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Grain of Doubt

LIKE A SWARM OF FIREFLIES, a group of teenagers creates a chaotic dance of flashlight beams as they scatter down a path leading into Don Schuster’s corn. Within moments, they are gone, swallowed by the deepening blackness of the tall corn and the encroaching fall evening. Only their voices drift back to us, standing on the periphery of the nine-acre field. Others, too—the excited peal of children and young couples who have come to wander the serpentine paths Schuster has carved into his corn. Their laughter floats above us like the whispers of ghosts, happily lost in this maze of maize.

The real trouble with corn may not be what it does wrong, but what it does right.

Strange phenomena, corn mazes. Schuster BS’86 MS’94 has been creating them for nine years on his farm near Deerfield, Wis., and he’s still uneasy about tearing up good corn to make a human-sized rat race. “It goes against everything I was brought up to think about a cornfield,” he says. But as a part-time economist with CALS’ Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, he also understands the bottom line. In a good year, 11,000 people will pay two to six dollars each to get lost in his family’s field, enough to make whatever money he gets from the corn itself incidental.

This would have seemed a bizarre reality to Schuster’s ancestors, who farmed corn for four generations before him. But if those men could walk through Don Schuster’s field today, they would be lost for a different reason. The plants that towered around them would look alien, hardly resembling any cornfield they would have known.

Seventy years ago, Schuster’s grandfather might have planted 8,000 corn seeds per acre, leaving plenty of room for the stalks to spread out. Today, most farmers put in 30,000. Schuster goes beyond that: To enhance the closed-in feel of his maze, he plants rows in both directions, packing 44,000 stalks into each acre. By August, his corn forms an eight-foot-tall wall with a canopy so thick that sunlight hardly reaches the ground.

“That’s a lot of what makes people enjoy the maze,” says Schuster. “You get in there and you can’t see over the corn. It’s like a big tunnel.” But it’s an effect created not by light or darkness or by Schuster’s zero-turn-radius mower. It owes its magic to the plant itself, and the human conquest of it. We have made corn a jungle.

Through 7,000 years of farming, humans have turned a wild grass that grew in the valleys of Central America into Zea mays, one of the most bountiful food crops in existence. Today, corn grows on every continent except Antarctica, from the American heartland to the northern plains of China to the Andes mountains. Worldwide, farmers harvest some 700 million metric tons of its kernels each year, making it the second-largest food crop on the planet, behind sugarcane.

Ample credit for that dominance goes to the generations of farmers and breeders who have tailored the genetic superiority of the corn plant. Like a thoroughbred race horse, modern corn is a rare beast, designed to perform. It has been honed to grow taller and healthier and live closer to its neighbors, traits that have driven per-acre corn yields to historic levels. While 80 years ago American farmers yielded about 26 bushels of corn from one acre, now they often haul in more than 200.

Although corn occupies about 20 percent less land now than it did before World War II, our nation’s annual corn harvest has more than quintupled. Last year, farmers harvested a record-busting 13.1 billion bushels of corn—enough to supply every man, woman and child in the country with a six-and-a-half pound box of kernels every day for an entire year.

Of course we don’t eat all of that corn, at least not as kernels. Only about 12 percent of the U.S. corn crop goes directly into food production; the rest is fed to animals, turned into products such as ethanol or exported. But corn finds its way back to us in many ways—as sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup and dextrose, as starches in baked goods and confectionaries, as cooking oils and margarine, and as proteins and enzymes added to hundreds of foods. More than one quarter of the items on supermarket shelves now contain some form of corn, from Twinkies to fruit juice, from waffles to salad dressing, from soup to nut bread. Order a typical fast-food meal and you’re eating corn in every bite: Corn feeds the cattle that make the beef; corn enriches the bread in the bun; corn sweetens the soda and bathes the French fries to golden perfection. It’s even in the ketchup.

And therein lies the problem. As much as we have ruled corn, corn now rules us. It’s in our T-shirts and boxer shorts and our children’s disposable diapers. It’s in our vitamins and our prescription drugs. It’s in lipstick. It’s in soap. Corn starch is in the finish applied to these magazine pages, the cardboard boxes they were shipped in and the gasoline tanks of the vans that delivered them. Our daily lives have come to rely so heavily on corn that 13.1 billion bushels of it seems hardly enough. Increased demand for corn, especially from foreign markets and the ethanol industry, has pushed corn prices to historic highs, more than tripling in the past two years. After summer floods in Iowa and Wisconsin raised fears of a poor harvest, corn spiked to near $8 a bushel, a level never before seen.

With corn now blanketing a swath of U.S. soil that could cover half of Texas, planting more hardly seems appealing. Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from cornfields in the Mississippi River basin is contributing to a growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where excess nutrients cause oxygen levels to drop and make water inhabitable for fish. Growing more corn would exacerbate those problems, especially since most of the lands best suited for corn are already planted with it. If farmers choose to till highly erodable grasslands for corn, soil erosion and runoff problems are bound to get worse.