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Nobody Puts Corn in the Corner

Cornelia Poku
Cornelia Poku
November 21, 2019

Sometimes corn gets served a bad hand at the Thanksgiving table. It’s not that corn is not liked, it just gets overlooked when you have savory stuffing, succulent carved Turkey and an assortment of pies that are all vying for space in your growling stomach.

This holiday season, however, give some extra love to your creamed corn, cornbread, hushpuppies, and tamales because without biotech it might not be here.

In 1996, corn became one the very first commercially available genetically modified crops and today more than 90% of corn planted in the US is genetically modified. Thanks to progress in biotechnology, our society can make the most of the husk, the cob, and the kernels, making corn almost a no-waste product.

To fully appreciate the role of biotech innovation in corn, however, we must go way back to thousands of years before the Pilgrims landed in the “New World.” The corn we eat today is the result of hundreds of years of intelligent design meant to maximize the crop. Native peoples—in what is now Mexico and Central America—were the first to grow and domesticate corn. A wild grass known as Teosinte is the earliest known relative of maize, but each ear of corn grown on the Teosinte was quite small. By breeding the crop to suppress the trait that led to branches from the stalk, the farmers could grow much larger ears of corn.

Teosinte
Teosinte on top, Maize (modern corn) on bottom, and a Teosinte and Maize hybrid in center

In its earlier days, circa 8700 BC, the corn seeds would burst off its stalk when the grain was ripe so that the seeds could be dispersed. It was the corn’s way of pollinating and spreading. Over time, farmers—some of the first to modify plants using breeding—manipulated corn so that the seeds wouldn’t disperse, then they worked on other desirable traits, ability to grow in different climates, size, kernel shape and color, and taste. By some estimates, at some point there were over 300 varieties of corn. Today, it’s down to a much more manageable six main types of corn that are grow in the U.S.

Over the years our climate has changed radically, so naturally, the next phase of development was to engineer corn that could withstand certain pests and weeds that thrive in exceedingly warmer climates. With herbicide and insect resistant corn, and drought tolerant corn on the market, more of each year’s crop could survive to meet the massive demand for human and animal consumption and for other purposes.

As scientists learned more about corn DNA, they were able to create additional uses. More recently, researchers have even developed a way to use the tiny pericarp fiber found in corn kernels to produce next-generation biofuels like cellulosic ethanol. That heavy cob that’s left over when kernels are removed, can be used to boost soil quality in the fields through its ability to be turned into biochar, a type of charcoal that helps soil.

And while the corn husk is another element of the ear of corn that can be used for biofuels, the fashion world has also started eyeing the by-product for its fiber qualities. The science and logistics of scaling corn husks as a textile are still coming together, but pioneers like biochemical engineer, Professor Yiqi Yang at the University of Nebraska are working on it. “If you look at history, textile is agriculture,” he said in an interview with KQED QUEST. He argues that as the earth runs out of space to cultivate, we must become savvy about growing crops that have multiple uses, corn is one of those crops.

In August, the USDA released a report showing that in 2019, corn is America’s top crop. From food to fuel to fabric, the corn crop has become one of the most critical vegetables in our society. So, this Thanksgiving, don’t let corn be overlooked; be grateful for this versatile crop.