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Teosinte: Mother of Corn

Teosinte: Mother of CornThe teosinte plant has deep significance in bringing people together through food. It is the humble grass that changed itself into corn and fed humanity for 9000 years. In the Native American language Nahuatl, teosinte means ‘mother of corn’.

The ancient native farmers of the Americas made small changes over time to encourage the more desirable qualities we find today in modern corn. So important was this food, so sacred to people, that they prayed before planting it. They understood that protecting their food was of the utmost importance to all future generations.

Because of this ancient wisdom we have corn today, literally tons of it. Every year the US produces 780 billion pounds of corn, about 40% of the world’s supply; and the entire world, 2.2 trillion pounds of corn each and every year.ref That is how important this food is to us even today. It is the most produced food on the planet. Where does all of that corn go? In the US most goes to livestock feed, about 43%, another 30% to ethanol to burn in our cars, we export 15% to other countries, we use 8% to make processed foods, and last but not least we eat about 3% directly as food. We owe all of this to the teosinte grass and people who helped it along.

Most organic farmers even today know of the native planting technique called ‘the three sisters’, the three main agricultural crops for millennia: squash, maize (corn), and climbing beans. It is a technique known as companion planting and the three crops are planted close together, benefiting each other. The corn provides a structure for the beans to climb, the beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants need, and the squash spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, helping prevent weeds. Corn lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the human body needs, but beans contain both, making corn and beans together a balanced diet. Native people throughout the Americas understood the importance of this inter-relationship. This is how people ate for millennia.

Today, more than any other time in human history, we have many options on how we want to buy, grow and eat our food. Our history and relationship with food extends back farther than any of us can conceive. This relationship continues to evolve with each small change we make, with every day to day decision. We have the option to emphasize these small changes over time that accumulate into a healthful and sustainable way of living. We honor the teosinte plant as a reminder that small changes now can have profound outcomes for all future generations.