CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — From Aztec to high tech, corn's past is a mystery and its future a challenge.
The nutritious grain that sustained native Americans for centuries became the highly prolific commercial corn that fed a hungry world in the 20th Century.
Now, partly a victim of its own success, corn is being crammed into storage bins at the rate of billions of unwanted bushels a year. The supply of the golden grain is simply increasing faster than the demand.
Growing for Storage
"Good gosh, we've just got so much corn on hand," said John Pellet, who farms 750 acres at Chesterfield, Mo. "The only thing that is saving us now is the government (farm support) payments. But you'd much rather have a real customer for your corn than grow it for government storage."
Corn yields in the United States have increased dramatically and, with biotechnology, "there is no end in sight," said Hal Smedley, director of market development for the National Corn Growers Assn.
But industrial technology, which already has created corn-based sweeteners and alcohol, may provide even more relief. Corn now is being converted into industrial chemicals that can do everything from melting ice on roads to helping steering wheels pop out of molds.
'We're So Good'
"We farmers can produce so much--we're so good at growing corn--that I am convinced we cannot (dispose of) it all through (feeding) livestock," said Pellet, who is excited about the new high-tech possibilities.
But they are a far cry from corn's traditional use--as food.
"We know now that it was the basic food plant of all of the advanced cultures and civilizations of the New World," Harvard botanist Paul Mangelsdorf wrote in his 1974 book, "Corn: Its Origin, Evolution and Improvement."
Many Indians of North America, the highly civilized Maya of Central America, the warlike Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru "all looked to corn for their daily bread," according to Mangelsdorf.
George Sprague, a University of Illinois corn breeder, said, "There is a consensus that corn was a New World crop, but beyond that its history gets quite vague.
"The origin of corn is lost in antiquity, and we're left to speculation," he said.
Spread Around World
Theories on the genetic origin of the corn plant vary. But the absence of any historical reference to maize before 1492 suggests that Columbus discovered it in the New World and took it back to Europe. In two generations, this wonder crop spread around the world. Fields now are harvested somewhere every month of the year.
In North America, the Indians brought corn in from the wild and noticed that kernels that accidently fell into fertilized soil near their dwellings grew well. Soon, they planted corn, sometimes put fish in the ground as fertilizer, removed competing vegetation and replanted seed from the best-yielding plants.
The crop provided them with roasting ears, cornmeal to mix with vegetables and meat, and even popcorn.
"The Indians did quite a remarkable job breeding corn," Sprague said. "The white man came and inherited a domesticated crop along with the production practices of the time."
In the early 1700s, settlers planted two types of corn together and produced a cross that is similar to the commercial dent corn grown today, named for the dimple in each kernel.
And, when the railroads opened the fertile lands of the Midwest, farmers cleared millions of acres and found that they had an ideal place to raise crops.
With the introduction of the first commercial hybrids in the 1930s and the use of better fertilizer, pesticides and machinery, corn yields increased dramatically and steadily. The U.S. Corn Belt became the most important agricultural region in the world.
A single acre can contain about 25,000 plants of modern corn. Their lush green stalks and leaves rise eight feet above the rich, black prairie soil. Each ear is about the size of a pop bottle, its hard yellow kernels hidden beneath the husk and topped with hair-like silks. And, in the fall, the combines growl through the fields and harvest the grain.
Today, corn is raised primarily to feed livestock. But, because of its critical role in the food chain, it remains a staple.
"True, we consume directly only small amounts of corn . . . but, transformed into meat, milk, eggs and other animal products, it is our basic food plant, as it was of the people who preceded us in this hemisphere," according to Mangelsdorf.
Farmers found a market for their corn not only among cattle, pork and poultry producers in this country, but also overseas. U.S. agricultural exports, including corn, boomed in the 1970s. There were more acres planted in corn and more bushels of corn per acre.
But, it was too much of a good thing. Meat consumption in this country declined. And grain production in other countries increased, boosting competition on the world market from other grain-exporting nations.