planted and the preferences of different human groups caused modifications in its genetic constitution.
Initially originating from a semi-warm and sub-humid environment, corn was taken to new environments where adaptations to particular conditions occurred. For example, in temperate environments, maize was generated that germinated at low temperatures, with very late maturation to take advantage of as many days of growth as possible, and with purple pigmentation to protect it from ultraviolet light, more intense in high altitude regions. In dry and warm environments, the corn had very short cycles to escape the droughts. The humid environments demanded maize capable of tolerating diseases typical of these environments. The preferences in different cultures also caused changes. In Peru, the use as a whole grain developed corn with very large and floury grains, also developed corn with intense purple-reddish color for chicha -a corn drink that includes the olote.
Corn consumption in Mexico is intimately linked to nixtamalization with lime, one of the great discoveries of the people of Mexico and unfortunately neglected as corn is dispersed throughout the world.
Nixtamalization not only eliminates the grain's coating, making it less fibrous and creating a more elastic dough, which allows for the preparation of tortillas but also increases the calcium content of the food and the efficiency of protein assimilation. It also reduces the common aflatoxins in corn and releases the niacin (vitamin B3) present in the grain, thus avoiding pellagra, common when the diet is based on corn, as was the case in some regions of Italy, Spain, and Portugal in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Nixtamalization, together with the use of beans, allowed the Mesoamerican population to depend intensely on corn without nutritional problems. Beans provide amino acids in which corn is deficient and allow a balanced and healthy diet when consumed with corn, particularly when we include pumpkin and chili, the other two pillars of the Mesoamerican diet. Without nixtamalization and beans, the culture of corn in Mexico would have had to take a different course and most likely would not recognize as a people of the corn.
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. Corn was not the first domesticated plant species in Mesoamerica, but about 3,000 years ago the mutual dependence reached the point where the Olmecs deified corn and represented the universe finalized 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 was taken from corn, and this lasted throughout Mesoamerican civilizations.
In these lands, the lack of corn has meant famine, while the abundance of corn allowed for leisure time, specialization of work, and social development. The Spaniards changed the local names of cintli, ixim, and others to the Taino name for corn - from the Arawak of the Antilles - and nothing changed. The emotional bond of the Mesoamerican people remained just as strong and the plant is still respected today as corn.
Some have argued that corn has generated emotional intensity because it is grown almost individually by planting in bushes, unlike wheat and rice which are tended on planks. Although we don't know, the truth is that in a country like Mexico, the emotional bond can be observed in different social manifestations, starting with its central position on the altar of the dead.
Not only does corn depend on humans, but the humans of these lands also depend on corn. Both people and corn have co-evolved intimately over the last three or four thousand years in such a way that the history of the Mesoamerican populations has been closely linked to the history of corn. Although with different manifestations than in Mesoamerica, today the history of humanity is also linked to it.
Lush diversity of corn
Most of us know about different types of corn and possibly 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. But we can also find orange, cream, pink, brown, purple, and almost black grains. In addition, there are mottled and marbled ones and others that seem to have a hoof.
The shape of the bean can be round, indented, pointed and some even have a shrunken shape that looks corrugated. Its texture can be crystalline, floury, or waxy and there are bursting ones, which we know as palomero, and sweet ones. Some grains are so small that more than seventy are required to form one gram, while 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 only a small part of what we can see. There are known corn plants that barely pass fifty centimeters and others that reach more than five meters in height, some with barely ten leaves and others with more than twenty. The stems and leaves can be green, reddish, or purple.
Some plants give only 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 almost round. Some corn we know as tunicates because each grain seems to be covered by its own totomoxtle -tunic. However, this morphological variation is not the only diversity offered by corn and is surely not the most important either. Corn is one of the most adaptable plants we know, and this has allowed it to adapt to a large number of environmental conditions.
In Mexico, we can find fields with corn from sea level in warm climates to more than 2,500 meters of altitude in temperate climates. In Peru, it is found up to almost 3 500 meters above sea level. It is planted from 58° North latitude in Canada and Russia to 40° South latitude in Argentina, and in regions with a little more than 200 millimeters of precipitation, to environments with more than four meters of rain per year, and it grows well in the short summers of Canada and in the tropical region with permanent summer.
Some types of corn mature in a little more than two months, others remain in the field almost all year. No other crop is as widely distributed as corn or thrives under such varied conditions. All major crops have considerable genetic variation; however, the extraordinary variation in corn represents possibly its greatest potential value and is the fundamental reason why it has become the most important crop in the world.
At the beginning of the 21st century, more than half of the corn planted in Mexico comes from seeds of traditional varieties, developed by farmers without the intervention of technicians or scientists. All the major types of corn recognized today existed when scientists began to study and improve corn. Some fifty years ago it was considered that traditional maize varieties would be quickly displaced by varieties produced by educational and research institutions and commercial companies. So strong was this idea that modern, institutionally produced varieties have become known as improved varieties, as opposed to "unimproved" farmers' varieties. This is a prejudice that does not hold up.
It has been conventionally assumed that modern varieties are superior to traditional ones, without thinking about the complexity of the environments where maize is grown. A superficial interpretation of the prevalence of traditional varieties is based on the idea that farmers are very traditional, do not know or try the modern varieties, and possibly there has been a lack of investment in research, extension, and infrastructure by the state and private initiative.
However, although some agricultural regions with favorable conditions do have extensive use of modern varieties, the process of displacement has not been as expected and it has been documented that there are good reasons for this to be the case. Studies over the past two decades have shown that farmers continue to plant traditional varieties because they are often superior in their adaptation to farmers' particular conditions, other than experimental fields, or have appreciated characteristics that make them preferred in households.
Of the more than two million households that plant corn each year in Mexico, more than 80% are producers who grow less than five hectares of corn, and almost all do so in rainfed crops -without irrigation- and on broken land that does not allow for mechanization. In addition, many of these producers do not have sufficient resources to provide the best growing conditions for corn. It is not a given that under these conditions modern varieties are superior, particularly in Mexico's semi-warm and temperate environments where traditional varieties are dominant. Mexico's traditional varieties deserve much more recognition and social support than they have received in recent decades.
It is difficult to assess how many different types of maize are planted in the country. From a scientific point of view, the choice has been made to classify traditional maize varieties into races, where a race is a set of individuals with enough common characteristics to be recognized as part of a group. This implies that a breed is not made up of a single type of corn that is uniform and identical to each other, as is the case with commercial varieties. Although at present it is not yet possible to determine how many traditional varieties exist in the country, it is possible to estimate that there are hundreds and possibly a thousand or more. This great diversity of forms and types of corn represents the richness and great potential for Mexico.
Unlimited flexibility of corn
Linked directly to the diversity of maize is its enormous potential as a crop with multiple uses. Not only is corn available for almost any type of environment, but also the uses that are made of corn go beyond what we assume when we see it only as a food plant. The potential of corn is limited almost only by our imagination.
Suffice it to say that its versatility allows us to eat it daily without getting tired. Since pre-Columbian times, corn was the species with the most uses, which was recorded by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. Besides food, it was considered fodder, fuel, medicine, ceremony, and tribute. It has been proposed that the initial use of teosinte and corn was as sugar cane, but this is not yet known.
Outside of Mesoamerica, the consumption of nixtamalized corn is rare. In Venezuela and Colombia, arepas are prepared, similar to chubby corn fillings, and some are made from nixtamalized corn. In the United States, a type of hominy is prepared with nixtamalized grains, similar to pozole, but with unbursted grains. But in Peru, where corn consumption has been going on for millennia, it is made mainly as choclo - boiled and sometimes shelled ripe corn - or cancha - roasted corn - and tamales made mainly from unnixtamalized corn.
In many other countries, corn is prepared 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. On this continent, maize is prepared mainly as a gruel, similar to a thick maize gruel but made from ground maize or non-nixtamalized maize flour. For centuries, corn was considered unfit for humans in Europe, particularly because its lack of gluten made it impossible to make good bread, and rejection and taboo of its consumption even developed.
But in some poor regions, it was adopted and in Italy, it is prepared as polenta, a kind of stew, sometimes dried and baked, originally prepared from wheat or rye and supplemented with cheese and other foods. After World War II, cornmeal became the most common polenta in Italy and is now considered a gourmet dish. A national dish similar to polenta, known as mamaliga, is prepared in Romania and a traditional meal may consist of three or four dishes, each based on corn.
The main form of consumption of maize in many industrialized countries is indirect, as 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. Considering that meat production in industrialized countries is based on corn and that corn is an important component in the preparation of several foods, it has been estimated that more than half of an American-type fast food, such as hamburger or fried chicken, is made from corn.
But corn is also an important component in many food and industrial products. High fructose sugar, produced from corn, has become the most important sweetener for the carbonated beverage industry. Corn starch is used in adhesives, electric batteries, crayons, bullets and even some types of tires have it as an important component; corn oil is used as a substitute for rubber, soaps, and insecticides.
In the United States, a popular corn whiskey, known as bourbon, is made. It is found in many food products such as processed cereals, edible oils, cakes, sauces, juices, yogurt, sweets, and drinks, but also 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. It has been estimated that of the approximately 10 000 products found in a typical supermarket, at least 2 500 contain corn in some form.
For centuries, corn has been recognized as one of the most productive crops. So much so that after it entered Europe, Africa, and Asia it has been considered the food of the poor. Over the past hundred years, scientific improvement and advances in agronomy have been able to significantly raise maize yields.
Indeed, such potential is now a problem, as corn has become one of the plants of choice for biotechnologists to produce specialty chemicals, and transgenic corn has been produced that can create plastics, antibiotics, insulin, and several other pharmaceutical products - many of which are kept as trade secrets. While the importance of corn in this regard is prodigious, it also represents a significant risk, since if this type of corn escapes into the food chain it can become a considerable problem for people who consume it as primary food, as is the case in Mexico.
Caring for genetic diversity
It is currently considered that it is not sufficient to store the genetic diversity of crops in genebanks. Most of the diversity of maize is found in the fields of Mexican farmers who continue to plant traditional varieties, who prefer them for various reasons, and who plant them without the least support from government agencies.
In many cases, traditional varieties are planted against the interests of technicians and bureaucrats who do not understand their value. It is important that the social perception of these varieties change and instead of harming them from government positions, they should be supported by recognizing the value they have for their curators and the value they may have in the future.
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 and there are important reasons for this because even though it 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 fundamental 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 directly on their own production for their well-being. It borders on the ridiculous to expect that they can compete directly with subsidized producers in the United States, among whom having 1,000 flat hectares planted with irrigation is considered small-scale.
Supporting only large Mexican producers because they are the only ones supplying large quantities of corn means neglecting the welfare of some of the poorest households, and encouraging them to leave corn and migrate to the city is unwise as long as education in the countryside remains poor and there is not enough work for the urban population. Corn needs attention, starting with demands that the Mexican government stops seeing it as a mere commodity. Corn needs attention and sustenance because otherwise the extraordinary diversity is lost between international prices and imports that only see profits in this grain.
By Hugo R. Perales R., Source, an excerpt from the article in Revista Sciencias UNAM