QUINCY, Wash. – Russ Kehl tears an ear of corn from a field of thousands, shucks it and takes an enthusiastic bite.
It’s part theater. He’s acting for two journalists standing in his field outside of Quincy. But as he chews he examines the corn cob, and the acting stops.
Kehl is struck by the perfectness of this randomly picked ear of corn.
Even eaten raw, it’s sweet. Each kernel perfectly formed. No signs of pest or disease. A uniform size with a tapering point. Built to factory specifications.
“This is good. Really good corn,” Kehl said. “Honestly, this is really good.”
It’s no accident that the corn is so good.
The story of corn – sweet and field alike – is the story of modern agriculture. As humans have exerted increasing control over nature, we’ve manipulated the taste, texture and look of food. Bitter tastes are masked, or bred out. Sweeter vegetable variations are intentionally bred. More tender corn is grown. Per-acre yields increase.
During the last century sweet corn has been carefully bred for taste, size and uniformity. Modern super sweet varieties, which are planted throughout the Columbia Basin as a rotation crop, can be as much as 40 percent sugar.
In fact, traditional sweet corn, which was the norm just a generation ago, tastes downright bland in comparison. Those changes are only accelerating, driven in part by Americans’ sweet tooth and in part by the demands of large food processors.
Corn, a food staple for thousands of years, illustrates these rapid changes and highlights the often-conflicting interests of taste, health and the competitive, sometimes cutthroat business of large-scale agriculture.
“What they used to call in the old days ‘Golden Jubilee’ was the best thing you could ever imagine,” said Rick Ness, a third-generation farmer near Moses Lake. “And nowadays it’s just a plain old corn.”
Like most farmers, Ness plants sweeter and sweeter corn each year.
“The market is just headed that way,” he said. “You know, you adapt to the market, or you lose.”
Sweeter, softer, faster
For a number of genetic and economic reasons, corn has led the charge of changing fruits and vegetables.
Genetically, corn is a “highly variable species” and one that is “relatively easy to manipulate,” said Bill Tracy, an agronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
“In the last 50 to 60 years now, I guess, sweet corn has really dramatically changed,” Tracy said. “If you look at the plants you wouldn’t think they are very different but if you bit the ears you’d find them to be quite different.”
Super sweet corn was only developed about 70 years ago. In the early 1950s, a University of Illinois botany professor named John Laughnan discovered that a certain gene in corn stored less starch but held four to 10 times more sugar. He wrote a paper based on his discovery and tried to market it.
Initially, the corn industry had little interest in Laughnan’s discovery, Tracy said. Food processors considered it a “disruptive technology.” But the new variety took off in Japan, historically one of the U.S. corn industry’s biggest buyers. From there it slowly spread back to the United States.
Because the corn is sweeter, processors don’t have to add sugar, which saves them money. And sweet corn stays fresh longer.
“Super sweets became very important in the processing industry,” Tracy said. “It’s because you don’t have to add the sugar. Traditional corn you added sugar to the cans because it really wasn’t very sweet.”
In addition to changing the taste of corn, researchers have learned to breed for uniform size and texture. Food processors require farmers to meet exacting specifications. Those specifications allow large plants to process the corn quickly and efficiently.
At National Frozen Food Corp.’s 60-acre processing facility near Moses Lake, efficiency is the name of the game. Inside the cavernous processing plant machines rattle away in a cacophony of mechanization, all working toward a single goal: preparing corn.
In the cavernous facility conveyor belts shunt corn from the trucks where they’re unloaded through a cleaning and husking machine. From there cobs go to be either cut into kernels or packaged as full frozen cobs.
During peak harvest time the plant can process between 6 and 7 million pounds of corn a day, said Gary Ash, general manager of the plant. On average an ear of corn weighs 1 pound, he said.
That corn will be blanched (a process where the corn is scalded for 90 seconds in boiling water and then plunged into cold water) and then flash-frozen. The cobbed corn, or individual pieces of corn, are packed into 1,500-pound totes and sold wholesale.
And while the machines are fast and efficient, they aren’t intelligent. Corn that doesn’t meet the factory’s specific size requirements will slow or jam the machines, potentially costing the company and the farmer money.
“Time is money just like any other industry,” said Kevin Moe, a seed representative with Syngenta, an international seed agrochemical business. “We’re not making widgets but we try our best to punch out widgets.”
The widget factory
In a dusty, torn-up field about 15 minutes east of the Tri-Cities, scientists, farmers and manufactures are hoping to breed the newest variety of corn.
Several acres of corn test varieties rustle in the October wind. Crammed into an acre plot are about 200 varieties of super sweet corn. These varieties are being field-tested. Eventually one, or maybe two, will be approved by Syngenta to be grown in larger quantities.
“We’re searching for that one variety out of hundreds, if not thousands, that will make it to commercial scale,” Moe said.
The different varieties of corn used to be individually named – Early Sunglow, Sundance and Buttergold, for example.
Now, new varieties get a 10-digit number. As they advance through the various field tests, they’ll lose numbers. The ones that make it to full production will be labeled with just four digits.
Moe walks through the field randomly selecting and shucking cobs of corn, snapping them in two and examining their different attributes.
Some have larger, thicker kernels. On others perfectly straight lines of kernels run up and down the cob.
“Just take a bite of that,” Moe said, gesturing toward a plump, golden cob of corn. “It’s just pure candy how sweet it is.”
That cob is a descendent of the super sweets developed in the 1950s. About a mile away is another patch of test corn. This is the traditional sweet corn. Compared to the new, super sweet varieties that corn is bland and tasteless.
Moe believes that what is happening with corn – the sweeter taste, higher yields and more factory-friendly specifications – is what needs to happen to all commercially grown vegetables and fruits.
“If we can provide the same amount of food, or more food, on the same acres … everybody in the world is better off,” Moe said.
With decreasing amounts of viable farmland, increasing water scarcity and a growing world population, food supplies will be of the utmost importance, he said.
But there are downsides to the kind of drastic human manipulation that defines the corn industry and increasingly modern agriculture.
“Modern plant breeding has focused on yields almost to the exclusion of anything else,” said Jed Fahey, a professor of medicine and public health at Johns Hopkins University. “To the extent that it has focused on taste, sweetness and sugar have been what they’ve focused on.”
More produce but less nutritious
That single-minded focus on crop yields has reduced the nutrients of modern fruits and vegetables, said Donald Davis, a retired professor from the University of Texas, Austin.
In 2004, Davis published a landmark study that indicated that fruits and vegetables were losing nutritional value as farming increasingly focused on yields.
Davis examined 43 vegetables and fruits. He compared the reported nutritional values of those crops from 1950 with the tested nutritional value of the same crops in 1999. In the study, he compared the crops individually and as a group in an effort to get an overall average.
Davis said he believes the “dominant cause” for reduced nutritional value is increased yields. Simply put, if a plant grows faster and larger it doesn’t have time to absorb the same amounts of nutrients as a slower, smaller plant. The plant’s nutritional value is “diluted,” Davis said.
“They are looking for yield. They are looking for uniformity,” Davis said of modern crop breeders. “But when you do that, you may lose other things.”
As a child, Davis remembers buying broccoli at the store. Back then you could only buy small, bunched broccoli.
Since then breeders have figured out ways to increase the head size. But, as broccoli head size increases, the plant’s stems become hollow and “ugly,” Davis said. Now, many large-headed broccoli sold at the store come with their stems removed.
“The larger the head, the lower mineral concentration,” Davis said.
Since Davis’ 2004 study, other studies have found similar results. Increased yields lead to decreased nutrients. And, while the yields increase the flavor of many vegetables decreases, studies have found.
“In general, the flavor of veggies have gone down over the years,” Davis said. “Tomatoes are a pretty good example.”
As tomatoes have gotten larger and sturdier, their flavor has decreased. This year scientists discovered some of the genes that control a tomato’s taste. They hope to breed the flavor back into tomatoes while keeping the desirable size and durability.
And in the crops where flavor has increased, such as sweet corn, it tends to increase in narrow taste bands. Fruits and vegetables become sweeter.
“As far as of this breeding for sweetness, I think this is because Americans have a sweet tooth,” Davis said.
In addition to reduced nutrients, carefully bred vegetables and fruit appear to lack another important element: a type of chemical linked to cancer prevention and the avoidance of other chronic diseases that plague Americans.
Jed Fahey worked in the biotechnology industry for 15 years. There he tried to improve plants’ disease resistance through breeding and genetic manipulation. However, the shifting priorities of the biotechnology industry bothered him. So he quit.
“I got tired of it, frankly, and I came to Hopkins seeing that I might be able to realize my altruistic interest in feeding the world,” he said. “In feeding the world better.”
That’s where he started researching a type of chemicals known as phytochemicals. Now, at Johns Hopkins University, Fahey is the director of the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chemoprotection Center. There Fahey researches how nutrition can protect humans from chronic and degenerative diseases.
As part of that research Fahey studies phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are a type of chemical produced in plants that wards off pests and diseases. When eaten they often taste bitter.
And they are linked to the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases.
Research is conflicted on just how important these chemicals are. Unlike basic nutrients, phytochemicals are not required for human health, Fahey said. But they do have health benefits.
“The protective mechanism that phytochemicals induce in many people are real and important,” Fahey said.
And, just like the basic nutrients, modern agricultural breeding practices are slowly reducing the phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables.
“Indeed, the low amounts of bitter plant compounds in the current diet largely reflect the achievements of the agricultural and food industries,” stated a review of literature published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “The debittering of plant foods has long been a major sensory concern for food science.”
Humans are able to detect minute traces of bitterness in food. It’s an evolved skill, one used to avoid eating poisoned or rotten foods. The food industry has developed numerous ways to either mask or remove these flavors.
“Through both the breeding selection for yield, and the intensive use of pesticides, phytochemical content has gone down,” Fahey said.
Although Fahey is a phytochemical evangelist, at the end of the day his primary concern is much simpler: Humans should eat a varied diet, one rich in nutritious vegetables.
And that, he said, is the true downside of modern, scaled agriculture. The diversity normally present in an acre of corn, for instance, is being methodically replaced with carefully engineered, factory-ready widgets.
Better for everyone
Bill Tracy, the agronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, disagrees with this assessment.
Sure, he said, humans have an unprecedented ability to control how vegetables and fruits grow. But he believes there are constraints on what will be done. While developing higher-yield crops certainly is important, he said, it’s not the only thing breeders consider.
“There has been a major effort to really concentrate on quality,” he said.
As an example, he cites sweet corn. In addition to tasting sweeter, “modern sweet corns are much more tender.” And, he said, some studies indicate that modern sweet corn has more protein than its ancestors.
“For every bite of a super sweet ear you take you’re getting less calories and more protein,” he said.
As for the reduction of other nutrients in foods, and phytochemicals, Tracy said that’s the exact point of having a balanced diet.
“You don’t need to get every chemical from every food,” he said. “That’s why we talk about having a balanced diet.”
And there is another, more practical argument for modern agriculture. The current mechanized and scaled agricultural system is the only thing that can simultaneously meet the needs of consumers, farmers and retailers, Kevin Moe said.
“It would be great if the American consumer, or the world consumer, ate another pound of sweet corn,” Moe said. “It’s better for them. Better for the grower. Better for the company. Everybody benefits.”
‘If you aren’t getting bigger you’re getting out’
Russ Kehl started farming in 1992. That was a good year to get into the business, he said. Farmers were struggling, selling or renting their land for cheap. He rented. Did well. His business grew. Now, his is one of the larger farms in the Columbia Basin area.
Yet he’s not confident that he could replicate his success.
“It would be really hard to start farming today,” he said.
That’s because the size and sophistication of modern farming has only increased. With increased yields come increased harvests. Larger harvests demand more harvesting machinery, the people to run it and the infrastructure to store and transport the harvest.
That all costs. Those costs drive farmers to plant more acres. The cycle continues.
Kehl, a self-described aggressive farmer, is always looking to rent or buy neighboring land. To expand his own farming footprint.
“I just know every year it gets bigger,” he said of farming. “If you aren’t getting bigger you’re getting out.”