Corn: Cream of the crops

Some bake with it. Some decorate with it. Some wander around for hours in it. We’re talking about corn: the edible, ornamental and downright a-maze-ing homegrown staple. Corn takes center stage in U.S. tradition, especially during the holidays. But for all the corn mazes (800 at last count) traveled and cornbread baked, only 1 percent of the corn we harvest each year actually winds up in our snack bowls or on our dinner plates. Where does the rest of the approximately 14 billion bushels, go?

It might help to know the U.S. actually grows three kinds of corn. Sweet corn is what we eat off the cob, bake in casseroles and serve up in side dishes. Popcorn is — you guessed it — that salty, butter-swathed favorite of movie nights and football games. Then there’s the other 99 percent of corn, known as field corn. It’s not sweet, and we don’t eat it — at least not directly. Field corn is what we use to feed the cows, hogs and chickens that feed us. It’s also what we use to make ethanol, a renewable fuel that mixes with gasoline to power our cars, trucks and other modes of transportation. Last but not least, a small portion of field corn — about 10 percent — goes toward making food ingredients like corn syrup, corn starch and cornmeal.

But that’s only half the story.

The corn that feeds livestock, which puts protein on our plates, is also breakfast, lunch and dinner for hungry insects. Some of these pests nibble on corn roots, others munch on corn stalks and still others prefer the silks and kernels. How much damage can these tiny feeders do? Plenty.

Insects, weeds and other stressors reduce the fruits of our global harvest by some 40 percent each year. Here’s a look at some of the ways Syngenta is working to increase the world’s global corn harvest by controlling damaging insects, diseases and weeds.

The corn rootworm

This underground feeder starts out small — less than a centimeter long — and grows larger and hungrier as it munches on tender young corn roots, hence the name corn rootworm. By the time it’s finished gorging, corn rootworm costs U.S. growers about $ 1 billion each year. But what if we could develop corn with rootworm resistance built right in? That’s exactly what researchers at Syngenta have done with hybrid corn that protects corn roots from the inside out.  

Pigweed

They may not nibble, but weeds also eat away at our annual corn harvest. Pigweed is one of the worst offenders — it grows fast (up to 3 inches per day); it grows tall (up to 6 feet); and it steals the water, nutrients and even sunlight that corn plants need to grow. This weed species is also smart. Over time, it has adapted to common herbicides, making it harder and harder to control. Syngenta researchers have come up with an answer: a herbicide that combines a brand-new active ingredient, plus three others, to keep pigweeds and more than 70 other weeds guessing.

Need for water

Of course, even weed-free, insect-protected corn can’t grow without water. Another major focus of Syngenta research is on rain, or — more precisely — the lack of rain. We know what happens when we forget to water our office plant or home flower garden. The consequences are even worse in farming. Drought can cut a corn harvest in half, or more. Syngenta scientists are breeding corn with genetics that help thirsty plants stay green and healthy. It’s not quite as miraculous as being able to make rain, but some think it comes close.

Popped, creamed or on the cob, as we enjoy the delicious variations on sweet corn this fall, we can also celebrate the 14 billion bushels of field corn that help put food on our tables and fuel in our tanks.

For more stories about the cream of the crops, visit www.syngentathrive.com.


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