Corn Futures

An informal letter of resignation which nobody will ever read.
And a general polemical complaint which nobody will ever care about.

I’m not a miracle worker. And they want a miracle. No. It’s worse than that. They need, we need, a miracle. We need a spontaneous and very specific genetic mutation. Now. Yesterday. Twenty years ago. We can’t wait for it to happen on its own time. And if we manage that miracle, then we’ll just need another one in maybe another decade. Maybe less. Depending on how generous this first miraculous mutation is. If it is only just enough to survive in these temperatures, the new land race will die as things warm, just like today’s maize, the miracle of millennia ago, is dying.

In any case, my grant, my tenure, my career is now dependent upon a miracle. I am to create this mutation. This is not possible, as they well know. I suspect I will be out of work soon. Like nearly everybody else. While a few idiots prattle on about progress and how science — meaning me — is going to save the world. When they have spent most of the last two centuries ignoring science except when it produces something they can take for profit. Science isn’t going to save us. Science is very explicitly telling us that we can’t be saved. 

But they don’t want to hear that. They want miracles. A whole planet of miracles. They want salvation. From themselves.

Because if we manage to miraculously fix maize, along with maybe some of the wheats and millets, we’ve still only managed to fix a tiny part of the food system problem. We need rice that can grow in saline soils, fruit trees that can set blossom with almost no chill time, a brassica that still has oil in its seeds after a drought season, some variety of nut tree that is resistant to both thousand canker disease and nut blight. And as that last one keeps finding new ways to infect new species, I doubt there will ever be a resistance as long as trees are stressed. 

And trees are stressed. Along with everything else. Heat, drought, pollution. We need a million miracle mutations to make species that can live on this newly uninhabitable planet. Just so we can eat. We need a chicken breed that won’t physically burn out from laying eggs in the summer. We need salmon that don’t need to migrate so they can remain in the few places left to them that are safe — for them to live and for us to eat their flesh. We need cows with natural resistance to antibiotic-resistant microbes. None of these exist. And they’re not merely unlikely breed adaptations. These are entirely new species. Changes of this magnitude would create an animal that would be fundamentally different to their parents. A chicken with these adaptations would not be a chicken and would not be able to breed with other actual chickens. Yet we need these new species now. Or yesterday. Or twenty years ago. All miracles. And this is not an age of miracles.

Nor am I a miracle worker.

What did they think would happen when they reduced viable maize seed stock to one variety and hybridized all the rest into sterility? What did they generally think would happen when they decimated biodiversity in our food plants and animals? You need a lot of genetic information to adapt to new conditions. Or a whole lot of miracle mutations. And time. Eons of time.

But no, they thought we’d just invent new foods. News flash! Last time we took on that project, we had a thriving and diverse planet to sample and tens of thousands of years to nudge along the traits we liked. And we’ve never invented new things. We can’t make new lifeforms. We don’t even really understand how the existing ones happened along. The most we’ve ever been able to do is shuffle and splice existing pieces of those DNA chains. And then hope the altered data would take, would actually make a viable organism. But we’ve never been able to synthesize any part of the double helix, never mind creating a whole new set of chromosomes for a whole new thing. We couldn’t do that in the past. We sure can’t do that now. But that’s what they want. Or rather that’s what they expect. That’s what they keep telling the public we will do when our current food things go extinct. We’ll just make more. Miracles. And that’s the job they expect from me.

I suppose we’ll always have beans. Maybe. We can synthesize a lot from that. But not in the quantities necessary to synthesize all other food stuffs, using just beans as feed stocks. And if we’re using just beans as feed stocks, we need to do something about methionine and tryptophan. We can’t synthesize proteins any more than we can synthesize DNA. Same problem, actually. So beans are not the panacea. We need corn. And the corn is dying.

And it’s my job to make a new not-corn that won’t die…

But try explaining reality to a frightened politician or grant administrator. They don’t live in the real world. They think we invented our food more or less instantly at 10,000 years ago — certainly without any effort — so that we could have cities full of politicians and administrators. “What do you mean we can’t just make new corn? It’s a plant. How complicated could that be?” Not all of them are that bad. Some even harbor the suspicion that we aren’t in control as much as we’d like to think we are. I think some even know that we aren’t. They’re the most frightened though. Which often means the most in denial.

Which might be worse than the usual mere idiocy. Because the deniers are actively fighting against reality. And denying my grant applications for lack of progress.

Not that they don’t have good reason to be frightened. I’m frightened. I have a daughter. What’s she going to eat? Hell, at this rate of ecological change, what am I going to eat? And everyone else on the planet. Bean paste until the kwashiorkor causes us all to turn into swollen ticks, gasping on our deathbeds? That and rickets, scurvy, B12 deficiency, thyroid disease. Whole lot of fun in those magical beans. Especially when they don’t have corn. We’re looking at existential problems. Intractable existential problems. Miracles. Miracle corn, in my case.

They all knew this day would come. That we’d run up against one wall or another. And now the politicians and administrators are looking for someone to scapegoat. For decades of errors. Mostly their own. And crimes. Because not all of this is innocent ignorance. Maybe most of it is not. There were plenty of warnings. They had the science, the data, the models. But they refused to take the financial hits that would have enabled us to survive. Not even to do research on new bloody corn. 

And that worked out so well, didn’t it? Keep the profits rolling at any cost? That right there is the level of their delusion. Because, surprise! Turns out even the stock market can’t run independent of reality for too long. Imagine that! There actually needs to be a real market — or at least some hope of selling some actual thing behind all those futures. The great black hole at the center of the capitalist enterprise chugged along fine, sucking up all the resources, as long as resources were dirt cheap and there was lots of energy to shuffle the shit around the globe. But even dirt gets expensive when it’s not replenished. Ever. 

And then there’s the tiny problem of demand. Once dirt gets expensive, there aren’t enough people who can afford to buy it. And then the whole thing just sort of sloughs off all its parts. Quasar capitalism to cold brown dwarf. Almost instantaneously. 

That’s where we are now. And I’m supposed to be figuring out how to make up for the mistakes and crimes of those folks who had plenty of resources but blew them all on profits for a day.

First it was the oil companies because they just damn-well refused to spend a dime on R&D, much less pivot into carbon neutral territory (as if that’s a thing, but anyway…). So, poof! Down they went, taking nearly the entire banking industry with them. Because the oil execs weren’t mining just the earth’s crust to get those enormous compensation packages. No, they were also taking money from the banks — who actually placed it in their hands. With no evidence that the loans would not go into default. With no evidence that the money would even be used to produce oil rather than line executive pockets. Billions of dollars in bank assets just gone and no way to ever meet their own obligations. All because the bankers couldn’t imagine a new model (and yet they expect me to create new corn). Well, now we’re all paying for their lack of imagination.

You can only pretend to be winning against reality for so long before the smoke gets too thick and the mirrors all crack.

And what for? They died in the end, just like everybody else. Their kids are now starving. And the whole business fell apart. There’s nothing left of them. We don’t even know their names because all the records were digital. Which is gone with the cows.

But even when the cows all died, they didn’t stop telling the public that progress was inevitable. That this was all just some temporary blip that our superior mind powers would smooth out. That we’d be turning the corner any day… Millions of diseased carcasses to dispose of. But we’re going to be just fine tomorrow. Pay no attention to the disaster in front of your eyes; just listen to the nut job behind the screen. Collective insanity. Even as the stink piled up and wafted right out of the atmosphere. Could probably smell it on Mars. If we could figure out a way to make Martian air.

And yes, there’s that donnybrook too. Terra forming. Not unlike the idea that we’re just going to invent new food organisms. Screw up your home planet? Just make a copy elsewhere. Hello! They didn’t even know what they were copying, going on about growing soil-less plants and retaining an atmosphere on a geologically dead rock. Blamed the scientists for that failure also. Pretty much gutted space exploration budgets. Sort of points the way of my career. 

And human existence. 

All for the lack of corn.

Hope whatever species takes over the management can forgive us.

I’m no miracle worker.

And we need a real miracle now.

So good luck to you.

Adelaide Cummings
Ithaca, New York
2 August 2082

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

Wednesday Word & Your Comments

The Wednesday Word for 27 July is


I wrote this story a few years ago when I first realized that corn dies when temperatures climb above 110°F. Since this is already common in the Southwest and not uncommon enough throughout the corn belt, it seems that people in this country might be a bit more concerned.

There is a story associated with Lughnasadh. Lugh’s foster mother, Tailtiu, takes it upon herself to create the conditions for agriculture. She labors a day and a night, clearing the land and making it smooth. She then plows the entire central plain of Ireland so that her children will be able to grow food. When she reaches the last furrow, she falls down dead — because even a goddess suffers exhaustion from that much effort.

Lugh decided to honor Tailtiu with a wake, a giant festival of funeral games. We still celebrate in her memory, though we name the fair season, Lughnasadh, the games of Lugh.

I sort of think we need another monumental effort to produce food for the future. Maybe even a miracle. I hope our descendants celebrate a wake games in honor of those who manage this miracle. But… I’m not a big believer in miracles…

And now… it’s your turn. Anything you feel like sharing (except the usual injunctions).

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