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Slave Maize: The truth about mielies

- Karabo Kgoleng

Most Africans consider maize (corn) to be their staple food but few realise it carries a history of slavery, colonisation, modernisation and globalisation.

The truth about mielies. © Vino Tinto  |

The origins of corn are not explicitly clear but scholars widely agree that it originated in the Mexican highlands around 1500 BC and was established in Africa around 1500 AD. Before the introduction of maize, African staple diets consisted of sorghum, rapoko, millet, manioc and yam. How did maize come to dominate the dishes of billions, what has been its societal and environmental impact, and is it a viable option for food security? 

Ecological imperialism and the Columbian Exchange 

According to Professor Mucha Musemwa, Head of the School of Social Sciences at Wits, an American environmental historian, Alfred Crosby coined the phrase ‘ecological imperialism’, a theory about the “biological expansion of Europe from 900 to 1900”. It began with Christopher Columbus who left Spain on several voyages financed by the Crown. In the year 1492, the territories now known as Latin America were conquered. 

“When he left Spain, Columbus took a boat full of plants, flowers, animals, people and bacteria. When he landed in the Americas, he unleashed all of these on the new terrain, which lead to the destruction of indigenous plants and animals, and the spread of disease. The people of Meso America, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru succumbed to the conquistadors’ weaponry, which was also biological. About six million died of smallpox”, says Musemwa. 

The political empire-building that took hold in Latin America also transformed the local ecology. The Spaniards drove the social and environmental reproduction of Europe in this New World, having brought all the goods that make up European life with them across the ocean. They returned to Europe, taking with them foods such as corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, groundnut and tomatoes, and this came to be known as the Columbian Exchange, the genesis of globalisation. 

“This was not an equal exchange,” says Musemwa. “Diseases and invasive species from Europe dominated and obliterated much of the indigenous flora and fauna in Latin America, although not everything was affected. The imperialists were also exposed to the coca plant, which was being consumed as part of indigenous culture. After experimentation, they developed cocaine, which led to the development of the narcotics trade.”

The evolution of maize. © Curiosity | 

A ‘botanical bastard’ 

Mexican anthropologist Arturo Warman describes in Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance how maize was central to the world economy and politics since 1492. Although corn is not as drought resistant as other staple foods, it matures early, is high in calories, easy to prepare, highly storable and easy to process. These characteristics enabled rapid population growth and maize became established as the main food source for the poor and powerless across the world. This is also how maize facilitated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism in Africa and the overthrow of feudalism in Europe. 

Warman calls maize a ‘botanical bastard’ because its impact on the world is paradoxical. On the one hand, it has increased populations and life expectancy among the poor. On the other, it “generated wealth for European landowners, shopkeepers and money lenders, overlords, and the new middle class”. Corn is a global agricultural success yet it is entirely dependent on humans for its propagation because it cannot reseed itself. 

A lecture by Musemwa, Seeds of Change: How Food Crops Connected and Altered the History of the World references ‘maize’s historical encounter with the landscapes of Africa’ from introduction to its current status as Africa’s dominant food crop. The 20th Century saw a marked increase in the crop’s area, to the point that it provided more than half of the food calories in several African states. 

Mielie-making impact in Africa 

The environmental impact of maize production on African soil is significant. If not managed properly, it causes soil degradation and erosion, destruction of wildlife and plant biodiversity, loss of food crop diversity, and climate change. Its dependence on irrigation and its low tolerance for drought is a concern in water scarce regions. 

Maize is contentious from a food security and safety perspective. While advances in technology have brought successful hybrids, the issue of genetic modification remains controversial. The long-term effects of genetically modified maize on the health of humans have yet to be realised and people cannot be used as test cases. 

For rural populations with access to land, the Old World farming methods of crop rotation and permaculture can reduce the reliance on maize as a staple. However, mass migration to cities will increasingly challenge urban populations who are reliant on commercial agriculture for affordable food. This means that maize will continue to dominate the plates and palates of billions for the foreseeable future. 

  • Karabo Kgoleng is a freelance journalist.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the sixth issue, themed: #HungerGames where our researchers and academics unpack the latest research on food security, food science, food politics and governance, nutrition and food-related issues such as obesity, diets, breastfeeding, and body image.