Biologists, psychologists and others have helped us to understand the touchy subject we so desperately avoided discussing with our parents. Isabella Rossellini entertainingly helped us learn about the sexual nature of insects. Science classes explained how bacteria reproduce. Nature programs on television gave us a look at reproductive tendencies of unusual animals like elephants and zebras. But what about plants? The closest look many people have had at the sexual side of plants has been the artwork of Georgia O’Keefe. Suggestive, but not educational.
To rectify this situation let’s take a look at America’s number one agricultural product: corn. According to USDA figures, more than 88 million acres have been planted with corn in the last year, resulting in more than 12.4 billion bushels. Per the Farm Bill, 28 cents of taxpayer money is paid to the farmer for every bushel, which helps him sell that entire bushel at the low government target price of $2.63. But where exactly do those 12.4 billion bushels come from?’
Think of a baby corn cob as a uterine wall. It’s a lush, fertile spot and provides excellent conditions for developing life. On this cob dozens of “fallopian tubes” are formed, though we refer to them as corn silk. As the silks grow they stretch out of the ear and reach into the air as far as they can. While the silks were growing a fancy tassel also grew on top of the plant. This mover and shaker is full of pollen, and as it blows in the wind grains of pollen fall off and into the waiting open arms of the corn silk. Each enterprising grain of pollen must then travel up a strand of corn silk, just as an egg moves along a fallopian tube. If the pollen reaches its destination, corn reproduction is successful. Rather than a bouncing baby though, each of these trysts results in a single kernel of corn. Corn plants reproduce dozens of times then to produce a single ear full of corn.
Setting the Mood
Certain things can set the mood and enhance a reproductive encounter. Corn is inspired by two of life’s simplest pleasures: a comfortable temperature and a drink of water. For years humans have thought corn’s needs made it a cheap date; water has been abundant and temperatures have been reliable. Corn reproduces most productively at temperatures between 64 and 72 degrees F (17.7 – 22.2 C). At 86 degrees F (30 C) reproduction declines sharply, and at 95 degrees F (35 C) reproduction stops entirely. It’s not moodiness; the balance between temperature and moisture must be maintained so that corn’s sensitive and exposed parts don’t dry out. Less than ideal conditions make it more difficult for pollen to travel along the silk. Remove the conditions, and you remove reproduction. Result: corn cobs with no kernels.
The Mood Killers
Unusual cold spells and heat waves are becoming increasingly normal though, and our once reliable water supplies now encounter periods of drought and flood. Climate change increases both the likelihood and severity of weather anomalies, so conditions are becoming less hospitable for life as we know it. While humans may quickly learn to adapt to these changing conditions, other forms of life may not adapt as rapidly.
Environmental conditions repeated over generations have allowed plants, animals, and all other forms of life to reproduce. Conditions naturally change, but human action has altered and accelerated and the pace of change. By removing the right growing conditions, corn and other familiar food crops may no longer be viable in the places they grow today. The time has come to rethink which food crops we grow, how we grow them, and the means by which we share our bounty.
Rob Branch-Dasch runs Pinyon Springs, a vegan business researching ways to incorporate organic native and desert-tolerant plants into a compassionate, sustainable, healthy American diet for the future. He is also the author of the blog KnowThankYou.com. Rob and his wife share their home with Marbles, an adopted rabbit; Rosie, a rescued dog; and millions of uninvited dust mites that they are struggling to name.
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