What is Corn?
The United States Department of Agriculture defines corn as the primary grain in the world today. It has served as a dietary staple for man and livestock for thousands of years and is a globally traded agricultural commodity worth billions of dollars annually. Corn's by-products can be found in thousands of everyday products, everything from soda, plastic wrap to fuel.
Corn has been the cornerstone of the human diet for thousands of years; preserved kernels and cobs have been found at archaeological sites dating back thousands of years. The grain is believed to be native to the North American continent where it was one of the earliest domesticated crops. Remains of the first cornfields found in Puebla, Mexico date back to 5000 B.C.
The Indians originally called the grain teosinte, but as its use spread throughout South America and the Caribbean it became more commonly known as maize. In 1493, Christopher Columbus encountered the grain in Cuba and brought it home to Spain. Production of corn quickly spread throughout Europe and today, it is the most widely grown grain crop in the world. According to the National Corn Growers Association, in the United States alone, farmers produce over 10 billion bushels of corn annually.
Corn, or maize, has been raised among Native Americans throughout North, Central and South America for over 7,000 years. The Aztec, Inca and Mayans were the first to cultivate corn from wild grasses called Teosinte. They carefully collected and cultivated the best plants and encouraged the formation of ears, or cobs, on early maize plants.
Corn was usually planted together with beans and squash. Because the trio grew so well together the grouping was referred to as "The Three Sisters" in many tribes. The corn stalk provides support for the beans to grow up, and the squash spreads out to keep other plants from crowding the corn stalk. Originally, the fields consisted of mounds of earth a meter or two apart. Sometimes the mounds were in rows, other times they were randomly placed.
Native Americans used the corn to create many types of food including dumplings, tamales, hominy and even a ceremonial wedding cake bread. Corn was not eaten directly from the cob, but was dried to preserve it. The dried corn was often ground into corn meal, using wooden pestles and mortars. The corn meal was mixed with beans to make succotash, or made into cornbread, or corn pudding.
Food was not the only thing that Native Americans used corn for. All parts of the plant were utilized. The husks were dried and braided to make masks, sleeping mats, baskets and even moccasins. Cornhusk dolls were created to amuse Native American children. Corncobs were burned for fuel or sometimes tied onto a stick to create a ceremonial rattle.
Corn is an annual crop traditionally planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. A portion of the crop is kept in its natural state and is used as livestock feed or as food. The majority of corn crops are refined by stripping the kernels from the cob and separating the grain's main components, which include starch, oil, fiber and protein.
The Corn Refiners Association lists over six broad categories of corn based products that stem from its main components: sweeteners, oils, starch, ethanol, animal feed and bio-products. Corn can be found in soft drinks, plastics, fabric and adhesives.
Besides being a diet staple for humans and livestock, corn is quickly becoming an alternative fuel source. Iowa State University Agronomy Extension forecasts that corn's use as a natural bio-fuel will grow dramatically in the upcoming years. Ethanol, the corn-based bio-fuel, is not only a renewable fuel source but is cheaper to produce than oil-based fuels.
Because of its highly adaptable nature and many uses, it is easy to see why corn is the leading agricultural cash crop. This grain is not only a staple of human diet but also an important part of the world's economy. It is also a key element in the search for renewable energy sources.