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Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance

Author(s):Warman, Arturo
Reviewer(s):Bogue, Allan G.

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Arturo Warman. Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance. (Translated by Nancy L. Westrate). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003 (originally published in Spanish in 1988). xiii + 270 pp. $49.95 (cloth,) ISBN 0-8078-2766-5; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8078-5437-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Allan G. Bogue, Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The distinguished Mexican anthropologist, Arturo Warman, published the Spanish language edition of this sweeping survey of the place of corn in world history since the sixteenth century in 1988. The colorful subtitle refers to corn’s disputed parentage and the fact that through history the crop has stayed outside “the system of accepted norms” (p. xiii). As a Mexican social scientist Warman became deeply interested in the social and economic significance of corn and planned a history of the crop’s place in Mexican life. Various scholarly projects prepared him for that work but he ultimately deferred it in favor of the current volume.

Several preliminary chapters lay a foundation for the book. Warman begins by describing the many useful American plants that have had major “repercussions” in “the development of the world economy, and the world market place.” At the heart of corn’s story, he writes, “lies the history of capitalism” (p. 11). The corn plant (Zea mays), Warman explains, has various amazing characteristics. Evolved from the grass teosinte, it does not propagate itself in nature, is self-pollenizing, is remarkably responsive to hybridization, is adaptable to a wide range of environments, has outstripped other food plants in its yields, is accommodative to complementary crops, is easily converted to edible form, and is capable of conversion into a myriad of derivative products ranging from bourbon to adhesives and automotive fuel, as well as providing livestock feed that enters the human diet as animal protein. Debate has raged as to whether the birthplace of corn was the Americas or Asia. Sketching the archeological evidence, Warman accepts Mexico as the place of origin.

Warman devotes most of the remainder of the book to tracing the history of corn in major areas of the world, dealing first with Asiatic locales. First introduced there in the early sixteenth century by the Portuguese, corn became a crop of the mountains and frontier regions and particularly a food of the poor. He links its history to the complex land tenures and labor intensive systems of cropping in that great region and the relation of this crop to other major crops including a number of other western immigrants. Corn, he explains, was an important part of the second great agricultural revolution that occurred in China during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

He follows with an account of the place of corn in the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves endured their passage to the new world on a diet consisting almost solely of corn meal paste, the grain’s high vitamin content warding off scurvy. Introduced primarily by the Portuguese, corn became a major crop in the African slave shipping areas and their hinterlands to meet the provisioning needs of the slavers. The crop adapted well to slash and burn agriculture. By the seventeenth century, corn was well established on the Atlantic coast of Africa and probably in much of the interior. With the decline of the slave trade in Africa, European nations developed colonial relations with its peoples. Corn now became increasingly important as a subsistence crop grown by peasants. Colonial administrators and white settlers emerged as a ruling class in the colonial dependencies and a native worker class emerged to provide labor for extractive ventures and settler agriculture. Corn products also sustained this labor sector but corn’s resistance to disease, short growth cycle, versatility, low requirements of capital and labor, and high yields also commended it to white farmers. Colonial land policies, Warman explains, benefited white interests and confined native populations in restricted areas, thus limiting native livestock operations. Hampered by natural hazards and colonial policies, peasants used corn both as sustenance and to provide agricultural surplus. Corn became, Warman concludes “one of the secret weapons in peasant resistance to colonial rule” (p. 81). In the era of national independence that followed the colonial era in Africa growth in the volume of commercial export crops — coffee, tobacco, cacao, and cotton — far outstripped growth in domestic food crops; a condition of dietary dependence prevailed. Corn flour was one of the cheapest foods per thousand calories available in urban African markets. The hope for future growth in food production in Tropical Africa lies, Warman suggests, in land reform.

Turning to Europe, Warman reviews the treatment of corn in European publications from the sixteenth century to the modern era. First grown as a curiosity in Andalusia and later as an agricultural crop, by the eighteenth century it had displaced long established cereals both in irrigated areas and in the subsistence peasant economy of northern Spain. By the end of that century corn was planted from the Black Sea to Gibraltar and, it was said, south of a line from the mouth of the Garonne to the Rhine above Strasbourg. It was often planted on land that formerly had been fallowed. Ripening at a time that had typically been one of food scarcity, it reduced the threat of famine and became the food of those who lived in “poverty, rural deprivation, and primitive … conditions.” Corn contributed vitally to the ongoing, “intellectual, political, industrial, and agricultural revolutions” then underway (p. 111). Finding no “ubiquitous and precise cultural agent” that accounted for the diffusion of corn growing through much of early Modern Europe, Warman identifies four “natural and social factors”: “growing conditions and the agricultural systems or their associated methods: population dynamics; trade, prices, and markets; and landownership and the relations of domination existing between landowners and direct producers” (p. 112). Their interaction, sometimes affected by more subtle influences, made corn “the bread of southern Europe’s poor.” But it also “generated wealth for landowners, shopkeepers and money lenders, overlords, and the new middle class,” who, ironically, ate wheat bread (p. 131). This occurred as an agricultural revolution took place between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries involving more intensive cultivation of the land and dwindling use of fallow.

Two American agricultural exports had tragic consequences — the potato famines of the mid nineteenth century and the widespread incidence of pellagra in southern Europe and later in the southern United States. Those highly dependent on corn as a food might develop pellagra and this chronic disease, causing dermatitis, diarrhea, and ultimately dementia, battered the population of European corn growing regions during the nineteenth century. Warman describes the various efforts to explain the disease and the developing conviction that diets heavily dependent on corn were responsible. Such dependence was usually associated with poverty and such onerous rents that peasants could not eat a balanced diet. Pellagra was “a symptom of a process of fierce modernization in peripheral areas” (p. 150).

In telling the story of corn in the United States, Warman stresses the importance of Native American tutelage. “Once the settlers had fully grasped the secrets and potential of corn, they no longer needed the Native Americans. Indigenous peoples were wiped out, scattered or relocated as settlers penetrated even further inland” (p. 155). Warman’s discussion of American economic development sketches many of the familiar facts of that story. Corn was a basic crop in the long continuing American frontier experience but played “its most important and long-lasting role,” he writes, ” in the predominantly rural world of the American South” (p. 159). It was a staple of slave diets but these were apparently sufficiently varied that the slaves did not suffer from nutrition deficiency diseases. Corn cultivation was far more extensive than cotton in the South but the latter produced the wealth and contributed most to the development of class differences. Sharecroppers became so hard pressed that pellagra was endemic by the early twentieth century. U.S. Public Health Service researchers discovered that a diet rich in milk, meat, and beans countered the disease. In the 1930s the University of Wisconsin’s Conrad A. Elvehjem showed that nicotinic acid deficiency was the specific cause. The human digestive process failed to unlock corn’s content of this vitamin when it was prepared as food in certain ways. Warman here comments that “pellagra was a disease born of development, a product of a type of progress that was imposed, unjust, and unequal”(p. 173).

Prior to the nineteenth century corn’s history was “tied directly to human nutrition.” In the expanding, industrializing, railroad-building United States, however it also became “the raw material for the production of meat and dairy products” and in the first half of twentieth century the U.S. crop accounted for half of the world’s production. It was the “very backbone” of American agriculture (pp. 181, 183). During that era U.S. corn production was more or less stable. The successful development of hybrids, however, along with improvements in mechanization, and fertilizer and herbicide use resulted in unprecedented yields of the crop after World War II. Now American corn became a significant factor in the world trade in cereals. By the beginning of the twentieth century U.S. pioneer subsistence agriculture had been replaced by commercial farming but farmers still continued “to supply the largest part of the means of production”– “labor, motive power, seeds, organic fertilizers.” Now the farmer became increasingly dependent on the market for these things. A massive institutional framework developed to sustain and direct agriculture and agribusiness became the “dominant force” in American agriculture (pp. 186, 188). In 1954 the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954 was designed “to use U.S. agricultural surpluses abroad in the effort to eradicate world hunger” (p. 190). Related programs followed and corn was a major element in the U.S. contribution. Because “corn entered the world market … as a food stuff for the poor and as forage for the rich it surmounted the inelasticity of demand typically associated with cereals” (p. 192).

In a final substantive chapter Warman describes the world market for food as it developed between the 1950s and the mid 1980s. Prior to World War II, Western Europe was the only major agricultural region that did not meet its own needs and also provide some export grains. By the 1960s only the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada were independent producers. U.S. aid programs exacerbated this trend and “food dependence became a chronic and widespread phenomenon in many Third World countries” as did population explosions (p. 203). Wheat dominated in U.S. exports until the 1970s and then corn became increasingly important. American aid had generated “an entirely new market, whether by introducing the consumption of wheat or by displacing existing domestic production” (p. 205). The U.S., charges Warman, distributed aid with a view to its strategic political impact. The political considerations of the United States and its allies dictated the magnitudes of supply and demand, prices and the conditions of sale, that defined the world cereal market and interacted with domestic tariffs, subsidies, and other production controls (p. 209). By the 1970s five great multinational grain handling companies dominated world trade in cereals. After a food production crisis in Russia and a failure of the hybrid corn crop in the U.S. during the early 1970s, however, food production outpaced population growth. Although “corn’s incredible growth as a commodity for reexport was the most outstanding phenomenon.” most third world countries had entered a condition of dietary dependence (p. 212). Despite adequate world supplies of food at the time of writing, Warman identifies a major problem of distribution and future vulnerability to shortages.

In two concluding chapters Warman discusses the recent phenomenal expansion of food production in which corn has been an important part and the possible ways in which growth in food production may be sustained. He sees two available agricultural modes — “capitalized intensive agriculture, also known as scientific agriculture or production by the wealthy.” The other is traditional peasant agriculture, utilizing few resources beyond those readily available and controlled by the production unit. This is farming by the poor” (p. 218). The first of these, he argues, has not improved world diets in the past nor solved the problem of distribution. Advocates of the Green Revolution tried to increase production in peasant agriculture by the use of hybrid crop varieties but had very limited success because of the high costs involved. Warman identifies less expensive ways of increasing peasant production — reduction of fallowing, bringing marginal lands into production and land reform. “The only way to confront the problem of world hunger,” he argues, “is to increase peasant production, using the many and at times unimaginable means to achieve that goal” (p. 231).

In the final chapter “New Reflections on Utopia and the New Millennium,” Warman explains that he has attempted “to analyze some social processes in which corn has played an important role” (p. 232). From one perspective his book is a sweeping historical survey of the adoption of corn as a major food and feed crop in much of the world. In this respect it is a fascinating compendium of thought-provoking facts and illustrative statistics. The volume is also a somewhat sour Marxist critique of modernization and, one may argue, a defense of peasant agriculture. A few passages illustrate Warman’s perspective. Concluding his discussion of the Chinese case, he writes “Growing rural surpluses did not remain in the rural countryside or even in China itself. … They were transferred to foreign powers’ spheres of economic influence and accumulated there. Peasants were the source of agricultural know-how and labor, yet they were increasingly threatened … settling marginal lands on the nation’s domestic frontier. For many decades they accepted the destiny of peasants everywhere, unable to eat what they produced because it was prohibitively expensive. Thus they transformed corn and other American plants, previously foods for the poor, into essential resources for their very survival. They did even more, they carried out a [social] revolution” (p. 50). He summarizes the slave trade this way: “the slave trade was not destiny or fate, but a series of opportunities and limitations.” Those “opposed to slavery … were social groups with the emerging power and will to confront that circumstance. The slave trade was an aberration, but neither was it the result of a general law of historical development. Rather, it was history; something that happened, but that just as easily could not have taken place at all” (p. 65). In considering the European agricultural revolution of 1600 to 1800, Warman rejects the common assumption that it was “the result of the application of scientific knowledge to production, diffused by elites and intellectual vanguards,” preferring instead “the idea of revolution as a result of collective knowledge and collective action” (p. 119). Leaving discussion of pellagra, he argues, “Change was promoted in the periphery from above and from abroad in order to recreate society in accordance with an ideological model; the industrial millennium that sought to establish a homogenous world. … Pellagra was not simply a disease of poverty and deficiencies, but one of the many diseases of modernization, of development, of prodevelopment capitalism” (p. 150). And finally, the history of U.S. agriculture is a process of accumulation with very different and increasingly accelerated rhythms. It is also a history of inequality, of exclusion, and of subjugation. Each process created its own marginal groups” — Native Americans, rural poor, urban poor, migratory workers, food stampers (p. 193). “Marginalization threatens the American farmer, the most outstanding product of the U.S. democratic ideal” (p. 194). He contrasts these developments with the diversity, stability, community reinforcement, and population controls found in peasant societies.

Although the principle of comparative advantage was at work in the spread of corn, it was conditioned by relations of power and dominance, argues Warman; accumulated wealth put less powerful groups at severe disadvantage. He was apparently unaware of ongoing cliometric research on the profits of imperial enterprise. He does not offer a rigid formula of class differentiation; to him the process was one of diverse conditions and forces but invariably involved exploitation. In considering the sections dealing with corn’s history in the United States, Americanists will consider some of his judgments to be overstated. The achievements of American plant scientists are brushed aside in a sentence, and the mechanics of diffusion are described in terms more general than modern scholarship has achieved. Warman emphasizes the need for increasing the effectiveness of peasant agriculture’s national or regional dietary independence but he gives much less attention to the issue of population control. Warman’s translator has produced a lucid, stimulating, and informative narrative but the reviewer remains happy that he is not one of Warman’s peasants nor sentenced to relive the existence that he, himself, experienced as a farm boy, living the democratic ideal.

Allan G. Bogue is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and has published widely in American agricultural and political history. His most recent book is The Farm on the North Talbot Road (University of Nebraska Press). His next article, “Oxen to Organs: Chattel Credit in Springdale Town, 1849-1900,” will appear in the forthcoming summer number of Agricultural History.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII