Crop that Conquered the World

Corn is thought of as a quintessentially American crop. That’s true if by “quintessentially American” you mean that Americans have exploited corn’s industrial potential to a greater degree than anyone else. But of course corn didn’t originate in North America, and its popularity is by no means limited to North America, nor even to the New World.

Corn is grown on every continent on Earth save for Antarctica, most intensively in the American Midwest, western Europe and eastern China. On which note, I was watching a terrific BBC program called Wild China the other night. In one sequence on the subject of farm villages in Hunan province, I noticed that the ceilings of the homes there had bundles of dried corn hung from all their rafters. I did a double-take until I remembered that the farmers there — like most corn farmers around the world — think of corn as a traditional crop. It’s been around for so long, few are even aware that corn originally came from somewhere else.

But just how long has it been since corn first left the Americas and began to spread around the world? The answer: 500 years. For indeed it didn’t take the early Spanish and Portuguese explorers long to recognize the value of the natives’ maize. Adaptable, fast-growing and low-effort, corn was the perfect crop for fast-growing empires that needed creative ways to supply garrisons in foreign lands. Corn seed needs no special treatment and keeps almost forever as long as it stays dry, which makes it ideal for transport by ship (it could even be re-hydrated or ground and eaten in an emergency). Sown in a shallow furrow and given steady water it grows fast and delivers huge amounts of calories relative to the space it takes up. Yep, as far as the early explorers — especially the Portuguese — were concerned, those New World Indians were really onto something.

And indeed it’s the Portuguese who are thought to have really instigated corn cultivation around the world. In roughly 1550 they brought it to Africa where they used it to feed not only troops but captured slaves. Even so it didn’t take long for the crop to spread beyond the confines of Portuguese fortresses to local populations, who readily took it up for many of the same reasons the Portuguese did. More on that soon…

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