The golden fuel | Aeon

On the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwestern China, 6 November 2006. Photo by stringer/Reuters

On the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwestern China, 6 November 2006. Photo by stringer/Reuters


The golden fuel

Asia’s rise to economic power and food security has been powered not by rice but by American maize, the ultimate flex-crop

by Peter A Coclanis + BIO

On the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwestern China, 6 November 2006. Photo by stringer/Reuters

Maize is arguably the single most important crop in the world and is rivalled only by soybeans in terms of versatility. That said, it is, along with sugar cane and palm oil, among the most controversial crops, proving particularly so to critics of industrial agriculture. Although maize is usually associated with the Western world, it has played a prominent role in Asia for a long time, and, in recent decades, its importance in Asia has soared. For better or worse, or more likely for better and worse, its role in Asia seems to be following the Western script.

When one thinks of food and foodways in Asia, it is hard to avoid the subject of rice. For good reason, too: rice for millennia has been primus inter pares among the continent’s sources of food. Not for nothing is rice known in India as dhanya, meaning sustainer of the human race. Another illustration – in some ways even more vivid – is that, in traditional China, a common (and polite) way of saying hello was via the idiomatic expression ‘Have you eaten your rice today?’ And, speaking of China, one can’t spend much time there without hearing someone talk about their pursuit of a career with the promise of an ‘iron rice bowl’ – ie, guaranteed job security. In other words, rice rules.

Not so fast, though. Although rice may be numero uno in Asia, we’ve long known that other cultigens – indeed other foods, more broadly – have played prominent roles there as well. Fish and seafood constitute hugely important sources of protein in much of Asia, and cereal grains such as wheat, millet and, to a lesser extent, oats provide sustenance to large numbers in various parts of Asia, and have done so for long periods of time. Legumes (including soybeans) are important virtually everywhere in Asia, as are other vegetables and fruits, and taro and breadfruit have their places, too.

Moreover, ever since the onset of the so-called Columbian Exchange in the late 15th century, ‘New World’ crops from the Western hemisphere have been part of the mix, in certain areas profoundly influencing and enriching Asian diets, agricultural production patterns and foodways. Numerous legumes from the Americas, for example, were adopted in various parts of Asia, as were vegetables and fruits such as squashes of various kinds, pumpkin, papaya, guava, avocado, tomatoes, pineapples, cocoa and, of course, chili peppers (fruit of plants from the genus Capsicum), without the last of which meals in many parts of Asia simply cannot do. More important still – in a caloric sense at least – have been the roles of American cultigens such as peanuts, manioc, Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, the last two of which became indispensable dietary mainstays in numerous Asian countries, along with one other cultigen, the cereal maize (Zea mays), my principal focus of attention here.

Maize was introduced to Asia early in the Columbian Exchange by various means and sundry groups – merchants, military forces, adventurers, freebooters and the like. Use and production of the cereal grain spread quickly. By the middle of the 16th century, maize was grown extensively in parts of China and, before 1700, in India, with the cereal grain eaten (and otherwise employed) in a variety of ways in both areas. The Portuguese likely introduced maize to both China and India, but the Spanish and the Dutch were also involved in the transmission process in Asia, the Philippines and what is now Indonesia in particular.

Over the centuries, maize has become increasingly important in both absolute and relative terms in many parts of Asia, although the scale of its importance has seldom been fully appreciated. In 2019, about one-third of the world’s maize was grown in Asia, up from less than 17 per cent 40 years earlier. Who knew? Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that, for the past decade, maize has been China’s leading cereal grain, with production outpacing both rice and wheat, the great staples generally associated with China. And that is hardly the only nation-state in Asia where maize production is of major significance. While China was the world’s second largest producer of maize ­– behind only the United States – in 2019, other Asian countries also ranked among the world’s largest producers, with Indonesia sixth, India seventh, the Philippines 17th, Pakistan 20th, and Vietnam 25th, just ahead of Thailand in 26th place. The importance of rice production notwithstanding, maize, clearly, is no curio or oddment in Asia, and demands a closer, properly historicised and contextualised look.

You name the food or product, and it likely includes maize in some form

Maize is today the world’s second leading crop of any kind in terms of total production, behind only sugar cane, and the leading cereal grain produced by a wide margin. Moreover, production has grown rapidly in recent decades, with world maize output tripling between 1982 and 2019. In 2019, global maize production reached 1,148 million metric tons, while the totals for wheat and rice production each came to about two-thirds of the level for maize in 2019, with wheat at 766 million metric tons, and paddy rice at 755 million metric tons.

The prominence of maize among cereal grains is readily understandable, for it has numerous advantages on both the supply and demand sides. Regarding supply considerations: maize possesses great genetic variability and is readily adaptable to a variety of climatic conditions, whether temperate or tropical; it can be grown on a wide range of soil types and on soil of poor quality; its growing season, generally speaking, is fairly short; it is less labour- and water-intensive than rice; and, as a so-called C4 plant, it fixes nitrogen more efficiently than do C3 cereals such as rice and wheat. In Asia, it is often grown in hilly upland areas unsuitable for many other crops. In Southeast Asia and East Asia, 80 per cent of the maize grown is rain-fed, without the benefit of irrigation, although in some areas it is grown on irrigated paddy fields after the rice harvest.

Turning to the demand side: no cereal grain is more versatile than maize, which can be employed efficiently, effectively and, more to the point, profitably in a huge variety of ways. Indeed, its multifarious uses and elusive, often cloaked identity render maize the quintessential postmodern crop. Not only does it ‘fuel’ humans and their stocks of animals, but also, when converted into the chemical compound ethanol, the vehicles they drive. When converted into either sugar and syrup (or dextrose, which is chemically indistinguishable from glucose) or corn starch (dextrin), it finds its way – often at an intermediate stage – into a vast array of processed foods and finished products encountered in daily life. You name the food or product, and it likely includes maize in some form – product categories such as paint, textiles, wallpaper, soap, candles, newspapers, cigarettes, insecticides, dry batteries, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, plastic, nitroglycerin and fireworks, shoe polish and ceiling tiles, to name just a few. As a result, maize, along with soybeans and palm oil, is rightfully considered a ‘flex’ crop par excellence. Little wonder, then, that the demand for maize in whatever form has become ubiquitous, and maize production is increasingly pervasive all around the world, including in Asia.

Until relatively recently, the vast majority of the maize produced in Asia was used for human consumption. In this regard, Thailand was a notable exception. Significant production of maize began later in Thailand than in most other parts of Asia and, unlike these other areas, much of the maize produced in Thailand was used as animal feed even early on. When employed for human consumption in Asia, maize found many uses, sometimes as a staple – particularly among the poor in hilly areas – but also as a versatile dietary supplement or complement, which could be eaten after roasting or grilling (often as a snack), ground into flour and thence used in gruels, noodles, cakes, buns, etc, or employed as an ingredient in soups, desserts, or in Korea as ‘tea’. Maize is also used in various alcoholic beverages in Asia, such as the corn-based baijiu in China, Vietnamese corn wine, and a number of alcoholic beverages distilled from maize in Darjeeling, Sikkim and other parts of India.

How things have changed. Since the 1980s – even earlier in some areas – the uses to which corn is put in Asia have shifted dramatically. Whereas until then most of the corn produced in Asia was intended for family consumption, for feeding animals on site, or for sale at local or regional markets, today the greatest proportion of corn production by far is used as animal feed, often for agribusiness livestock aggregators, particularly those raising and processing chickens and hogs, and those raising stock for the production of eggs and dairy products. Another large component of the corn crop in Asia is used to produce bioethanol. Moreover, these two uses help to explain why Asia imports a great deal of maize from other parts of the world, and why it exports relatively little. In 2019, for example, Asian countries imported 78,240.2 million tons of maize – more than 43 per cent of the world’s total – while exporting only 2,629.8 million tons, or a little over 1.4 per cent. In this regard, the fact that most of the maize produced in Asia is still grown on small, relatively inefficient units, and the fact that yields and overall productivity are much lower than in the most advanced producing areas – the US, most notably – should be noted, for they help to explain the prominent role of maize imports into Asia.

China has been buying into or buying up foreign meat processors

To understand how and why these changes came about, we must embed maize in the larger narrative of Asia’s relative rise, its will to power, as it were, in recent decades, for Asia’s rapid economic growth and development over the past half century have had profound effects on, and implications for, maize production and consumption. Asia’s population growth alone during this period meant that – ceteris paribus – demand for foodstuffs of all types, including maize, would likely rise. But two other factors – rising per-capita income and rapid urbanisation – have reshaped demand for corn more specifically. With income per capita rising all over Asia, demand increased for foods of higher income-elasticities – meat and dairy products in particular – which greatly increased demand for animal feeds, most notably, soybeans and maize.

Nowhere have these changes been more powerful than in China, which has not only been maintaining a ‘strategic pork reserve’ for some time now, but also promoting farm consolidation at home in hopes of creating scale economies – thereby enhancing productive efficiency – and building large-scale ‘industrial’ meat-processing facilities. Nor is that all: China has been contracting with countries such as Brazil and the US for huge amounts of corn and soybeans, and buying into or buying up foreign meat processors, a notable case in point being the acquisition in 2013 of the Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog processor, by the WH Group (then known as Shuanghui International).

The same development-inspired income gains that changed food demand in Asia have also raised demand for corn-based bioethanol to power motor vehicles in the region, as well as demand for a wide range of manufactured products that make use of corn or corn byproducts in the production process. With rapid urbanisation and, moreover, rising living standards, Asia witnessed a makeover of its food-processing and distribution systems, which makeover included the rise of supermarkets and hypermarkets stocked with meat products – poultry, pork, beef, etc – and eggs and milk products dependent, in large part, on maize as feed. This makeover has extended even to forlorn Myanmar, where supermarkets and hypermarkets have sprung up, the City Mart Supermarkets in Yangon and Mandalay, most notably. The makeover, moreover, has been underpinned and often overseen by large agribusiness concerns, both Western agribusiness multinationals such as Cargill, ADM and the Louis Dreyfus Company, and Asian-based competitors such as the CP Group, Olam, Wilmar and COFCO, all of which have played major roles in the acquisition, processing and marketing of maize and maize products.

Although it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future (as noted by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, among others), most knowledgeable observers believe that the role of maize in Asia will continue to grow in the coming decades, because the underlying trends responsible for its ascent – rising income per capita and urbanisation especially, but increasingly farm consolidation too – continue apace. To be sure, considerations such as climate change, innovations in food technology, and possible shifts in foodways and even agriculture/food regimes might disrupt and even reverse secular trends and thus demand for maize in Asia. But, for the foreseeable future, chances of such disruptions, much less reversals, seem slim, and the future for maize in Asia – viewed in conventional terms at least – seems bright.

Such prospects notwithstanding, there are still causes for concern regarding maize’s future in Asia, particularly when one considers the cereal grain’s trajectory – and increasingly controversial status – in the West, where it has many vociferous detractors today. Bluntly put, these critics point out that maize, despite its manifold virtues, is hardly benign in its overall effects. In so doing, they make a number of good points regarding the rising prominence of the cereal grain, and the production and consumption systems in which maize is often embedded, points well worth pondering.

For example, critics bemoan the fact that maize production is generally heavily subsidised in developing countries, which limits opportunities for the cultivation of other, healthier alternatives. They are appalled by the cruel and unhealthy conditions of livestock housed in concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) in corn-based feed lots (operations increasingly common in China and other parts of Asia, by the way). They are very concerned about the deleterious long-term health consequences arising from the widespread human use of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which they claim promotes obesity, diabetes and what some call the ‘diabesity complex’, which frequently presents in the West and, alas, has become more common in the East as well. They contend that using maize to produce ethanol is morally ‘obscene’ in a world wherein many people are still food insecure, if not outright deficient, which criticism resonates particularly broadly in 2022, in part because of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Critics often condemn the heavy place of GMOs in maize production, particularly in the US, and they often end by decrying the fact that the supposed negative externalities of maize production, particularly in large-scale agribusiness settings, are seldom factored into the price of maize, making it too cheap, which contention, of course, would bemuse, if not startle, many low-income maize consumers both in the developed world and in the least developed countries.

The maize story in Asia may end as tragedy, farce, or (hopefully) something else

How to weigh these purported vices against maize’s manifold virtues is a difficult question, subject in part to one’s ‘priors’ – as economists say – as well as to one’s perspective and ideology. Whatever the case, Asians and Asian nation-states going forward would do well to engage such criticism seriously so that they can possibly avoid or minimise some of the problems the West has experienced with maize. How? Another difficult question, particularly because in Asia maize production is concentrated not in rich countries with well-developed systems of economic and environmental regulation and large constituencies driven by ESG criteria, but in middle-income and low-income countries where other concerns – growth and development, most notably – remain the top priorities, not surprisingly.

Nonetheless, certain modest but helpful steps seem possible even today. For example, the development of more humane specifications for CAFOs could help Asia avoid the worst environmental, not to say ethical, practices associated with industrial agriculture in the West. Similarly, Asian peoples could be educated about the dangers of excessive dietary reliance on HFCS (and perhaps on palm oil, too) and Asian governments could promote the use of organic material other than maize in ethanol – biodiesel, for example – for the production of engine fuel, while encouraging the growth of the EV industry. Not earth-shattering perhaps, but not nothing either. And such steps would constitute a start.

Are steps such as these sufficient to make a real difference? Hard to say. Here, though, one could do worse than to evoke Karl Marx, in particular his opening in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852): ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ Having followed the Western script pretty closely so far, the maize story in Asia may end as tragedy, farce, or (hopefully) something else. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

However the maize narrative in Asia unfolds, a little story in Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s chapter on McDonald’s in Japan – from the classic study Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in Asia (1997) edited by the Harvard anthropologist James L Watson – is worth noting. The story involves a group of Japanese Boy Scouts in the US, who were thrilled to find, upon visiting Chicago, that the city had a McDonald’s too. McDonald’s was, of course, born in the US and headquartered in Chicago, but its transplantation to Asia has been so successful that, in many parts of Asia, the fast-food restaurant has become not merely familiar in cultural terms but, to many people, integral or even organic to society there. Will the same hold true some day for maize in Asia? Golden Maize Fields East, in other words. Indeed, if the trends of the past 40 years hold true, we may at some point find Asians surprised to learn that maize is grown in the Americas, too.

Global historyEconomic historyPoverty and development

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