The making of hybrid corn

After giving a talk at University of Nebraska a couple weeks ago, Cory Walters suggested the book The Hybrid Corn Makers: Prophets of Plenty written by Richard Crabb in 1947 (the whole book can be downloaded here).  I’m a couple chapters in and it is already fascinating.  The introduction (which explains hybrid corn)  was written by HD Hughes, a professor who was at Iowa State College at the time.    

Hughes writes:

One of the greatest advantages of the technique of breeding hybrid corn is the opportunity afforded to develop strains especially well fitted to particular conditions of weather, soil, disease, and insects. By bringing together the right combination of inbreds, hybrids are “custom built” for particular needs. . . . From this we can see how important it is to find the particular hybrids best adaptetd to conditions likely to prevail in a given location. Many hybrids, especially those used in the northern corn-growing areas, are so closely adapted to particular conditions that they are superior to other hybrids only in an area no more than fifty or one hundred miles north or south

I share this passage because there seems to be a common, modern view that "monoculture" cropping agriculture has led to a dramatic reduction in genetic diversity.  I gave a talk last week to a large intro to food science class and talked a bit about biotechnology.  One student asked me precisely this question: Don't GMOs reduce genetic diversity and thus make the entire system more vulnerable to  disease, etc.  But, as the above quote shows, even in the 1940s, there are many different types of corn in different locations, and that's true still today.  I also pointed this out when responding to Nassim Taleb's claims about GMOs: 

Moreover, what he doesn’t seem to get with regard to modern GMOs is that a GMO isn’t a variety. A particular trait - say herbicide resistance - is introduced into many, many varieties in different parts of the country and the world.

In any event, the first chapter of the book is an interesting discussion on the history of corn and how it spread across South and North America.  Crabb writes:

Scouts sent by Columbus to explore what is now the Island of Cuba became the first white men of record to see corn. On November 5, 1492, the first corn fields they encountered stretched across the Caribbean countryside continuously for eighteen miles.


Columbus returned to Spain in early in 1493, carrying with him the first maize ever seen in Europe. That year corn grew in the royal gardens of Spain and withing two generations was growing as a food crop in every country of sixteenth-century Europe. In less than a century, Indian corn had moved completely around the world.