Western Views: The ancient and interesting story of teosinte

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By Len Wilcox
WESTERN VIEWS

Teosinte is a grass native to Central America. It’s also the first GMO food produced in the Americas and, as far as we know, in the world. It wasn’t created in a sterile lab, however. It was selectively grown and developed by the Native Americans in Central America, long before the Spanish invasion there or the English and French invasion in the north. You can still grow teosinte as an early hybrid of what is one of the most useful plants ever farmed: corn.

The leaves and stalk of teosinte looks like the plant that its descendants would become – it looks like a corn stalk with the typical long, pointed leaves. The seed pod is different, as teosinte does not grow a cob, and the seed kernels are harder than corn. But the seeds are still useful food, and the stalk is sweet like sugar cane.

 

For thousands of years it was a staple of the Mayan diet, and sometime around 6000 B.C. the Mayans began cultivating their teosinte on farms, instead of collecting it in the wild. The Mayan culture grew to be advanced and used sophisticated farming technology, including extensive canals and ditches for irrigation.


As they domesticated teosinte the farmers used selective breeding and it became a radically different plant. They’d save the seeds of those that were larger, tastier or easier to grind. They’d learned to hybridize and by 4000 B.C., teosinte had become maize, with cobs an inch long.

Maize was the first genetically modified food. Okay, they didn’t slice the genes and put them back together. What they did took many generations to gain the changes they wanted, but it was the same net effect, just stretched out over hundreds of years. Eventually maize became something very much like what we think of as corn. Today’s corn has been even more improved, with better yields, better cobs, bigger kernels and many more uses.

Corn is not alone in being engineered by our ancestors. Almost everything we grow has been hybridized. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it well: “Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food. There are no wild, seedless watermelons.”

Since early times, people have systematically improved all of the foods we eat. It’s artificial selection, and everything tastes better, is less expensive, grows more efficiently, or is healthier because of it.

I’m Len Wilcox and that’s the Western View.

Read previous Western Views articles here.

Do you have a topic you’d like Len to write about? Email him at lenwilcox.rvtravel@gmail.com

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1 COMMENT

  1. I don’t care how many millenia you selectively breed vegetation, it will never have a animal gene. Selective breeding is not GMA never was and never will be. Don’t take this to be a rant against GMA.

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