Maize and the American Civilization, with a little Taiwanese story

There’s nothing better than indulging in boiled or roasted corn on the cob on a cold, chilly winter day, or purchasing a nice, big box of popcorn to enjoy while watching a movie; although corn isn’t a staple food in Taiwan, it still warms our insides and adds pleasure to our lives.

Corn comes in various forms in our lives. Apart from the earliest dent corn, the later sweet corn, and “fruit corn” that can be eaten raw as a salad, corn also appears in ways that aren’t quite as eye-catching: high fructose corn syrup, and animal meat.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was invented back in the 1960s. Corn starch becomes HFCS after converting the glucose in corn starch into fructose by an enzymatic reaction. Owing to its convenient usage and refreshing taste, it is often added in beverages, distributing to human obesity, hypertension, insulin resistance and cardiac disease.

It’s hard to imagine that there’s corn in animal meat! Because corn (and soybeans) are both ingredients of animal feed, as long as you’re consuming meat, you’re also indirectly eating corn, even if you don’t like it! That is the very reason why corn is the most widely grown crop throughout the whole world!

In Taiwan, we prefer mono-coloured corn; but American indigenous peoples like variegated ones. The latter is caused by what is called “jumping genes” (transposons) ; like snowflakes, no two variegated ears of corn are the same. This phenomenon was never examined before Dr. Barbara McClintock solved it around 1940–1950, discovering genetic transposition, that certain genes possessed the ability to move around on genomes. Her discovery was ignored and even ridiculed at first; but gradually it gained attention from the scientific society and she was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

The staple food of the indigenous peoples of Central America has always been corn. Corn was being cultivated from around 5,000 BC, and by 1,500 BC had become as we know it now. However, corn cannot be sowed naturally, limiting the development of the Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations despite it creating them.

Though corn can’t be sowed naturally, its ancestor — teosinte — can! Corn is arguably the crop that has changed the most at the hands of humans, transforming from teosinte, its fruit smaller than baby corn with a hard shell and around 20 seeds, into delicious sweet corn, it’s length around 20–30 centimeters with hundreds of seeds, making it hard to believe that they’re all from the same genus!

The importance of corn to American indigenous people can be seen through Pachmama, the earth mother, in Inca mythology. The earth mother takes on one of two forms: Axomama, the potato goddess; or Saramama, the corn goddess. The indigenous people also discovered popcorn: due to the uneven distribution of soft and hard starch within kernels, some varieties of corn’s kernels pop when heated. Combined with their reverence to corn, popcorn was also used in festivals to worship the gods.

Yet when the Europeans found the New World, they saw corn as an ornamental plant; later, believing that it’s nutritional value was lower than wheat, feeding it to the pigs. Due to its fast growth and large production though, Italy and Spain quickly started to cultivate corn, becoming a staple food in those countries.

But the Europeans were clueless of the ways to process corn properly, resulting in the poor falling victim to pellagra due to vitamin B3 deficiency; at the time, doctors found that those with pellagra all ate corn as their staple food (perhaps the only food), so they thought corn must be the problem! Thankfully later research cleared corn’s name, righting the wrong!

The introduction of corn in the late Ming dynasty had an impact in China. This impact reached its climax during the early Qing dynasty. Not only corn, but also sweet potatoes and potatoes resulted in the population boom during that time.

Corn was also introduced to Taiwan during the 16th century, probably by Chinese immigrants. The cultivation of corn reached its climax around 1989 because the government encouraged people to grow crops other than rice. However, when Taiwan wanted to join WTO, the cultivation of corn soon decreased to only one-sixth of 1989 due to lack of government support. The main areas of corn cultivation in Taiwan are Tainan, Yunlin and Jiayi. Taken together, these three areas produce around 80% of corn in Taiwan.

There was a rumor going around in Taiwan claiming that corn that has more than 12 rows of seeds on the cob are genetic modified organisms (GMOs). Firstly, the number of rows of seeds on the corn cob is not determined by transgene. As a matter of fact, most of the GMO corn is generated in order to be resistant to pests or herbicides and have nothing to do with the seed row number. Secondly, a lot of varieties of corn are not GMOs and yet they have 14 or 16 rows of seeds. Lastly, nutrient status (using fertilizer or not) will affect the number of rows. Honestly, if transgene that confer pests or herbicide resistance will change the row of seeds of corn, plant biotech companies would probably discard such a gene because it will make people identify GMOs much easier — and that’s the last thing those companies want.

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葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

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黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.