Where I was in Illinois, on the other had - seen from the air - could be plausibly called the start of the cornbelt. It's where the Chicago exurbs come to a surprisingly-abrupt halt and are replaced by a gradient of endless agriculture heading to the rockies - first the large grains, then wheat and hay, then rangeland, and not a lot of people. So I went to have a look. It only took a few minutes' drive to get beyond the housing developments and among some of the broadest agricultural expanses I'd ever seen live. I pulled off the road at one spot that looked fallow - like I could walk freely there - and got out of the car.
|The line is drawn outside of Geneva, IL|
A few things were noticeable. First that the fringes of the field had smaller plants; this is nothing unique to the midwest, and usually due to some tricks of drainage and fertilizer-scattering angles. But the corn plants suffering on the edges here were still twice as tall as the healthiest of those I'd seen the week before in Massachusetts, burdened by draught upon heatwave upon hail upon late frost. The soy plants here I at first mistook for some monstrous cover crop, with leaves like clover growing a foot up out of the ground.
I stooped to take some pictures of the rows, and I held a soy plant in my hand. The heat was impossible. I felt myself wilting, desiccating with no shade in sight. The leaves of the plant, however, were thick and healthy, bouncing a bit in the breeze. The robust copse of the stalk was covered thickly with a soft, spiny fuzz, and a few flowers were just peeking out of their exploratory growth. The corn as well seemed to be taunting the sun, suggesting it could do worse.
These were genetically-modified plants. There were no tags and no one to ask, but I could say it with 97% certainty. Most likely from a family of seeds that Monsanto brands "Roundup Ready" for their ability to convert sunlight and soil to biomass at a ferocious rate while being regularly doused with a proprietary insect-and-weed-killing cocktail that could plausibly be used to kill humans with the right concentrations.
I walked across to the other side and touched a corn broadleaf. It was already wider than my hand, and the whole plant came to the height of my nose, with two months yet to go. One ladybug reclined on the leaf, which was otherwise completely devoid of noticeable insect life. What seemed like translucent hairs covered the green surface, projecting the picture of vegetative health. In working with farmers in Central America and the caribbean, I had learned that the interesting stuff was always underneath - turn over a corn leaf and you find a merry band of aphids or a spider with a nest to escape the sun and prey on the rest of the locals. But here the bottom of the leaf was as clean as the top - more of a matte finish than the gloss of the upper surface. Empty as a new house with the plaster still drying. I shot some more photos before the sun bested me and I trudged back to the car.
Corn and soy grown are grown in the Midwest at a scale that matters, in a way that draws the attention and support of the drafters of a five-year farm bill. Grown toward a subsidized ideal that is more efficient than many steel machines. Extending from where I stood West into Nebraska, North into Canada and South to the Gulf.
Awesome to behold.