Enterprise & Society 4.3 (2003) 550-551
[Access article in PDF]
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. xiii + 270 pp. ISBN 0-8078-2766-5, $49.95 (cloth); 0-8078-5437-9, $24.95 (paper).
In Corn and Capitalism, first published in Mexico in 1988, Arturo Warman takes on the ambitious task of examining the roles played by corn cultivation in the world's economy since European explorers first encountered this versatile and productive New World crop at the end of the fifteenth century. Warman, an anthropologist and former minister of agrarian reform in Mexico, relies on a variety of secondary sources and concepts grounded in Marxism and world systems theory to tell an often fascinating story that ranges from the fields of China to the Corn Belt of the American Midwest. Surprisingly, there is little discussion of corn in Mexico or in the rest of Latin America, but in a preface Warman explains that he plans to publish a separate book on corn and Mexican society.
Corn has become an important food staple around the world. Among this plant's virtues are its ability to prosper in many environments, its nutritional value, high yields, and relative simplicity of cultivating, storing, and processing. These also are the reasons why corn became the primary food source for the poor and the powerless in many societies. In Europe, for example, corn was an important addition to the traditional three-field system because it could be grown at times of the year when the cultivation of other cereals was not feasible. As landowners "rationalized" their holdings to make them more productive, in many parts of Europe corn became a critical subsistence crop that allowed peasant farmers to survive even as they devoted more of their labor to the production of more expensive commodities for the market. One result of the predominance of corn in the diet was the scourge of pellagra, a disease eventually linked to insufficient niacin. Pellagra later became a disease of some consequence in the American South as well.
The dichotomy between corn as an agricultural success story and corn as the food of the impoverished runs throughout Warman's [End Page 550] study. Corn and other New World crops such as the potato have been critical to the ability of humanity to feed a rapidly expanding population. In Africa corn was a godsend to poor African farmers, but it also became the principal food of slaves and the dietary mainstay of the food rations often provided to the native work force under colonial regimes. More recently, corn has become an important part of a world food market in which much of the developing world has become dependent on staples produced by wealthy countries, most notably the United States.
Warman demonstrates the centrality of corn production in the development of American agriculture. The reliance of the early colonists for their survival on corn, first provided by Native Americans, is well known. Less well known may be the plant's role as a clandestine "King Corn" in the antebellum South, where far more acreage was devoted to corn production than to cotton cultivation. With the rise of the Corn Belt after the Civil War, American corn production expanded tremendously. By the first half of the twentieth century, the United States accounted for about one-half of world corn production. American corn output accelerated even further after World War II, with a growing percentage devoted to feeding domestic livestock. The American agricultural machine clearly awes Warman, but he also notes the high rates of energy consumption and the inefficiencies inherent in a meat-based diet.
The author is also appalled at the role of the United States and other wealthy nations in creating a global food market that in his view has enriched Western agricultural interests while promoting food dependency among poorer nations. An interesting feature of corn is that, while many poor nations now import it as a foodstuff, the majority of corn...