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MAIZE The amazing crop from the New World

MAIZE, or corn, has been conquering the globe for the last five centuries. In just 200 years, this wonder crop has transformed the diet of people in northeastern China and turned the region into the world's second-largest producer of maize.

Today many are turning to maize as an alternative source of fuel. Could maize-derived ethanol be the key to the world's energy crisis?

Colonizer crop

The Mexican anthropologist Arturo Warman described maize as an illegitimate child - the offspring of a wild maize ancestor and a native Mexican plant. How did this "lowly half-breed" end up colonizing the world?

When Columbus reached the Americas in 1492, he wrote in his journal of a strange, tasty crop that could be baked and made into flour. From there maize spread rapidly across the globe. An ear of maize planted by the Mesoamerican Indians was only the size of a pencil.

In terms of weight, more maize is produced than any other crop in the world, ahead of rice and wheat. Today maize production continues to grow, with global output increasing by 15.6 percent between 2001 and 2005. Much of this growth was boosted by the demand for maize-derived biofuel.

Maize only came to China around the start of the 16th century, spreading from the mountainous south to the northern plains. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when China's population ballooned to 200 million, drought and famine forced many peasants to open up new land to feed themselves.

It was against this backdrop that maize entered the life of the common people. In Sichuan Province, the area of cultivated land grew threefold within 100 years; much of this land was used to plant maize.

Northeastern China proved to be extremely suitable for the growing of maize. Professor Wu Chunsheng of the Jilin Agricultural University explains: "The most important reason for maize's success in China lies in the unique conditions found in the northeast: the fertile soil, long hours of sunshine and a large diurnal temperature difference."

In the 1990s, the northeast accounted for more than 30 percent of all maize produced in China.

Food or fuel?

Today maize is processed into a whole range of products: corn starch, corn sugar, flavoring, alcohols, lysine and corn-flavored beverages. It is also a major source of animal feed.

In the last 40 years, the global output of maize increased from 200 million tons to some 700 million tons. This versatile crop can even be made into fabric and biodegradable material.

However, the greatest promise of maize lies in its potential as a source of energy. With the depletion of fossil fuels, the world is increasing looking to maize-derived ethanol as a viable biofuel. This has also ignited a huge debate about "food versus fuel." Should maize be used for the benefit of the 800 million people who want to drive their cars - or the 2 billion who depend on the crop for survival?

Placing all our hopes on maize as the solution to the energy crisis could well spark another massive famine - one not caused by pests or drought, but by market forces.

This scenario may not be as distant as it seems. The surge in food prices in 2007 was caused in part by diverting maize and other crops to be used as biofuels, thereby taking land out of production.

In China, the price of pork also shot up, as maize was used to feed pigs. A story in the Economist pointed out a chilling fact: filling up just one SUV with ethanol uses enough maize to feed a person for an entire year.

Technology may offer a way out. At Sinopec's Research Institute of Petroleum Processing, a researcher said China is now exploring the use of maize stalks to produce fuel.

Every year, China produces as much as 700 million tons of stalks and chaff - the undesirable waste produced after processing maize. These leftovers could find a new lease on life in your fuel tank.


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