As Corn Goes, So Goes the World

Sean Carroll’s New York Times article “Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years” provides some thought-provoking information on the pivotal historical role of America in the world’s food production:

Native Americans alone domesticated nine of the most important food crops in the world, including corn, more properly called maize (Zea mays), which now provides about 21 percent of human nutrition across the globe.

That ought to humble those of us who believe that Europeans or those who remained in Asia were responsible for all the glories of mankind. How many of us can even name some of the other eight foods that Native Americans domesticated? I came up with only two instantly: pumpkins and tomatoes. After some contemplation, I came up with a few more, but I also discovered my ignorance of crop history.

Here’s a list from “Facts for Kids: Native American Food”:

Other important American Indian crops included beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, wild rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, avocados, papayas, and chocolate.

A more detailed list appears on Waepedia.

As usual, the research to cure my ignorance ended up giving me more than just a few facts. I started thinking about how civilizations identify themselves with their dominant resources. Like the ancient cultures whose ancestors transformed teosinte into modern corn, most of us take corn for granted. We modify corn genetics in the laboratory, endanger it further by extensive monoculture, and then wastefully turn it into ethanol. Corn is in an extraordinary number of products. We even use corn to make plastics. So a devastating corn blight or a severe drought would change our world in ways that would dwarf the effects of Great Irish Potato Famine.

In other words, corn can crash civilizations. It already has. The example I have in mind comes from Joseph Tainter’s classic Collapse of Complex Societies. I loaned my copy to friends, so I’m relying on memory here, but I think this recollection is fairly accurate even though I can’t remember specifics.

When the corn crops of this major ancient Native American civilization began to fail, the civilization failed to adapt. Although they had other food crops they could have switched to, they didn’t. They called themselves “the corn people,” and this over-identification cost them dearly. Much of their population perished or scattered. Major cities were already covered by jungle when Europeans “discovered” the “New World.”

So the early Native Americans were typically human. They deserve credit for slowly developing the unpromising little teosinte plant into modern corn. Their careful improvement of this food crop allowed the rise of complex civilizations based on corn. Unfortunately, when times changed, the stubborn, inflexible part of human nature set in and their reliance on what had always worked proved to be their downfall. Instead of ruling their system, they let their system control them until it collapsed around them. So this is also a cautionary tale; for when their pattern of existence became unsustainable, they lacked the time or vision to change or modify their ways.

I wonder if “the fossil fuel” people will suffer the same fate.



9 Responses to “As Corn Goes, So Goes the World”

  1. Ellen Says:

    You are writing about a good topic, but you are seriously mischaracterizing Joseph Tainter’s book. His points are about diminishing returns on cultural and economic complexity, not on failures related to cultural identification and adaptation. You seem to be conflating the theories of Tainter with those of Jared Diamond, who wrote about these ideas you’re dealing with in his book “How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Tainter’s and Diamond’s theories on civilizational collapse are actually not fully compatible. Tainter’s book discusses the reasons for the Maya collapse (and also the disappearance of the maize-growing Chaco civilization) and they really have nothing to do with self-identification as “the corn people.” That’s the sort of idea that Diamond sells in his book, however. Perhaps you are confusing the two books?

  2. uncommonscolds Says:


    Thank you for the correction.

    As I said in my post, I was writing from memory. My copy of Tainter’s book has been in the hands of my friends for something like a year and a half now, and it’s been more than three years since I read it. I have Diamond’s book in my collection too, but I was so sure I was referring to Tainter that I didn’t even take it off the shelf to check my notes.

    I apologize for the sloppy scholarship.


  3. Michael Says:

    I don’t think you could say that corn is “wastefully” converted to ethanol. Actually only the starch is converted to ethanol. The remainder is used as a high protein livestock feed. We already raise plenty of starch crops, we can get along with out a little of it.
    Don’t forget another all American food, the turkey. Although not a plant crop, this bird is now a world wide source of protein.

    • uncommonscolds Says:

      Ethanol is a waste as a vehicle fuel for several reasons.

      First of all, we simply use motorized vehicles too much to be sustainable. Scarcity will eventually send us back to human and animal-powered vehicles as it did in Cuba when they were cut off from Russian-supplied oil. The US will simply find fuel scarcity prompts a similar response. I have no idea when that will happen. Ten years? A hundred? I don’t know. Barring some technological miracle though, that will happen since fossil fuels and the substitutes will simply become too rare, too expensive for use in vehicles. So far none of the fuel substitutes put forward come nowhere close to supporting the current level of car, truck, and tractor use.

      This leads to the ironic wastefulness of using corn as a substitute vehicle fuel. Using corn to produce a petroleum fuel substitute is not energy efficient. In his decades old classic Overshoot William Catton explains how we’d need to increase the corn crop fifty fold to make corn fuel use viable. If anything, the much increased US population today makes his 1970s figures even more powerful. Within the last few years many others, including successful and savvy hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham of GMO LLC, have ranted about the energy imbalance in the production of ethanol. In short, it takes too much water and fossil fuel energy to produce ethanol. The energy balance is not in its favor, hence it’s scam. It’s political pork. It’s a waste of corn.

      In fact, the use of corn as an animal feed is itself a problem. When America began to focus on grazing animals, it was as a use for marginal land. That made total sense. Unfortunately, America soon shifted from grass-fed livestock to corn-fed livestock. The numbers on how many people could be fed with the corn that’s fed to animals is impressive. Like many others, I argue we need to go back to grass-fed cows. Their meat’s better for people anyway. Plus, we’d then have a lot of corn to feed to people. And we are going to need that extra food because synthetic fertilizers are also fossil fuel based, and they too are becoming more and more expensive. So crop yields are not set to rise as the world population rises.


      • Michael Says:

        Your data on ethanol production is way out of date. The new generation of ethanol plants are much more energy efficient and use way less water. We have plants now that take in very little water and discharge none. Newer enzymes now make it possible to brew ethanol with out the heat that used to be required.
        Despite what many think, we still have an excess of dent corn. Yields are also increasing. China has been buying corn on the open market for the past few months in amounts that were not expected, and the price of corn still went down. We have a large supply of dent corn on hand now, and we’ll have enough corn, even with ethanol production for many years.
        A recent study in Texas found that grain fed beef is better for you than grass fed. This was no fly by night piece of research but research done on humans and repeated in triplicate.
        I’ve eaten dent corn, I’d not like to have it as my only food. You can get by, but protein is needed to keep the brain going.
        When cows eat corn, they eat the whole stalk, not just the grain as many would have you believe. Corn is a grass after all. Our bodies cannot process all of the cellulose that a rumen can. It is the ability of ruminants to turn cellulose into protein that makes beef and dairy production work.
        The only synthetic fertilizer is nitrogen, the rest are mined from underground sources.
        I have my hope for future energy sources set on hydrogen. We can use wind or solar energy to produce hydrogen from even polluted sources of water. The technology is coming. It’s not all doom and gloom.

    • uncommonscolds Says:

      I have to get out in the garden–hand weeding, no chemicals, and a tractor that’s waiting for me to give in and use it–but I wanted to put up at least one link on the disadvantages of ethanol. This is old, by no means the best link, but it covers some negatives that I didn’t cover.

      “Sacrificing Our Children to the ‘Corn God'” — from May 2007


    • uncommonscolds Says:


      Thank you for the update on ethanol. My information is indeed dated, so I’d appreciate it if you could provide me with your updated references.


  4. babz Says:

    Yes, most of us will suffer the same fate. My boyfriend is out at the farm changing the oil on the tractors right now. No oxen, no horses, just tractors. 200 acres along the river. Not growing food, growing hay. To feed future food. I think only the Amish are gonna make it after the oil is gone. The rest of us will just kill each other.

  5. Monoculture, Monsanto, and the threat of famine « eats shoots 'n leaves Says:

    […] who blogs at Uncommonscolds, has this to say about our plight: Like the ancient cultures whose ancestors transformed teosinte […]

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