Merchants, missionaries, and slave traders probably brought maize, from the New World, to Africa around 1500. Maize has the vegetable vitamins A, C, E. It doesn't have the lower B vitamins of the true grains millet, sorghum, and wheat. Yet it became Africa's most important cereal crop. For it's easy to grow. It needs one plowing, as opposed to 3-4 for true grains. It gives two big harvests a year. Its grains, leaves, roots, stalks, and tassels can be eaten. It's roasted on the cob or made into soup, porridge, gruel, and couscous. Its lighter work load frees farmers for money-making activities; military service; government work projects; and food-for-work projects.
But is it a good choice? It gets lower harvest prices than wheat, teff, and sorghum. It needs nitrogen, sunlight, and water. All three are problems with phosphorous-poor acidic and red porous laterite soils. Acidic soils also have little calcium and magnesium and too much aluminum. Laterite's also low in nutrients. So they're not right soils, right vegetable. African soils only grow maize with fertilizers, herbicides/pesticides, and irrigation. The rest of the world grows maize for chicken and livestock fodder, fuel, paint, penicillin, and plastic. But Africa grows maize to feed Africans. And maize diets are short on proteins and vitamins. So maize-eaters get the diseases kwashiorkor and pellagra.
Maize is behind two modern disasters. One's the crop failures of 1949-52. New World maize got along with two fungal parasites, puccinia sorghi and polysora. Maize and sorghi went to Africa together. It was a rare case of non-native plant and parasite naturalizing beautifully on new soil. Maize and polysora went with American food shipments to Sierra Leone, for re-shipment to America's allies. Polysora calmed down as suddenly as it'd flared up. Was it because local farmers planted from maizes they saw to be polysora-busters?
The other's Ethiopia's malaria epidemic summer 1998. It spread from the expected low-lying lands to the unexpected highlands. Both areas had been irrigated to grow maize. Malaria's historically linked with water. And it may not be the last disaster. Africa grows white maize. But money's not going into white maize research. It's going into hybrid seeds, such as SR-52 for Rhodesia's large commercial farms.
MAIZE AND GRACE reaches a wide readership with its clear organization and writing. The chapters have persuasive examples and illustrations. The conclusion's followed by helpful appendix tables, notes and bibliography. Author James C McCann reaches into history as background for today's problem questions. But he's planted in the present, and facing into the future, with his answers.