Agriculture and materials have had a long standing relationship for thousands of years. The cultivation of maize waste, stover as it is known by, are the leaves and stalks of field crops from maize, sorghum or soybean, they are normally left in a field after harvesting the grain. Stover has a similar consistency to straw, making it a strong contender for the use of a material.
According to Wikipedia’s sources maize was first domesticated 10,000 years ago by the indigenous peoples of Tehuacan Valley, Mexico. The original maize plant known as teosinte is still growing in Mexico today. It is the third leading grain crop in the world and would not be able to exist naturally without the act of human intervention. The main reason that corn is such a productive and versatile crop, is because it has incredibly high yields compared with most other crops and can grown in most climates and countries.
The demand for maize, around the world, is estimated to double between 2016 and 2050 making it the leading crop grown on land. With these figures in mind we have to consider what happens to the waste of these popular crops that we love to consume.
The current method of overcoming agricultural waste is by burning it all, subsequently this produces an extensive amount of air pollution. However this ‘slash and burn’ method is the easiest and least expensive way to eliminate the volume of combustible materials produced by agricultural activities.
Recent MA Material Futures graduate Apilada Vorachart explores the damaging effects that burning corn waste can have within Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. Smoke from burning agricultural waste creates a vast concentration of pollutants contributing to climate change releasing substances such as black carbon and greenhouse gases. This is visible in highly affected areas such as Chiang Mai and these combustion processes produce dioxins, which are highly toxic carcinogenic pollutants.
Vorachart uses the corn husk fibres and turns this negative impact into a positive one by transforming these fibres into a local construction material for sound and thermal insulation. Realising that this waste product can be utilised into a byproduct can provide a new creative economy which can enhance the traditional craft skills of the local communities.
Polly Mae Redfern a recent Buckinghamshire University BA Surface Design graduate repurposes corn husks and turns them into functional materials which can also be dyed, baked and blended that achieve three separate surfaces. These surfaces can be considered as a composite material, a paper or a constructed material.
What other alternatives could there be in providing sustainable living to this hugely impactful and wasteful industry? Do we need to rethink the system as a whole?
The Scientific American Journal states that:
“The American corn system is inefficient at feeding people. Most people would agree that the primary goal of agriculture should be feeding people. While other goals—especially producing income, creating jobs and fostering rural development—are critically important too, the ultimate success of any agricultural system should be measured in part by how well it delivers food to a growing population. After all, feeding people is why agriculture exists in the first place.”
Creating a cyclical system that will keep feeding into each other rather than creating an industry that relies heavily on land and natural resources would mean a richer future for ourselves. In the meantime as we keep producing maize at the rate in which we do we need to consider the alternatives to the waste crisis.