All About Maize: A Divine Crop and Alternative to Petroleum

Corn or more frequently referred to as Maize, is the third most important cereal crop behind rice and wheat. However, for what it lacks in agricultural production compared to the other cereals today, it makes up for in cultural importance. Alike wheat and rice, maize started out as a crucial staple food for the early farmers that began to cultivate and make use of this wild grass. For the ancient Mayas and Aztecs, however, the importance of maize goes beyond its nourishment.

Humans began cultivating maize around 10 000 years ago in today’s Mexico, and since then it has been introduced to farms across the world. From the northernmost points of the globe (Canada and Russia) back to the South American continent it originated from, consumers have a plethora of maize kinds to choose from. Dent corn, flint corn, sweet corn and heirloom corn are some of the most common examples.

The ancient Mayas were an impressive people that we today remember for their innovative minds, stone temples and curious artefacts they left behind such as their famous calendar. Their empire ruled a vast geographical area stretching from the Yucatan Peninsula, today’s Guatemala, Belize and regions in Mexico. Their empire lasted for a whopping 2700 years and wherever they went, they brought along their faith and maize. According to the Mayan Origin Story, (their explanation of how life on earth came to be) corn is the most important component. According to their ancient faith, the gods called Grandfather Xpiyacoc and Grandmother Xmucane created humans out of maize. Similarly, the ancient Aztecs too believed that humans came from a maize mixture that their gods shaped and moulded. Though we today may no longer consider maize a godly crop it is still appreciated, largely due to its versatility. 

Yellow, white, red, blue, pink and striped

Today there are many different kinds of maize and used in all areas of life such as animal feed, raw material, biofuel and human food. What future purpose the cultivated maize is going to fulfil depends on its makeup, especially texture. As given by its name, Dent Corn can be recognized by a little imprint or dent on top of each kernel caused by an uneven drying of its starch components. Flour Corn on the other hand contains high levels of soft starch giving it a mealy texture. In contrast, Flint Corn has very low levels of soft starch, creating very hard kernels. Popcorn is an example of very hard Flint Corn with small hard kernels. Sweet Corn, which the most common variety eaten by humans contains high levels of sugar. This is due to that its sugar is not converted into starch. Compared to other cereals, maize contains rather low nutritional and protein levels. Hence it is not suitable to use for baking leavened goods. However, due to its texture and even sweetness, it can still be used to make delicious treats. In traditional Latin American cuisine Masa, a maize dough made from Dent Corn is used to make e.g. tortillas and tamales. In the United States, maize is also used in a variety of dishes. Whole cobs can be roasted, eaten as corn on the cob, turned into flour to make bread, pudding, and other confections.

Maize can also be used to make biofuel which is based on ethanol. The ethanol can then be mixed with gasoline to produce gasohol, which can be used as fuel for cars. Though it was initially believed that using maize to make fuel is more environmentally friendly than petroleum, for example, this is still heavily debated. The resources and land area required to produce maize could be used as food may not be the most efficient way to fuel. Today the biggest producers of maize are the United States (346.0 million metric tons/year), China (260.8 million metric tons/year) and Brazil (102 million metric tons/year). 

What are the optimal conditions for corn to grow?

Though maize crops have been modified to better adapt to different weather conditions, this crop generally does not do well in cold weather. For optimal seed germination, the soil temperature should be at least 10 degrees celsius. As with the other cereals, maize needs a fair share of water to grow. However, young maize plants are sensitive to high water levels. In waterlogged fields, they generally only survive between 48 hours to four days. This kind of water stress in maize causes restrictions on the plant’s oxygen uptake. Wet and cold weather conditions also bring about other issues. Such conditions are the ideal environment for Northern Corn Leaf Blight (NCLB). NCLB is a kind of fungal infections maize plants can suffer from and are at first usually noticed on lower leaves. At first, the site of infection have a green-grey colour and is between 3-15 cm long. Over time the lesions turn to a brown colour that also indicates the area of the plant has died. Though this fungus can impact the plant’s wellbeing and harvest outcomes, the actual maize cobs are unaffected. 

Once the little maize sprouts have emerged, the growing season is underway. Generally, maize requires between 60 to 100 days to mature and be ready for harvest. The length of the increasing period heavily depends on the weather. As mentioned, maize does not do well in cold conditions. Hence unexpected frost may extend the growing period or even kill the plants altogether. When the crops are fully grown and their moisture levels between 23-25%, the cobs are ready to be harvested. In the past, like all other crops, maize was harvested manually and later developed to include the use of animals such as horses for a horse-drawn sled cutter. The stalks of the maize were cut using the sled. However, the binding of the stalks for drying, picking the cobs and husking them still remained a completely human dependent process. The first mechanical machines were invented in the 1850s. Though maize can still be harvested manually if other equipment is unavailable, a specialised corn harvester is generally used. Among the newly invented machinery was the mechanical picker. This machine, whose much improved open versions are still around today, allows the farmer to directly and automatically pick the maize cobs from the stalks. 

Maize and remote sensing

Like other crops, maize needs to be protected from various diseases that affect its development and yield. As mentioned above, one common illness that farmers need to watch out for is Northern Corn Leaf Blight. Another fungal disease that farmers battle is the so-called Corn Smut. However, in Mexico, this infection is not always considered harmful. Here the infected but not yet fully developed galls of the maize are considered a delicacy and can be enjoyed as a taco filling. Unlike the Northern Corn Leaf Blight, Corn Smut also attacks the actual maize cobs. Corn Smut prefers warmer climates and causes significant economic losses for the farmers. Early signs of this fungal infection are white coloured galls. This later burst and release fungal spores that infect other plants. The spores can even overwinter in the soil and attack plants in the spring. Unfortunately, there are no chemical means to kill or control Corn Smut. Early detection and removing infected plants is the only way of keeping the fungus in check. However, detecting infected cobs in fast fields and doing so before the galls rupture and further the fungus’ spread is rather challenging. Using remote sensing, even maize farmers can receive a lot of help, for instance with detecting pests and infections before they have the chance to make considerable damages to the crop and yield. Early detection of infestations, even before they are visible to the human eye, are essential especially for infections that cannot be managed using chemical assistance. Monitoring maize health is not the only assistance farmers can get from remote sensing. Remote sensing can even help farmers to optimise their sowing strategies by suggesting the best sowing dates. 

Once considered a gift from the gods and the matter of which humans were created, maize in all its shapes and flavours remains an important part of many cultures cousins. With several million tonnes of corn produced and consumed each year, we may after all still be a few % maize. 


Popcorn Facts

1. Why do kernels pop?

As the kernels are heated, the water inside them expands and breaks through the hard surface and exposing the soft starchy inside. 


2. Why do some kernels not pop?

Their water content is too low. 


3. How long have humans consumed popcorn?

With the earliest evidence found in Peru, humans have enjoyed popcorn since ca 4000 BC. The kernels were tossed in hot sand until they popped. 


4. What country eats the most popcorn?

The United States.


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