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My Corn Went to an Atomic Bomb Test

I was reading Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson last night when I came across some information I just couldn’t believe.

The book is about how the wild plants eaten by our hunter-gatherer ancestors came to be the cultivated vegetables we eat today. It discusses, among other things, how we’ve bred out many of the nutritious elements and taste in favor of high sugar, starch and oil levels.

I was reading the chapter on corn when I came across the following information.

“Then  in 1946 the genetic researchers seized upon and even more surefire way to mutate corn seeds, blast them with an atomic bomb…This bizarre series of experiments took place on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands as part of Operation Crossroads…A secondary goal was to study the effects of intense radiation on plants and animals…[A] week before the detonation, biologists ferried goats, pigs, and sacks of corn seeds to a few of the ships that were anchored far enough from ground zero to stay afloat but close enough to be bombarded with radiation.”


Blue Mexican Sweet Corn: non-irradiated, high in nutrients

“The results of the experiment are spelled out in government document AD473888, entitled “Effects of an Atomic Bomb Explosion on Corn Seeds.” Although the report was written in 1951, it was not declassified until 1997…[S]amples of all the viable kernels were collected and sent to a central seed bank called the Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center for future research.”

“Our modern supersweet corn came out of this collection of misbegotten seeds. One day in 1959 a geneticist named John Laughnan was shelling an ear of mutant corn from seeds he had ordered from the Maize Genetics center… Laughnan absentmindedly popped a few kernels into his mouth and was startled by their extraordinary sweetness…Lab test showed the strange-looking kernels were ten times sweeter than the so-called sweet corn of his day.”

Illini Xtra-Sweet Corn: from Irradiated seed, high in sugar

Illini Xtra-Sweet Corn: from Irradiated seed, high in sugar

“Laughnan was a geneticist, not a plant breeder, but he changed overnight into an avid entrepreneur…In 1961, Laughnan began to market the first of his supersweet corn varieties…Consumers fell head over heels for the sugary corn…Old-fashioned sweet corn, the beloved corn of our parents’ and grand-parents’ generations was about to be pushed off the market.”

As a result of this info I’ve decided to grow my own sweet corn this summer, which I generally don’t do because corn takes up a lot of space. I just don’t like the idea of eating corn developed by hard radiation. And I’m going to grow varieties a lot more nutritious than ordinary sweet corn.

I’m only about 1/3 of the way through the book but I think it’s great. I’m reading it as fast as I normally read fiction. The info is very easy to understand and despite what I’ve quoted above, it’s not a doom and gloom book. It also tells you how to get the most out of veggies you eat by giving you info on varieties to buy or grow and how to store and cook them to maximize their nutrition.

In case you were wondering, I highly recommend Eating on the Wild Side.


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