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Maize, also known as corn, is one of the most extensively cultivated cereal crops on Earth. More is produced, by weight, than any other grain, and almost every country on Earth cultivates maize commercially for a variety of uses. The abundant global cultivation has led to concerns about monocropping and biodiversity, especially since genetic evidence suggests that maize is radically less diverse than it was originally. In addition, this cereal is heavily genetically modified, and the crop has been used as a rallying point by the anti-Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) community.
The exact domestication point for maize is unknown, but it is estimated that the crop is at least 9,000 years old. The plant was originally domesticated in Mesoamerica, and appears to be related to species of wild grass which still exist in Central American today. People in many English speaking nations know maize as corn. Originally, the term “corn” could refer to any type of grain. When maize was brought back to Europe, it was called “Indian corn,” a reference to the source of the plant. The term was shortened to “corn” as the plant became ubiquitous in many gardens. In Africa, it is known as mealies.
Globally, maize is a staple crop, and many people rely on it as a primary source of nutrition. In addition to playing a major role in the human diet, it is also used as livestock fodder. Corn is processed to make an assortment of products ranging from high fructose corn syrup to biofuels, all of which play important roles in human society. Oddly enough, maize is at the forefront of the green revolution with byproducts like compostable containers and biofuel, while simultaneously being used as a controversial food additive in the form of corn syrup and other derivatives.
Domesticated maize grows to a height of 8 feet (2.5 meters). It is typically planted in rows to make it easy to harvest the female ears once they mature. The crop is also surprisingly vulnerable to pests and drought, given its global importance as a food source. The development of GMO maize was partially designed to address this issue, but some consumers are concerned about the introduction of GMOs into the food supply.
When maize was initially cultivated in the Americas, it was grown along with beans and squash. The beans used the corn stalks to support themselves as they grew, while the squash offered a ground cover. The combination was also healthy for the soil, which was additionally enriched with alkaline substances. The addition of alkali to the soil proved to be an important part of growing maize, as alkali frees up niacin in the grain. When corn was initially exported to other regions, many people suffered from pellagra, or niacin deficiency, until the problem was identified and corrected.