Corn Stalk | The Americas (1500s)

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A corn stalk drawing Created for a children’s book in 1892, found on http://www.resuableart.com.

By Julia Levine

About ten thousand years ago in Mesoamerican native humans began developing and refining a new strain of vegetable from an ancient,wheat-looking grass called teosinte. Corn and how it’s been used by humanities to aspects of the debated current epoch, the Anthropocene, as it’s been developed and transformed by the geologic force of humanity. It was literally taken from the earth itself and transformed through generations of selective breeding by humans. In fact, corn is only able to grow successfully with the help of human beings, due to how close the kernels grow and how tightly the husks grow around the kernels. Nowhere in the world is corn found occurring naturally1. The extent to which it has been modified specifically for human beings proves how important it is to us, as the plant would die without a human facilitator. In addition, corn has become a product that not only serves as a food, after all, it is a vegetable but also as fuel and industrial materials. This common plant serves as an object of the Anthropocene because it symbolizes the force humanity has harnessed over the environment in the past and continues to modify now.

When conquistadors from Europe first encountered the New World in the 1400s they found the plant to be abundant among the indigenous peoples of the two American continents, as by that time it had been passed among the tribes of the New World for thousands of years and appeared relatively similar to the cobs we harvest today2. Explores were baffled by the number of plants and animals they’d never seen before, which triggered a mass exchange of plants, animals, microbes, and people between the new and old worlds, now called the Colombian Exchange3. Ever since this transfer of resources between worlds the highly useful vegetable has been a globally traded commodity. Today this plant is a staple food source for people and animals and is used to produce plastics, ethanol, beverages, charcoal, sweeteners and numerous other products for consumer and industrial use. Corn has come a long way since its first ancestors were bred, and human technology has evolved with it. The level of innovation and technology we possess and strive to achieve today is incomparable to the humbleness of selective breeding that was used 10,000 years ago. Due to the fact that corn has been an important part of human life for millennia, scientists and researchers have focused this increased knowledge base into advancing the very role corn plays in society today. Leading to its consumption as a fuel in the form of ethanol.

Ethanol is a type of biofuel that is produced from organic matter, like corn. In 1826 ethanol was first produced for use in the early forms of a four-cycle internal combustion engine. In the 1850s ethanol was also used as a lighting fuel, but this practice died off as a result of it being taxed as liquor to help pay for the Civil War in America. In the following years, it was blended with gasoline for use in octane boosters, which was an important development for the facilitation of military weapons and vehicles in World War II. The ethanol industry we see today began in the 1970s when petroleum-based fuel became expensive and environmental concerns around gasoline created the need for octane. Corn became the main resource used in ethanol began in the 1970s when petroleum-based fuel became expensive and environmental concerns around gasoline created the need for octane. Corn became the main resource used in ethanol production due to its easy ability to be transformed into alcohol and its relative abundance. As the desire for environmentally friendly fuels increased in the 2000s so did the production of ethanol. However, whether or not ethanol is better than regular gasoline depends on what organic material it’s made from, the environmental impacts of obtaining that material, how it’s delivered and the ultimate use of the fuel. Corn in this role is a catalyst for the advancement of technology; through the process of fermentation and its transformation into alcohol is can be used to power machines that take the place of human and animal laborers.

Corn represents parts of a naturalist and eco-catastrophist narrative of the Anthropocene as described by Christophe Bonneuil. The naturalist narrative preaches of a story following the evolution of human beings from hunters and gatherers as environmentally unconscious to environmentally conscious stewards of the earth, with a focus on this age as a dawning of humanity as a geological force in the world. While the eco-catastrophist narrative attempts to encompass a long history of unsustainable environmental practices including resource depletion, land degradation, and pollution. Corn is encompassing of both aspects of these narratives as it was bread during the time human communities were beginning to turn from hunting and gathering to focus on agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals. As we’ve grown in knowledge and technology we’ve become conscious of the negative environmental effects we’ve had on the planet. I would argue that we are continuing to become environmentally conscious stewards of the earth today, as we continue to participate in unsustainable environmental practices today. For example, we facilitate extensive agricultural practices that eat up the habitats of wildlife through deforestation and pollute the air and water systems through industrial manufacture, agriculture practices, and transportation use. While we are becoming more entuned with how our ways of life affect the natural world around us, it’s unreasonable to expect that people will suddenly change what they’ve been taught through hundreds of years of evolutionary knowledge. As the practices, we still implement today are reflective of the practices our ancestors were implementing hundreds of years ago.

Corn and its many uses present an ideal image of the Anthropocene starting around the date of the Colombian Exchange, in the 1500s. While it had been bred centuries before Europeans arrived in the American continent, without the globalization of the crop around that time it may not be such an important resource in agriculture and technology use today. Within two years, from 2000-2002, roughly 600 million tons of corn were produced worldwide on about 140 million hectares of land for various uses in food for humans and livestock, as well as in industrial uses, such as ethanol and plastic production. Corn has been developed and improved upon by human beings for millennia and continues to be an important object of conversation surrounding the Anthropocene, as it has roots in unsustainable agricultural practices while simultaneously offering to improve sustainable fuel and plastic use, as it’s a renewable resource. Corn illustrates the advancement of human technology, due to the fact that the plant itself has been utilized in a wide distribution of disciplines. From its late ancestor, teosinte, to its present-day form and use in fuels and industrial materials corn represents the evolution of not only the plant itself, but also the evolution of human practice, knowledge, and environmental awareness and is an important object in the discussion of the Anthropocene.

Work Cited

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Corn.” Encyclopædia Britannica. January 25, 2019. Accessed April 24, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/plant/corn-plant.

Gustafson, Cole. “North Dakota State University.” History of Ethanol Production and Policy – Energy. Accessed April 24, 2019. https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/energy/biofuels/energy-briefs/history-of-ethanol-production-and-policy.

Hamilton, Clive, Christophe Bonneuil, and François Gemenne. The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis: Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015, p. 27-29.

Hennessey, Elizabeth. “The Encounter” Lecture. February 26, 2019

Mejía, Danilo. “Maize: Post-Harvest Operations.” :Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), May 15, 2003. Accessed April 23, 2019. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/inpho/docs/Post_Harvest_Compendium_-_MAIZE.pdf.

The Truth about Ethanol.” Union of Concerned Scientists. January 21, 2014. Accessed May 09, 2019. https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-vehicles/better-biofuels/truth-about-ethanol.