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RACHEL BEGLIN COLUMN: A closer look at corn for the holidays

The story of corn on Turtle Island (North America) is a complicated, impressive, political and revolting one. So here, in this snowy month of December while the plants are sleeping, let’s dissect this fascinating plant and think about where it truly belongs in our food chain and how, perhaps, to honor it this holiday season.

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Bemidji Pioneer graphic

The story of corn on Turtle Island (North America) is a complicated, impressive, political and revolting one. So here, in this snowy month of December while the plants are sleeping, let’s dissect this fascinating plant and think about where it truly belongs in our food chain and how, perhaps, to honor it this holiday season.

Corn, as we know it today, was domesticated 6,000 to 10,000 years ago in what is modern-day Mexico from a grass known as teosinte. Indigenous peoples actively and intelligently selected for certain characteristics, such as larger cobs, more kernels and softer kernel skins. In fact, original teosinte cobs were only 2-3 inches long and carried only 5-12 kernels each. Nowadays, modern-day maize cobs can be up to 12 inches long with more than 5,000 kernels.

Human beings have coevolved with corn, such that at present, neither can persist without the other. Domesticated, corn won’t even grow without human intervention. And for us Homo sapiens, corn is actually the number one staple crop worldwide, surpassing other cereal grains and even rice.

I want to be clear -- there’s nothing wrong with corn. Zea mays deserves its place in history and as a culinary favorite. From grilled sweet corn to hominy soup, corn provides important calories, nutrients and culture to people all over the Americas. But what we’ve done to corn is getting a little out of hand.

So what made corn, our delicious and calorie-packed friend, take such a turn? In his book, "The Omnivore’s Dilemma," Michael Pollan explains that "Corn is an efficient way to get energy calories off the land…so we’ve designed a food system that produces a lot of cheap corn and soybeans resulting in a lot of cheap fast food.”

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The operative word in that quote is "efficient." Corn, when doused in chemical fertilizer (namely nitrogen), is an extremely efficient crop in terms of land yield. It’s why we, even in northern Minnesota, are part of the midwest’s corn belt. It’s why farmer after farmer has dedicated themselves to corn.

We’ve turned teosinte, through breeding and genetic modification, into one of the most homogenous, genetically similar crops in the world. It will grow close together. It will grow in perfectly straight lines. It can be genetically modified for pest resistance and drought resistance. Although it’s extremely extractive from the land and nutrient-hungry, chemical fertilizers are a quick-fix way to keep corn growing out of the same land for decades.

Corn’s efficiency was beloved by capitalism, an economic system that worships efficiency. And with farmers who used to grow a diversity of crops and feed their families a hundred years ago, we now see a trend toward monocultures -- farmers who just do fields and fields of corn. In fact, we’ve gotten so good at growing corn that we have too much corn.

What happens when there’s a surplus of corn and not a big enough market of people to eat it? Well, you get creative. Cheap, unhealthy high fructose corn syrup becomes the sweetener in just about everything you eat. Corn is turned into energy.

Feed animals gorge themselves on corn -- even feed animals like cows, whose four stomachs are designed to eat grass and pasture, are made sick on grain diets of corn on corn on corn. When the cows start getting sick on corn, we preemptively add antibiotics into their diets.

And growing that much corn, over and over on the same parcel of land, is revealing itself to be unsustainable after all. This hyper-efficient grass is only as good as its petroleum-produced, artificial fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer is water-soluble, meaning it leaches when it rains and runs off into our beloved creeks, streams and lakes.

Too much nitrogen in our watersheds is one of the main causes of algal blooms and dead zones in our freshwater lakes, such as Lake Erie . Tilling for corn often leads to erosion of the top six precious inches of fertile topsoil, and the lack of biodiversity leaves farmers vulnerable to crop failures and economic decline.

But the U.S. government subsidizes a lot of corn farmers and so the corn boom continues despite the high costs to consumers and the planet.

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Don’t want to be a part of the corn problem?

Checking your ingredient lists for processed corn syrup, purchasing grass-fed beef, and buying organic corn when possible can all make a big difference when we do it together. Additionally, supporting local, diversified farmers economically develops a different subset of farmers who are regenerating the soil and land.

This is not a message about giving up corn, but rather thinking about corn a little differently. In fact, many Central and South Americans celebrate the upcoming holiday with a traditional food that showcases what corn can be in all of its goodness: tamales!

So perhaps, this holiday season, as you look at the spread you have on your dining room table, you try your hand at a homemade tamale recipe and express gratitude for our ancestors and their agricultural forethought.

Originally from Phoenix, Ariz., Rachel Beglin now resides in Bemidji. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer, sustainability advocate, gardener, writer and coffee enthusiast. She can be reached at beglinr@gmail.com .

Related Topics: BEMIDJI NEWSLETTERFOOD
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