Maize: A Global Crop with American Roots

Maize: A Global Crop with American Roots

The first harvest that the Pilgrims celebrated in Massachusetts likely included a healthy crop of corn. Weak and sick after a lean winter onboard the Mayflower, William Bradford wrote,

They (as many as were able) began to plant ther corne, in which servise Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both the maner how to set it, and after how to dress and tend it... Some English seed they sew, as wheat and pease, but it came not to good, eather by the badnes of the seed, or latenes of the season, of both, or some other defecte.

The corn harvest, Bradford wrote later, was plentiful. Thus, though corn is not specifically mentioned in descriptions of the 1621 celebration around which Thanksgiving lore is built, it was almost certainly a part of the feast.

Maize (corn) is native to the Americas, but it has become a staple around the world, as shown in this map of the corn crop in 2000. The map was made with statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as local and national governments. The statistics say how much land produced a corn harvest in each country or state. These statistics were then mapped regionally based on a general crop map made from satellite observations by Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Landsat instruments.

The map estimates how much corn was grown as a percentage of the satellite-observed crop. Areas in which most of the crop was corn, such as the midwestern United States, are dark green (a maize area near 100 percent). Places where corn was a less important crop are paler in color. Corn is clearly a significant crop around the world.

In 2010, 819 million tons of corn were produced around the world, and the U.S. Midwest produced more than 300 million tons, reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Corn, wheat, and rice provide 60 percent of the world’s energy intake. Corn is food for livestock, a sweetener, a fuel, and a thickener used in a wide range of products.

This versatile crop came from wild grass, teosinte, that Native Americans domesticated in Mexico nearly 9,000 years ago. Corn is not the only American crop than has worked its way into global cuisine. Many of the foods you see on your Thanksgiving table had their beginnings in the Americas, including turkey, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, vanilla, and chocolate.

NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen using crop data from Monfreda et al. (2008). Caption by Holli Riebeek.

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