Q: What did the baby corn say to the mama corn? A: Where’s the pop corn?

You were warned: I told you it was bad. But as it happens, it also raises a good question. Just where or what is the “pop” corn–not the kind you eat in movie theaters, but the ancestor of the crop I grow and we eat today. There’s an important lesson here as we discuss food and biotechnology.

About 10,000 years ago, there was no such thing as corn. It didn’t grow in the wild, and agriculture was in its infancy.

In Mexico, however, there was a grassy plant called “teosinte.” You can still find it there today, but it is not cultivated as a crop. Whereas an ear of corn grown here in Iowa is usually about a foot long and contains 500 kernels or more, the ear of a teosinte plant is just two or three inches long and doesn’t contain more than a dozen kernels.

The teosinte kernels are not what we might classify as naturally edible–their shells are so thick they could be labeled “industrial strength” and still comply with truth-in-advertising laws. These coatings grow hard because they’re meant to survive the digestive tract of birds and other animals. As these animals travel around, they can spread teosinte seeds.

Early Native Americans saw the potential of teosinte, and began domesticating it. They wanted to enlarge the ear, increase the number of kernels, and make those hard shells thinner.

Nobody knows exactly when the domestication of teosinte began or how long it took, but scientists believe that about 4,500 years ago a plant resembling today’s corn was being grown in the New World. A recent study by researchers at the University of California-Irvine claims that of the 59,000 genes in the corn genome, these early farmers targeted about 1,200 of them for selection–and in doing so, created the crop that is now grown on more than 81 million acres of land in the United States and more than 270 million acres world wide each year.

Needless to say, this was a long time before anybody knew the first thing about DNA. But farmers knew a lot about breeding–they were the world’s first genetic engineers. In addition to evolving teosinte into corn, they transformed little red berries into tomatoes and developed broccoli and cabbage from the same wild plant.

The UC-Irvine researchers say that fewer than 3,500 individual teosinte plants are the ancestors of modern corn. In biology, this is called a “population bottleneck”–and it shows the extremes to which farmers would go when they wanted to create a better plant.

Is there anybody who regards this genetic enhancement as something other than a blessing? Without it, of course, there would be no such thing as modern agriculture.

The process continues today–and the miracle of biotechnology makes it possible for plant breeders to do in a short amount of time what it took early farmers millennia to accomplish.

Unfortunately, there are some people determined to demonize all biotech enhanced food as “Frankenfood.” They have absolutely no understanding of what farmers have been doing for eons–or how their dedication across generations has made more food available to more people than ever before. It tastes better – it’s safer – and it’s more nutritious.

Throughout the centuries and continuing today, there is another agriculture “constant” that is important to remember. Before a crop from our fields, whether conventional or biotech, arrives on your table, it has already been on ours. Farmers not only feed the world, they feed their own families first. Since the commercial introduction of this technology in 1996, not one person or animal has gotten sick from eating a biotech enhanced crop.

Ironically today, corn farmers in Mexico often remove teosinte from their fields because they consider it to be a weed. We’ve come a long way! I’m excited about what’s coming next. And just think, it all came from an early “pop corn”.

Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans in partnership with his brother on their NE Iowa family farm. Tim is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org) a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and biotechnology.