Chapter 4 // The Misfit Corn Machine

I. Introduction

II. Taking a Bite out of Big Apple Crime

III. Gas Engines & the Lead-erboard of Gloom

IV. Nantucket Sleigh (Polysaccha)ride

V. From Ice Age to Rice Ennis Age

VI. Asian Cultivation

VII. A Corn Maize

VIII. From Backwater to Front of the Spice Rack

IX. A Journey Across the Atlantic

X. Sugar Beets Cane at Its Own Game

XI. Pursuing the Frontier

XII. A Prairie Home Corn-panion

XIII. “Rain follows the plow”

XIV. A Bowl of Dust

XV. Let Them Eat Cake, and Corn Syrup

XVI. A Murderous Deficit of Turkey

XVII. Further Reading


I. Introduction

One sultry summer evening -- because summer evenings in the South are nothing if not steamy -- my spouse, we'll call her AAA, and I enjoyed a beer before heading to one of our favorite local haunts for some casual Tex-Mex. Over four years ago, I voluntarily gave up wheat because of the inflammation it caused me, so I always opt for the corn tortillas. Towards the end of the meal, AAA made an offhand remark that she intended as a joke. I have no idea what the offhand remark was now because it was so inoffensive, but something about the remark and my mental state at the time prompted me to spiral into a frenzied, self-righteous rant. Like any mature fifth-grader learns to do, I demanded that AAA apologize, even though I was the one who had just smashed hardboiled egg (figuratively, of course) all over my face in one of our favorite eateries. Within two minutes, my frothing brain had cooled, and I immediately said that I was sorry.

Ever the self-scientist, I began to explore what might have caused my outburst. It couldn’t be the beer, I reasoned, because I’d had that beer dozens of times in the last year with no similar reactions. Could it have been the heat? Possibly. But it’s hot one hundred percent of the time during Atlanta summers, and I’m not flying off the handle daily. Perhaps, then, it was the corn. Ah-ha. Now I was on to something. This explanation conjured up memories of the brimstone-inspired bursts that had surged from my bourbon-soaked lips during crisp Autumns at college, at reunions of friends when we were all dancing, even during the occasional holiday meal with my family.

I had long since traded in the bourbon for stouts and single malts, so if I hadn’t consumed bourbon, you might wonder, why in the world had my white rage returned? Turns out, bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, the same ingredient in the tortillas I’d consumed mere seconds before flying off the panhandle and into the firepit at AAA. So I began to do some research into corn. What I learned was not only fascinating, but supremely revealing. My findings prompted the sensationalist title of today’s episode of Age of Ecology.

The story of The Misfit Corn Machine -- a figure doused in about as much hyperbole as Paul Bunyan, but one still based loosely on fact -- can perhaps be traced to primordial wolves, those majestic masterpieces of evolution who have long struck awe and terror in the hearts of most sane sapiens. As we touched on in the episode about the demise of our cousins, Neanderthals, one theory explaining why modern humans have come to inhabit or explore every nook and canyon of this great planetary muffin of ours is that, around 40,000 years ago, we forged an alliance with wolves. More specifically, a prehistoric man or woman had the novel idea of throwing the scraps of a kill to the periphery of their encampment to keep the whinging, salivating wolves at bay. Soon, the tribe and the pack had entered into a sort of joint partnership: the humans provided a source of cheap calories from a kill to the semi-domesticated canines in exchange for the canines’ advanced warning system of growls and howls when other predators and would-be thieves approached the camp. This single, simple innovation may have been the first time in the history of humans that they could harvest and retain more food than they could eat in a day.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - corn on stalk

The instinct to hoard resources is, of course, not unique to humans. One merely need observe a dog when a scrap of meat hops out of a frying pan and into the fiery maws of said canine. But humans have near-perfected the art of hoarding by inventing the tools to enable it: not least of which are reading, writing, and agriculture. Some commentators believe our perfection of the tools necessary to hoard resources has, somewhat contradictorily, harmed our development. Especially with the proliferation of processed foods. Purchasing the food we consume from well-lit establishments rather than picking it from sun-lit environments has, to a certain degree, severed us from our evolutionary history. In a sense, we have overdriven our headlights and ended up in a gully of health problems. But the history of our intricate interconnectedness with food is no moonless sonata; dawn yet awaits.

In this chapter of Age of Ecology, we’ll explore how we’ve arrived at the current state of agriculture, with fewer than 20 plants out of the more than 20,000 edible species providing the lion’s share of global calories consumed. Chief among them? Corn. Along the way, we’ll explore the alternate explanations for the drop in New York City’s crime rate in the 90s, the parallel evolution of three of the world’s staple crops, and the trajectory of American pantries since the 1800s.


II. Taking a Bite out of Big Apple Crime

By 1992, New York City’s violent crime rates were through the roof: rape rates had quadrupled, murder had quintupled, robbery more than duodecupled. (That’s a fancy word for grown by more than 12.) So a fast-talking prosecutor who shared a name with everyone’s favorite Notre Dame cast-off, Rudy, ran for mayor on a law and order platform of cleaning up the streets. This Mr. Giuliani, a proselyte of the “broken windows” theory of crime reduction, won easily and set about reforming the city with his newly appointed police chief, Bill Bratton. Bratton had served in the Boston Police Department during the 80s era of Stephen Flemmi and the infamous Whitey Bulger, of Scorcese lore in The Departed.

In the process of tackling violent crime, Giuliani and Bratton likewise cracked down on drug dealers, panhandlers, and squeegee men alike -- believing that these more minor offenses were gateways to violent crime. By 1996, New York’s violent crime rates were down anywhere from 17%, as with rape, to 42%, in the case of murder. Some pundits hailed Mr. Giuliani as a posterboy in the fight against crime. But soon, new theories emerged about the true cause of this reduction in crime rates. Steven Leavitt, later famous for co-authoring Freakonomics, suggested that Roe v. Wade had ensured women were having fewer unwanted babies. The “good economy” theory suggested -- in a brilliant feat of “less is more” -- that crime drops when the economy is good and reverses when the economy is bad. Credibility deserted this theory when the tempest of The Great Recession wreaked little havoc on politicians’ crime-records, despite what one would predict to the contrary.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - New York City subway


III. Gas Engines & The Lead-erboard of Gloom

But then two researchers arrived independently at a starkly different explanation: lead. More precisely, tetraethyl lead, an unnatural additive to gasoline introduced by GM in the 1920s to reduce the “pinging” common to internal combustion engines.

In the 1990s, Rich Nevin, a consultant for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C., and Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, then a graduate student at Harvard, both published papers documenting the correlation between lead emissions and violent crime rates. Nevin’s paper, published in Environmental Research, went virtually unnoticed by criminologists, perhaps due to a systemic failure by crimonologists to renew their subscriptions, perhaps for some other, more obscure reason. Wolpaw’s paper furthered Nevin’s findings by showing that in states that phased out leaded gasoline quickly, violent crime rates fell quickly, while states that phased out leaded gasoline slowly experienced a slower reduction in crime.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - oil derricks

Turns out, since introducing lead into gasoline in the 1920s, oil companies had continued to add it well into the Reagan era. But the EPA tightened standards on lead emissions throughout the 70s, then banned it as a gasoline-additive altogether in 1986. When coupled with automakers introducing catalytic converters in the 1970s and 80s to further reduce emissions per regulations, such measures put the kibosh on the toxic substance known in chemistry circles as Pb. Lead.

Perhaps no wonder, then, that violent crime rates began to fall dramatically throughout the 1990s and 2000s, not just in The Big Apple, but across the country. After all, lead’s phase out began in the 1970s and 80s, roughly 25-30 years earlier. The median age of murderers? Twenty-seven.


IV. Nantucket Sleigh (Polysaccha)ride

But just as alarms were sounding around external, airborne pollution like lead, another form of pollution stole into our lives and livers like burglars in the night: sugar. From obvious culprits like cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup to the less obvious, not-quite-sugar additives dextrose and maltodextrin -- who sound like they could easily dismantle you in a science fair competition -- sugar and its polysaccharide cousins have spread like kudzu in the South. Not quite the mile a minute that the yarn-spinners would have you believe occurred in the 20th Century, but swift nonetheless.

The most common carrier for these sugary family members? Why, no less than the packaged foods that line the shelves of our pantries and the aisles of our lives. In the past five years, scientists have investigated the effects of the polysaccharides like the ones found in packaged foods -- you know, those ones that sound like science-fair winners -- and published their findings. Study after study showed that high levels of these polysaccharides resulted in everything from weight gains to lower levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut --- the same bacteria that help humans digest food and fight off foreign pathogens.

How, though, could sugar -- that derivative of a puny-looking descendant of wild grasses from Asia -- have come to dominate our health as the lead of the 70s and 80s did? To answer this question, we first visit the surprisingly lush fields of the Middle East. Although the portrayal of the area today may lead one who’s never visited to conclude that the area is merely a vast desert, the Middle East still has patches of dense forest & silt-laden deltas that hint at its historical fertility.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - Egyptian Date Grove


V. From Ice Age to Rice Age

Around 2.6 million years ago, the Earth erupted in ice. Forests retreated to the equator and the global temperature plummeted. It was in this cold environment of the Quarternary glaciation that the ancestors of humans first emerged from the canopies and began to roam the grassy savannas of Africa. Ice cover ebbed and flowed over the past 2.5 million years, retreating yet again starting around 19,000 years ago. By this time, Homo sapiens had likely emerged as the sole remaining humanoid species, having outlasted their close cousins the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. (But maybe not, as of that time, the “Hobbits” of prehistoric Indonesia). A few thousand years prior, these humans, our ancestors, had begun to snack on wild grasses that botanists later came to classify as wheat.

With warmer temperatures likely came an increase in human population as mortality rates decreased. Some historians believe the population boom even began to strain the food resources of the areas that humans lived in.

Around this time, inhabitants of southeastern Turkey had a vision. They decided to make the ennis wheat they’d been foraging for as hunter-gatherers more than just a snack after noticing that harvested wheat, when left on the ground too long, sprouted new plants. So they dedicated plots of land exclusively to the seeds of this wild grass, this ennis wheat, whose growth was aided by the warmer temperatures. So was born modern agriculture, and the practice soon spread throughout the southern Levant of Israel, Palestine, southern Jordan, and west into Iraq. This relative taming of nature and the care these fields required rooted humans, tying them to the land rather than to the seasons and creating the first cities. So was carved from the loins of once-nomadic sapiens the first civilizations. (After all, the word “civilization” is nothing more than a derivative of the Latin word for city, “civitas”.)


VI. Asian Cultivation

The Sumerians were perhaps the first group of people to elevate this static lifestyle to an artform. (New evidence suggests the Indus Valley may have beaten the Sumerians to the punch.) Their city-state spanned the mountains and plains of modern-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq along and between the Tigris and Euphrates, those rivers that many a child has mistaken for comic strip characters. The Sumerians assigned the city’s inhabitants to specialized tasks, constructed monuments, created public gathering spaces, and developed cuneiform, a system of writing with symbols suspiciously similar to minimalist, modern-day logos. Other civilizations emerged in the area. Soon, the peoples in the region began to domesticate animals, more crops like lentils and flax, and those wonderful alkalizing petards, figs, hung like hoisted flags.

Halfway across the globe to the east, scientists believe another group of humans known for their seagoing prowess had begun cultivating a wild grass that was intoxicatingly sweet when chewed. It’s believed that inhabitants of the south Asian island of New Guinea began domesticating sugarcane (along with bananas and taro) not long after inhabitants in the Levant began cultivating wheat. They combated oft-swampy conditions with mounds, pits, and drainage canals. Over the next few millennia, sugarcane spread to mainland Asia. Perhaps imagining the endless commercial possibilities of snacks made almost entirely from the substance, engineers in India developed methods to crystallize sugarcane juice so that it could be partitioned into tiny red and blue and green globules sold in packages to tiny humans with little regard for cavities. This was around 350 A.D.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - Taming New Guinea


VII. A Corn Maize

In the other direction from the Fertile Crescent, early settlers of the New World began cultivating a wild grass growing in southern Mexico, teosinte, for its small kernels. They selectively bred small number of kernels, fragile “cobs”, and rock-hard casings the shape of Revolutionary-era Minutemen’s tricorne hats, right out of the teosinte plant. These New World horticulturalists kept on domesticating teosinte until they had transformed it into its unrecognizable cousin, maize, perhaps better known as corn. When did all this occur? At almost exactly the same time as inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent were cultivating wheat and folks in Southeast Asia were cultivating sugarcane -- that is, around 9,000 years ago.

This new, piano-key-kerneled crop proved a perfect complement to the squash and beans that Native Americans began to cultivate as the “Three Sisters” agricultural trilogy in campy elementary school textbooks. Today, corn has, like wheat, become one of the world’s most important staple crops, providing over 20% of worldwide calories consumed each year. (Sugarcane’s percentage of calories consumed also hovers in the low 20s, but sugar can hardly be called a staple crop given the fatuousness of its content.)

Not long thereafter, ancestors of the early Niger-Congo people cultivated a hearty form of millet known as fonio in the hazy, halcyon savannas of modern-day Mali. The same people developed the first pottery in the history of humankind, which allowed them to cook the fonio without first milling the husks, much as you might cook rice. The world of grain bowls would never be the same.



VIII. From Backwater to Front of the Spice Rack

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, sugar was -- like the best Elizabeth Gilbert disciple -- taking a three millennia-long sabbatical on the Indian subcontinent from its travels across south Asia. While in India, sugar and alchemist worked sand in hand, seeking a superior form of sugar that was easier to transport to far-off lands than sugarcane’s naturally occurring, gooey syrup.

While they worked, historical records seem to indicate that inhabitants of modern-day China were the next to taste this Sweet Nectar of the Pods. Famed Roman historian and modern-day IPA statesman, Pliny the Elder, described sugar as a form of white honey, believing it held medicinal value. One rather incorrect Greek physician described such medicinal values as follows: “It is good dissolved in water for the intestines and stomach, and, taken as a drink, [can] help [relieve] a painful bladder and kidneys.”

Despite this early recognition, few people believed sugar held much value as a foodstuff, and it would remain a weedy shoot in the backwaters of history until, after years of trial and error, the Indian subcontinent’s sucrose engineers finally perfected not one, but two less messy methods of sugar transport: small granules, and crunchy sheets of cooled sugar syrup known as khanda in the native Sanskrit language. Both of these ancient methods of getting sugar to market are still with us today: namely, sugar crystals with the texture of salt and candy, the Anglicized form of the Sanskrit khanda.

From there, monks, traders, and, later Crusaders, dispersed the sweet substance with the effectiveness of honeybees during pollen season. By the 9th Century A.D., sugar had traveled across the Levant, zooming past its wheat and lentil cousins in the Middle East like Ferris Bueller in his Ferrari to settle on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean -- from Cyprus and Sicily, to North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. It even traveled down the East African coast to Zanzibar. There, the stalks reposed, generation after generation, producing much of the world’s sugar supply. But that was all about to change.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - Idols in Zanzibar


IX. A Journey across the Atlantic

As the Portuguese began to explore the world’s oceans in the 15th Century, they recognized the recently deforested Atlantic island of Madeira as particularly well-suited for sugarcane, with its lush, rocky cliffs of green and orange like marbles spilled from the handbasket of God herself. So they lined the island with rows upon rows of sharp sugarcane that grew like the weed it was in the wet, temperate winters and hot, dry summers of the island.

But this was just the tip of the spiceberg. After a month-long sojourn in the Canary Islands at the end of which the governor gave him cuttings of her sugarcane plants, Christopher Columbus and his crew soon stumbled upon the Caribbean islands of the New World. They planted the sugarcane cuttings and found that the climate on these islands was particularly well-suited to sugarcane production.

Soon, monocled cartographers had christened the islands the “West Indies” -- apropos, given sugar’s Indian heritage -- but also a complete geographical misnomer. The British, the French, the Spanish, all branded slave colonies onto the tropical Caribbean forests. Not to mention the slave-wrought sugar produced in Brazil on Portuguese plantations. All the while, forced laborers lost arms, went lame, collapsed with exhaustion tending the world’s most productive cane fields and factories on islands that came to be known as Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba. (One Jamaican sugar plantation was, with not a granule of intended irony, named Mesopotamia.)


X. Sugar Beets Cane at Its Own Game

Clanging factories with hundred degree temperatures and worked by slaves refined this sugarcane into table sugar, molasses, and rum. During the 18th Century, the abundance of sugar produced by slave labor had caused its price to drop to a point low enough to be affordable by a much larger audience. And this audience ate it up. By the mid-19th Century, sugar had gone from a luxury to a necessity.

Ever the opportunist, no less than Napoleon Bonaparte himself subsidized the development of an alternative source of sugar -- one that could be grown all across French soil -- by funding sugarbeet research. Soon, though, Napoleon decided that France wasn’t enough. He and his forces soon marched like ill-tempered ants across much of Europe, starting a series of wars today known as the Napoleonic Wars. As Europe came under siege, the sugar trade routes from New World plantations came under fire. Europeans panicked. But that rather boring-sounding research that Napoleon had funded -- research into cultivating the sugar beet on European soil -- came to the rescue. Across much of Europe, farmers devoted fields to sugar beets, staving off near-certain death for all the sugar-craving Europeans whom Napoleon’s continental tantrums had impacted.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - Napoleon in caricature

With their blood sugar returned to its normal, abnormally high state, Brits, Prussians, Dutch, Belgians, all banded together and defeated Napoleon once and for all in the Battle of Waterloo. They banished him to St. Helena, an extinct volcano in the Atlantic even more remote than the island of Madeira where Europeans had first cultivated sugarcane.

Napoleon’s subsidies to the nascent sugarbeet industry in the early 1800s were, of course, not the first time nations had subsidized their domestic agriculture, and would by no means be the last. Such subsidies would appear again in the modern economies of countries the world over as we moved into the 1900s and 2000s.


XI. Pursuing the Frontier

While the Europeans fought throughout the early 1800s, the nascent United States set about exploring its territory from coast to coast. Initially confined to the east coast of the North American continent after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the U.S. quickly expanded westward. In 1803, France had just suffered an embarrassing failure to suppress a slave revolt on Haiti, the primary source of French sugar at the time. Fraught by impending war with the United Kingdom -- what came to be known as the Napoleonic Wars we touched on earlier -- French bureaucrats surprised U.S. Ambassador James Monroe with an offer to sell all of its Louisiana Territory, extending from modern-day Louisiana through much of the Midwest. President Thomas Jefferson leapt on the offer. When the negotiations ended, the U.S. government had parted with $250 million in exchange for the land of 15 future U.S. states.


Jefferson immediately commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the newly acquired territory. Jefferson’s stated goal was to document the customs of the native tribes that inhabited the west. But Jefferson had an ulterior motive. He wanted to discover the hiding place of the American mastodons he was convinced must still roam the continent, based on strange, elephant-like fossils that naturalists had found in Kentucky decades earlier. Over the course of three years, Lewis and Clark charted a westward course, relying on the help of Native American tribes like the Mandan peoples in North Dakota that had lived on North American soil for over 10,000 years. It was the ancestors of many of these tribes that had helped domesticate teosinte into corn so many moons before.

Despite Lewis and Clark’s Expedition, both they and the Pacific Northwest they charted sank into relative obscurity until the Oregon Treaty of 1846 brought modern-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming, under U.S. dominion. A decade later, Americans began setting up homesteads, planting corn across much of Kansas and Nebraska.


XII. A Prairie Home Corn-panion

In 1854, Kansas became a prairie of conflict between pro-slavery “Border Ruffians”, hailing from Missouri and other southern states, and anti-slavery “Free Staters”, who were concerned that rich slaveholders would snap up all the good farmland. In November 1854, the Kansas government put the matter of whether to allow slavery in the state to a vote, open to white males residing in Kansas at the time. A few hundred residents cast their votes. Hundreds more non-residents stormed the state and cast their votes as well, resulting in a fraudulent landslide for pro-slavery forces.

The next year, abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher armed a number of anti-slavery residents with rifles, which later came to be known as “Beecher’s Bibles”. Abolitionist John Brown and his sons hacked pro-slavery advocates to death with broadswords. For seven years, until the dawn of the Civil War, violence rippled throughout the entire Kansas Territory like so many cornstalks in the wind. In all, a surprisingly modest 55 people died in these hyperbolically named “Bleeding Kansas” skirmishes, with many more injured and dozens of structures burned to the ground.


XIII. “Rain follows the plow”

With peace after the Civil War came prosperity. Kansans and Nebraskans put their fields under the plow. All across the country, Americans were growing corn, more corn than they knew what to do with, in fact. So they made whiskey. Lots of it. Per capita alcohol consumption may have peaked in the 1820s at an ear-popping half-pint per day, but total whiskey consumption continued to grow along with the population on into the 1860s and 1870s. Around that time, domestic beer consumption began to blossom, too, overtaking distilled spirits consumption in the 1850s and never looking back. One of the main ingredients in the beer of the day? You guessed it. Corn. An adjunct that helped industrial brewers create an American take on the beer that so enchanted imbibers of the day: a Bohemian lager known as Budweis.

Throughout the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s, the federal government encouraged settlement of the High Plains of Kansas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and northeast New Mexico through a number of land grants. The semi-arid High Plains had, centuries prior, been deemed unfit for European-style agriculture because of its low annual rainfall and fierce winds, but unusually wet years coincided with these land grants. Many prone to pseudo-science began to posit that “rain follows the plow”, believing that the climate of the area had changed for good.

Plowing circa 1910.

Plowing circa 1910.

Plots of wheat, cotton, and especially corn sprung up all across the region. Farmers plowed under 5.2 million acres of the native grasses that held moisture and rooted the soil. Livestock munched on what remained of the rest. Without the native grasses to anchor the soil and the interference with the soil biome by the tilling techniques, the whole region became susceptible to disaster. Nature played her part.


XIV. A Bowl of Dust

As the Napoleonic Wars had done in the early 1800s, World War I similarly put European fields under stress. American farmers valiantly ramped up their production efforts in support. But not long after the war ended in 1918, a recession sprouted. The U.S. government responded with the Agricultural Credits Act of 1923, distributing $5 million to each of 12 regional farming cooperatives -- coinciding with the 12 regional banks in the Federal Reserve System --  that could relend the money to local farmers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did little to stave off the overproduction that had driven agricultural prices to unsustainable lows. In 1929, President Hoover tried again, this time facilitating the organization of a program for arms of the federal government to buy grains on the open market and store them, hoping to address the woes of overproduction by artificially increasing and smoothing out demand.   

Overproduction continued. In 1930, the Pacific Ocean suddenly became cooler, while the Atlantic Ocean warmed. The confluence of Pacific cooling and Atlantic warming shifted the Jet Stream south so that little rain reached the Great Plains. Temperatures soared. Crops died by the millions, as if torn asunder by locusts. Unable to grow crops, farmers abandoned their lands in favor of the cities. Now under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s watch, Congress took another stab at intervention with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, or AAA, as it came to be called. Instead of making loans or buying up excess crops as with previous measures, the AAA paid farmers to leave some of their land fallow. Where did the money to pay these farmers come from? Out of coffers paid into by companies that processed farm products.

But the misery continued, fueled in part by the historic droughts that had begun in 1930 and 1931 and continued to rear their parched heads throughout the 30s. With so little water reaching the region due to the Pacific-Atlantic reversals’ impact on the Jet Stream, crops continued to die. With no plants to anchor the soil in place, the howling winds of the region stoked the soil into raging infernos of dust. In 1935, one of the worst dust storms in U.S. history swept hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil from the Great Plains, suffocating rabbits in its opaque wake and overtaking birds that had fled in terror, which dropped to the ground from exhaustion, unable to fly no more. The storm buried tractors up to their steering wheels.

Winds deposited this ravaged topsoil as far east as Washington, D.C. The storm came to be known as “Black Sunday”. Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act just weeks later. The Act created a government service to educate farmers on better soil conservation practices, encouraging terrace farming, requiring the planting of native trees and grasses to anchor soil, and paying farmers to reduce production. (This last measured effectively reinstated the policy from the Agricultural Adjustment Act two years prior which the Supreme Court had struck down as unconstitutional.) The Dust Bowl, as this epic ecological era was called, exacerbated the worst economic depression in U.S. history.

Plowing through dust during the Dust Bowl.

Plowing through dust during the Dust Bowl.

Two years before the U.S. joined the Allies in World War II, the rains returned to the High Plains, alleviating the worst of the hardship. But for decades afterwards, some of the hardest-hit regions continued to exhibit the pockmarks of the 1930s Dust Bowl.


XV. Let Them Eat Cake. And Corn Syrup

As the world -- and western economies in particular -- became more commoditized in the post-War years, convenience became king. Prepackaged snack manufacturers began looking for ways to cut costs, including looking at cheaper sources of sugar. In the 1950s, U.S. researchers looked to cheap, corn-based sugar derivatives for sweeteners, similar to the sugar beet-based sugar of yesteryear. But they hit a wall because they lacked certain enzymes necessary for the conversion process.

In the 1960s, though, Japanese scientists perfected a method of microbial fermentation to isolate the enzyme necessary to create sweet, shelf-stable syrup out of corn. Perfected in the late 1960s, this High Fructose Corn Syrup, as the industry so poetically named its newest darling, found its way into convenience-store snacks and soft drinks beginning in the late 1970s. The late 1970s ushered in the beginning of a run of record U.S. corn production levels that have more than doubled total U.S. output in the forty years since.

High Fructose Corn Syrup was, like the Indian sugar refining technology fifteen hundred years earlier, a game-changer in the world of sweets. It was not only cheaper than sugar, but also extended the shelf lives of prepackaged sweets, helped baked goods “brown” better in the industrial ovens where they spawned, and maintained its sweet taste in the presence of acid. This last attribute made it ideal for sweetened soft drinks.

The arc of suburbanization saw families -- predominantly white, middle class families -- move to the suburbs after World War II, in tandem with the rise of the television and convenience foods. Seeking a life of ease and abundance, one that differed markedly from their childhood years during the Great Depression, parents looked for easy ways to feed their families. Enter pre-packaged foods and ready-made dinners.

Bear in mind, though, convenience foods were not something that just dropped like manna from Seventh Heaven in the post-War years. Canned goods had been around since the 1800s. Even the ancient Aztecs, the successors of those ancient peoples who tamed corn, had fast food markets for travelers. But as more women entered the workforce throughout the 1960s and 70s and workers spent longer at the office, readymade meals became not only au courant, but oh-so-convenient.

After a food company by the name of Swanson was stuck with gravy boatloads worth of turkey one Thanksgiving, company executives had the novel idea of packaging this leftover turkey and marketing it in airline-style food trays that a cook could put straight in the oven. The name of these prepackaged meals? TV dinners, because you could make them in time to watch the “early, early show”, as one Swanson ad trumpeted. The original TV dinner trays only included three compartments -- one for meat, and two for vegetables -- but in the 1960s, they began to incorporate dessert into the mix. A prime candidate for the sweetening agent in these desserts? High Fructose Corn Syrup.

Enter Earl Butz. A bespectacled Midwesterner with a manner of speaking one might describe as a lightning rod for media coverage, Butz became a champion of free-market farm policy during his time as a dean at Purdue University. When Richard Nixon came calling in 1971, asking Butz if he would join him in Washington at the USDA, Butz obliged. He resigned from his directorship for the agribusiness Ralston-Purina and headed east. While there, he ended the FDR-era subsidy for farmers to leave parts of their fields fallow and expedited the exodus of family farmers to cities by adopting the motto “get big or get out”.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - Earl Butz

Industrial farming operations surged, producing cheap corn and soybeans that the U.S. exported to the world. Especially the Soviet Union. Before a vulgar, racist comment forced him from office, Butz defended the pesticides of industrial agriculture with the retort: “Before we go back to organic agriculture, somebody is going to have to decide what 50 million people we are going to let starve.”

Once a tipping point of households had freezer units in the mid-70s, TV dinners hit their stride, reaping rewards from Butz’s relatively inadvertent stewardship of boosting corn production. They were not to be outdone by prepackaged desserts, the most famous of which rose to fame in the 1950s by one of the sponsors of the Howdy Doody Show at the time, Twinkies. During the Cold War, Twinkies received an additional boost with a claim that they could “stay fresh forever”, a boast that met with surprisingly less concern than it probably should have. Originally calling for banana “creme” filling and real eggs, the maker of Twinkies changed its recipe after World War II’s banana shortage. Later, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Dextrose, and Corn Dextrins all found their way into the Twinkie recipe. Presumably, Butz believed these Twinkies would ensure the survival of the 50 million people that organic agriculture would starve. (Turns out, regenerative organic agriculture can likely feed the world as well as industrial agriculture in the short-term, and not destroy it in the long-term.)


XVI. A Murderous Deficit of Turkey

Although healthy and relatively nutrient-dense, corn is low in tryptophan, an essential amino acid you’ve likely heard as the molecule in turkey that puts you to sleep. This urban legend could hardly be further from the truth, unless you’ve found yourself nodding off after eating eggs. Or salmon. Or spinach. All of which contain more tryptophan per calorie than turkey. Aside from putting you to sleep, one of tryptophan’s most important functions is in generating serotonin, the hormone responsible for regulating mood. In other words, tryptophan helps keep you smiling.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's favorite environmental essays - Turkey

A lack of serotonin -- which can be caused by a lack of tryptophan in one’s diet -- leads to a laundry list of modern-day maladies, from depression and anxiety to insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome. Not surprisingly, according to a study published on the National Institutes of Health Library of Medicine repository of medical papers: “Cross-national studies have reported a positive association between corn consumption and homicide rates and a negative association between dietary tryptophan and suicide rates.” In a nutshell, there’s a possible link between high corn consumption and murder, perhaps the starkest manifestation of a bad mood.

When I stumbled on this, deep down the NIH rabbithole I’d been fumbling my way along in the dark, I couldn’t but help shouting “Eureka”. It was confirmation of my hypothesis all along: that corn can stimulate aggression. While it’s no-doubt much more complicated than this, it did feel like, to a certain degree, my behavior with my wife in our favorite Tex Mex spot that one fateful summer evening was not so very misanthropic as it was a molecular outcry.


XIII. Further Reading (On the median age of murderers) (On the history and findings of the strong correlation between reduced lead and reduced crime);  (On why car & oil companies introduced lead into gasoline in the first place) (On the history of high-fructose corn syrup) (Summarizing studies of the various effects of maltodextrin on human health; mostly negative, some neutral) (On the salinization of the Fertile Crescent) (On the domestication of livestock and crops in the Levant) (On the 4.2 kiloyear event) (On the history of maize) (On the history of mathematics) (On the aridization of the Levant as an explanation for the collapse of many Biblical kingdoms circa 1200 B.C.) (Maps of original grain cultivation); (On the evolution of candy) (On Thomas Jefferson’s ulterior motive for the Lewis & Clark expedition: the discovery of mastodons) (On the per-capita consumption of alcohol by type in the 1800s) (On the use of corn in pre-Prohibition beer) (On modern corn subsidy amounts) (On historical corn yields in the U.S.) (On the relative lack of tryptophan in corn; ancient methods used to maximized trytophan-availability in corn; and modern studies that have found correlations between corn consumption and homicide rates) (On the importance of tryptophan in producing serotonin and the depression-like symptoms that can arise in the lack thereof); (On the evolution of prepackaged food); (On the history of the Twinkie)