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Archive for the ‘corn’ Category

What if?

I’ve been thinking.

What if there was a thing that could be produced not just for food, but for hundreds of other products, too?

What if that thing could be easily propagated and collected? What if it didn’t spoil easily so it could be stored for long periods of time and shipped around the country or around the world with no refrigeration and minimum waste? What if the size, shape, and density of that thing made it easy to design efficient containers and conveyances to store and move it?

What if, at a moment’s notice, that thing could be used for food or renewable energy, depending on what was needed most? Better yet, what if it could be used for both simultaneously? What if you could break that thing into various components and thus make food for protein-producing livestock and clean-burning fuel for cars at the same time?

What if that thing were a plant? What if it could be adapted to be grown almost anywhere, in a wide range of soils and climates? What if scientists could continuously tweak this plant so it could yield more on less land with less water, less fertilizer, and fewer pesticides?

What if, while it was growing, the plant would produce ample amounts of oxygen while removing tons of carbon dioxide from the air? What if farmers could experiment with their growing techniques for this plant to minimize soil erosion, water pollution, fuel use, and emissions?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

What if I told you this thing—this plant—already exists? It does, and chances are that if you live in the U.S., there’s a field of it within a few miles of where you’re sitting. It’s the #1 crop grown in our state and our nation. It’s corn.

So, what was it that got me thinking so hard about corn?

Every year, one day of the National Ag in the Classroom Conference features tours of agricultural sites. This is usually my favorite part of the conference, because I get to experience facets of U.S. agriculture I’ve never seen in person. I’ve sweated in the hot sun of a sugar cane field in Louisiana, inhaled the fruity aroma inside a tart cherry processing facility in Utah, and squinted across the dusty pens of a sheep feedlot in Colorado.

This year’s conference was in Kansas City, Missouri. Of the seven tour choices offered, I settled on the one named “Corn is King!” Practically every ag literacy program I coordinate touches on corn in some way, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to learn more about it.

Ingredion process

It was incredible to see the engineering behind how starches are derived from corn.

The tour was of an Ingredion processing facility where they make several kinds of modified starch. You’ve probably seen “modified cornstarch” or “modified food starch” in the ingredients lists of various food products. (The term “modified” refers to the starch having been physically or chemically treated to enhance its properties as a thickener, emulsifier, or other use.) When you run across modified starch it was probably made in the facility I visited, as it produces about 70% of the modified starch used in the U.S.

The Ingredion facility reminded me of an enormous boiler room, with its huge steel tanks, labyrinth of pipes, hissing steam, rumbling machines, and random puddles on the cement floor. I’ve always hated boiler rooms. So as I tried to hear our tour guide while ignoring the hissing and rumbling, I thought deeply about corn.

Ingredion products

This is just a tiny sampling of products containing modified starches to improve stability and texture.

You’ve probably heard from critics who say that corn’s dominating presence in our grocery stores is a bad thing. That it’s part of a giant, greedy conspiracy whose players include farmers, food manufacturers, and the government. I’m anything but an expert on the incentives and economics that play into corn production and use. But my feeling is that for all the reasons I listed in my “what ifs” earlier, corn is amazing. Rather than disturbing me, I find it miraculous that within just a few hours of my day, corn fuels my car, makes my paper smooth, keeps my pudding creamy, and feeds the pigs that make my bacon.

Corn IS king!


This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the July 2017 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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