This Month’s Film Review: King Corn, Directed by Aaron Woolf, with co-producers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis
On a scale of 1 (gouge my eyes out) to 5 (enjoyed every moment), I rate it: FIVE STARS
Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, from Boston, MA, became best friends at Yale, where they were very interested in reconnecting students to their food. They worked to bring local foods into the cafeteria, took students on trips to organic farms, and even went as far as releasing sheep on the central campus. After graduation, they moved to Iowa in the search to find out more about the American staple, corn. What they found is “America’s best-kept secret.”
“If you take a McDonald’s meal, you don’t realize it when you eat it, but you’re eating corn. Beef has been corn-fed. Soda is corn. Even the French fries. Half the calories in the French fries come from the fat they’re fried in, which is liable to be either corn oil or soy oil. So when you’re at McDonald’s, you’re eating Iowa food. Everything on your plate is corn.” — Michael Pollan, UC Berkeley, in King Corn
When I think of corn, I think of sweet, hot, buttered and salted ears of golden deliciousness or cool fall nights in a haunted corn maze, where you are constantly on your toes, awaiting the next Chewbacca to jump out at you. But there is apparently a lot more to corn these days than the occasional cob or cornbread muffins. According to scientist, Steve Macko from the University of Virginia, hair is a tape recorder of your diet. When Cheney and Ellis went to visit Macko for a hair analysis, and the result was: “The carbon in your body originates from corn.”
Inspired to find out how most of their cells were made up of corn, this Boston-raised duo had something unusual in common: both of their grandparents had worked as farmers in the same little county in Greene, Iowa. How fitting is was that they should take the experiment back to their ancestral stomping grounds, so they contacted Chuck Pyatt, a corn farmer from Greene, who then granted their request to plant 1 acre of corn on his land.
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In 1973, Secretary of Agriculture, Earl L. Butz, put the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act (a 4-year Farm Bill) into play and replaced the old government programs of curtailing (paying farmers to not produce), with Farm Subsidies (listen to podcast here; more on Farm Bill here), which supplement a farmers income with deficiency payments. For the 1 acre that Cheney and Ellis farmed, they received $28 from the government for it. After purchasing ammonia fertilizer, Liberty pesticides, renting farming tools, and selling their corn, they actually made: negative $19, despite the Farm Subsidy direct payments they received. Thus the thinking might logically be, farm more corn to make more profits. Farming has become a large-scale business. As farmer Rich Johnson says, "You've gt to be pretty good sized or you kind of get squeezed out."
When the two farmers-in-training did a taste-test on their crop, they responded with this: "It looks good...It's not very good...It tastes like saw dust...I really thought it would taste better."
"If you're standing in a field in Iowa, there is an immense amount of food being grown, non of which is edible. The commodity corn, nobody can eat. It must be processed before we can eat it. Its a raw material. It's a feedstock for all these other processes and the irony is that an Iowa farmer can no longer feed himself." —Micheal Pollen
After the harvest, Cheney and Ellis wanted to find out where their corn would end up. It was virtually impossible to specifically track their corn, but the the statistics said that 32% would either be exported overseas or turned into ethanol, 18% would become sweeteners—like high fructose corn syrup, and 50% would be fed to animals and become meat products.
As half of their corn would be feeding the meat industry, they did a little sleuthing and found that most cattle in the beef industry are sent to feed lots for their last 140-150 days, where they spend their time in confinement, hardly moving and eating up to 90% of their diet in corn, much of which comes from a by-product in the ethanol-making process. This allows them to put on weight quicker and compete in the beef market. Cattle rancher, Sue Garrett explains that it takes several years to reach market weight for cattle that are grass fed on the open range. She further says that once a cow goes past 120 days of being fed a high-corn diet, the cattle's health begins to rapidly diminish with ulcers and can lead to death.
According to Allen Trenkle of Iowa State University, cattle have gone from no grain in their diet to consuming up to 90% of their diets in grain [corn]. This change causes the livestock’s PH levels to drop and develop acidosis, which occurs when more acids are produced in the body than normal—ulcers and illness develop at this point. To combat this acidosis as well as the poor conditions the cattle are kept in, antibiotics are given in their feed. The meat industry makes up 70% of U.S. antibiotic use.
Loren Corain of the University of Colorado states that the cattle raised today are technically “obese” animals. Bledsoe Cattle Co. said, “If the American people strictly wanted grass fed beef, we would produce it for them, but its definitely more expensive. America demands cheap food.”
“You never get something for nothing in the world of biophysics, and what you give up in the bargain is nutritional value. Most of what we’ve done in agricultural improvements, for the most part, have actually degraded our food from a nutritional standpoint.” —Ricardo Salvador, Iowa State University
All-in-all, a great peak into the world of corn farming and the food industry. Stellar work, King Corn! Yet another reason to look into permaculture, growing your own garden, joining a CSA and or supporting your local organic farm or farmer’s market. I highly recommend this film.
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COMING SOON: The Monsanto wars.
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