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The Future of Corn

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You might think you know corn - as in corn tortillas, corn-flakes, corn-bread and so on. But do you really know corn? Like, did you know that our last harvest could be one of our biggest, or that most American corn is genetically modified? Shawn Allee reports experts want us to get re-acquainted with our biggest crop because we need to make huge decisions about its future.

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Transcript: Shawn Allee, January 12, 2010

Virginia Walbot researches corn genetics at Stanford University, and recently she got news that didn't just make her day - it kinda made her decade. Walbot says scientists just finished sequencing genes of an important corn genome.

"The genes are like the words in different languages and what you need is a dictionary that lists all those words, and that dictionary for us, is the genome sequence."

Walbot says this research could allow us to breed new corn varieties faster than ever before. That's a big deal because even though we benefit from corn we have now, we could make it better. For example, corn creates environmental problems - take corn fertilizer.

"Of course, adding fertilizer really boosts a lot of yield, but the downstream effects aren't really great. So, there's runoff from farms that contaminates the water supply. Making corn as efficient as possible and just giving enough fertilizer to sustain yields, those would be fantastic goals."

Now, most corn researchers want to meet environmental goals, but there's a question science alone can't answer - what kinds of corn should we grow or improve?

Kinds of corn? Maybe you're thinkin' "corn chips" versus "popcorn" but there're bigger differences. We eat sweet corn - most corn's starchy industrial stuff.

"I think that's one thing consumers get confused about. Today, only one percent of corn production goes into sweet corn."

That's Pam Johnson. She's with the National Corn Growers Association. Johnson says about half our corn goes to animal feed, then we eat the meat or dairy products from that.

But a lot goes to industrial products, too. Ethanol uses more than a third of the corn in the American corn market.

Johnson says corn farmers want scientists to create specialty industrial corn that can fetch premium prices - like corn just for ethanol or corn just for renewable, corn-based plastic.

"You know, we've always said for a long time that anything that's made from petroleum might be able to be made from a renewable and I think that's an exciting thing to ponder as a corn grower."

Johnson predicts new genetic science will also improve corn we eat directly, but is that likely to happen?

"I have my doubts."

That's Rainer Bussman. He's with The Missouri Botanical Garden, and he studies how people use plants.

"Feeding people is less economic incentive than producing large amounts of corn for animal feed or biofuels, so I do have my doubts there."

Bussman says it's a shame food varieties of corn will get less attention from genetic research. He says he worries about food security. He figures if we grow more types of food corn we'll be better protected from crop diseases.

It's also a matter of taste, though. Bussman's traveled the world and tasted corn we don't grow here - like a blue kind in South America.

"They would call that maize murada which means purple corn and that is mostly used to produce a very refreshing, sweet beverage, so you get this get this deeply purple, sugary drink. It's all natural, no sugar added."

Bussman says Native Americans and the earliest settlers produced hundreds of varieties of corn for all kinds of food dishes - corn for just pudding, just bread, just porridge, and so on. They created this food diversity without modern genetic science, but we do have it.

Bussman asks why should our science just improve animal feed, ethanol, and bio-plastic? Why not make food our priority, too?

For The Environment Report, I'm Shawn Allee.

Copyright 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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