The luxuriant fields extend in every direction. It’s summer in the Midwest; the soft green lines fill her every contour. The corn is only about three feet high, but even at this stage of growth, your eyes can’t see the soil. The plants are simply too tightly planted to allow a glimpse of the chemically fecund dirt. This creates a high yield, and it probably prevents creepy children of the corn from coming out of the fields (there’s no room back there now), but at the same time no retro baseball players will be squeezing out between the stalks either. It’s all a trade-off, I guess.
At first glance, the fields are terribly lush and gorgeous, but if your eyes linger too long, strange unnerving traits become noticeable. Every cornstalk is like the one next to it. It’s called genetic modification, and these clones represent what is considered to be the optimum in height, overall production and disease resistance. There’s no organic variation, just acres of monotonous growth. It’s all quite serene until you notice that Stepford quality. This is practically the only crop being grown in the region- soy may show up here and there, it’s another “modified” crop, but overall it’s corn that dominates. Every year at this time, I’m filled with dismay, seeing these factories disguised as plants.
It wasn’t always like this. As recently as the 80s some farming variety was still in place. I recall measuring the passing of summer by the look of crops like milo (grain sorghum) and the undulating wheat. It’s the closest to the relaxation of watching ocean waves that you could get in the Midwest, watching that wheat. Sunflower crops were grown for their seeds and oils. These enormous, frenzied gardens took on human sunbather traits as each flower moved to face the lolling, hazy sun of August.
Farmers were encouraged to “get big or get out” by guys like Earl Butz. If they tried to clone an ideal man, he wouldn’t have made the cut. He served as the Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon and Ford. Sadly Eisenhower introduced him to power, making him an Assistant Secretary during his tenure. Eisenhower may have had the pulse of the military industrial complex, but he unwittingly opened up an agricultural industrial complex through the introduction of this man. Commodity crops were encouraged by Butz, making it more difficult for small farms to find markets for harvests not encompassed in that model.
In an example of nefarious government meddling, subsidies were placed on corn farming, creating a hellish pattern where struggling farmers ripped out more land for corn so they could get the subsidies. This produced more of the product, and subsequently drove down the price, necessitating the placement of even more land into corn production. The benefit of subsidies fell largely on the agribusiness firms that purchased the corn, anyway. It never seemed to benefit the little farmers. But then why would it? They were told to get big, after all.
In a chain of consequence, the relatively low price of corn, and a regulated high sugar price made a Japanese invention from 1966 assume huge significance in the health of each and every American. This was High Fructose Corn Syrup — maybe you’ve heard of it. Well since you’ve heard of it, the Corn Refiners Association is trying to convince the FDA to let them call HFCS “Corn Sugar”. You haven’t heard of that! It’ll be a whole new lease on life for the liquid with an image problem. Perhaps we can rephrase the term “obesity” and call it “Corn Storage” if they get their way. It seems only fair. That’s really what most American extra weight is — repositories for the HFCS that now is said to make up 10% of caloric intake, more for children, evidently. That number is a little misleading, however, because it doesn’t take into account the intake of beef and chicken which have been fed the stuff as well. This level of corniness would be difficult to quantify.
The hijacking of this traditional crop of the Americas to a factory farm creature is one more indignity heaped on the indigenous people who elevated this strange plant to a consumable staple in a manner we can’t quite figure out.
The emergence of maize as the prime crop of the Americas is filled with mystery and gaps of explanation. Charles Mann does a magnificent job in his book “1491” of describing the puzzling emergence of this crop. A very homely, non-sexy plant named teosinte looks to have been an ancestor, but very little resemblance is there to the maize that fed so many over the centuries. The seeds in teosinte scatter. They don’t wait for someone to pick them, making harvest unlikely, maybe even impossible. Another oddity is that corn now completely relies on human hands to sprout due to the thickened husks. It’s not like a “wild corn” version is out there, even though other cereal crops have such relatives evident. Mann mentions that the Mexican National Museum had a presentation on the plant and simply said that maize was “created” not necessarily domesticated. There is certainly a spiritual notion behind all of this that science can’t adequately explain.
That hackneyed expression “you are what you eat”, I’d say there is truth even in the trite. Our bodies are being formed by a sweet concoction that removed the holy mystery that was maize (and I’m not pushing the word holy in the kind of sense that passes in a church). We ingest this syrup directly, and we also eat animals that are fed this syrup. Is it any wonder that we have a sugary, mechanistic view of the world and our place in it? I would say that corn is emblematic of much of what has gone wrong in our society. The arrogant notion that cycles and nature are to be triumphed over, not worked with, and the overarching faith that technology equals wisdom.
I just don’t see beauty in these undulating lines of green any longer.