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Researcher thinks glass gem corn may be ag’s saving grace
Ohio Correspondent

OXFORD, Ohio — Glass gem corn is so named because it looks like corn with a cob full of precious gems, said Bill McDorman, executive director of Native Seeds/SEARCH. This corn’s popularity has gone viral because of its beauty – it has become a spark, drawing attention to agriculture.

That led to the title of a lecture McDorman gave at Miami University, “How Glass Gem Corn Will Save Agriculture.”

“Glass gem corn is the result of at least 20 years of a sort of a love affair of Carl Barnes, a corn breeder and geneticist from Oklahoma; he taught at the university there,” McDorman said. “He is half-Cherokee. He had more than a casual interest in his hobby; it was part of his identity.

“He knew a lot about corn genetics and started searching and sorting through colorful varieties of flint corns (flint are considered older varieties of corn – they make good popcorn) ... So Carl, now in his late 80s, played with those and he was breeding, obviously, for beauty. You can tell by the beauty that has been released and arrays of colors people have never seen.”

Barnes passed some of his seeds on to a student, Greg Schoen, who also had a passion for the project. Schoen did a large scale “grow-out,” or planting and harvesting, of these seeds. The photos of glass gem corn that went viral came from that grow-out.
Old seed savers believed if one found a special seed, perhaps that person should not be the only one to have it in case something happened to them or the seed and it was lost forever.

“Greg was not in a position for several years to actually have a place to grow out or really care for what he was now realizing was a priceless collection of corn seeds,” McDorman said. “He came to me several years ago and divided up what he had. He was very open to the idea that all of these things are gifts, we should do what we can with them and pass them on.”

Because of the Internet, those photos quickly got passed on in a big way, he said. Several websites crashed once a blogger posted the “glass corn” photo.

“It made it to ABC News and Discovery channel and now National Geographic is interested in it,” McDorman said. “It is interesting for me because the story of corn and its importance is still here and this (beauty) is just one facet of it.”

He believes agriculture is imperiled; monocrops, or industrial agriculture, has gotten so big and is owned by so few people, he said. It is not paying attention to its biological or ecological underpinnings anymore and is not good farming.

“They’re creating superweeds for superbugs, doing practices that the farmers could have told them 100 years ago were going to end up doing that,” McDorman said. “But we are being propelled through these different economic imperatives, to ignore those sorts of things and maximize our profits in the short term.”

Agriculture is being discussed worldwide and there are real questions about it. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to abandon it, and we couldn’t afford to, but we’re learning to recognize that the best agriculture has always been small,” McDorman said. “The most beautiful corn that anyone has ever seen came from the old, traditional ways.”

Agriculture needs to be more sustainable, and that means smaller, he said. But how small can it afford to go and still be economically viable? Everyone in every region of the world can take part in readapting agriculture to its ecological and sustainable roots.
“There is a worldwide movement to do that,” he said. “In cities, urban agriculture is taking off; Dr. Oz talks about it on daytime television almost every day. The world’s chefs have become the great new exponents; they’re all into fresh, local, organic – not just because of the biology and because agriculture is threatened, but because it is better food.”