Corn Controversy (Base Pairs Episode 2)

The ongoing GMO labeling debate wasn’t the first agricultural controversy. In the early 1900s, it was a new and so-called “wicked” breeding technique that had everyone on edge.

“Knee high by the 4th of July.”

It’s an adage that’s been ringing in the ears of American farmers for longer than anyone can remember, and an expression well known even to  us confounded city-slickers!

That’s just how iconic corn is in America. Endless stately rows of lush green stalks, bejeweled with a bounty of golden, photogenic ears – that’s the image America’s Corn Belt evokes.

And yet, in the early 1900s, your average farmer could only pray that his crops would be “knee high” or higher by Independence Day.

That’s at least until one scientist from Cold Spring Harbor introduced American agronomists to the benefits of hybridized breeding – which, it may surprise you to know, was once considered a “wicked” practice!

In this episode, we dive into the surprisingly contentious history and genetics of America’s corn.

~also available on~

Extras for Episode 2:

George Shull


George Shull was a plant biologist who started his work just years after the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s study of heredity in pea plants. Inspired by Mendel and Charles Darwin, Shull pioneered investigations into the secret of heterosis – better known as hybrid vigor.




Milford Beehgly was one of the very first pioneering hybrid corn farmers, buying his very fist hybrids from Henry Wallace, the founder of Pioneer Hybrid (now DuPont Pioneer.)

Photos by Monteith Mccollum — Filmmaker Monteith Mccollum (left) and his grandfather, Milford Beehgly.
Monteith McCollum, 2002 — Filmmaker Monteith McCollum (left) and his grandfather, Milford Beehgly.

Beehgly made a small fortune for himself as the “King of Corn” in the 1950s. But as his maize flourished, his family life shriveled on the vine. Learn his whole story by watching the award-winning film, Hybrid.

Watch the full film here ] [ or download the education resource ]

Midwest dust storm, 1935. NOAA George E. Marsh Album, the b1365, Historic C&GS Collection.
NOAA George E. Marsh Album, the b1365, Historic C&GS Collection — Midwest dust storm, 1935.

It was only to avert crisis, in the wake of drought, dust storms, crop failure, and the Great Depression, that America’s farmers finally accepted hybrid corn. Today, it is the prevailing way in which we breed corn.

Photo by Flip Schulke, EPA ¬– New Ulm Minnesota, 1970
Flip Schulke, EPA – New Ulm, Minnesota, 1970 –  Teenage workers often spend their summers detassling corn for hybrid corn seed companies. By tearing off the pollinating tassels (the male part of the corn), breeders can ensure that one line of purebreds do not fertilize themselves that year. Instead they are pollinated by another purebred line, ensuring a hybrid cross.

Want to find out more about the amazing genetics of maize? Check out  http://www.weedtowonder.org/ ­— an online educational resource provided by CSHL’s DNA Learning Center.

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