It’s no secret that America is facing an obesity crisis, rooted in poor nutrition, but what you may not realize is that one of the core ingredients in the diets of our bigger, sicker selves is corn. From corn-fed beef to high fructose corn syrup in almost everything we consume, our bodily makeup is largely comprised of this seemingly innocuous starch. Upon learning this truth, two documentary filmmakers, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, set out on a journey to Iowa to find out about this crop that now dominates America’s farming industry and what becomes of it once harvested.
The result is the highly informative and somewhat entertaining documentary, King Corn. While this film is in the vein of other educational food and nutritional documentaries such as Food Inc. and Killer at Large, it only follows one aspect of the nation’s dietary dilemma, making it far from comprehensive, yet satisfactorily nuanced, detailing one important aspect of America’s nutritional woes via our highly corporate food system. Part history, part science, and part consumer action, King Corn not only tells us why we eat the way we do, but how we may go about changing it on an individual level.
The pair begins by packing up and moving to Iowa to farm one acre of corn. This is not the corn you get at a local farm stand and eat off the cob; this corn is harder, starchier, and not palatable for direct human consumption, yet most Americans digest forms of it on a daily basis. What they find is that the driving force behind this crop is US government subsidies, since this corn is used by every major food brand in the country. In fact, much like the genetically-modified Monsanto soy beans (talked about in Food Inc.), the corn has been genetically modified and is called “Liberty Corn.” This specially developed corn is resistant to Liberty pesticides so that farmers can liberally spray their fields with chemicals to kill all of the weeds, and the corn remains intact. So before this corn is even processed into forms that go into our foods, it’s already been given a hefty dose of toxic chemicals.
Once the crop is successfully planted and growing heartily for the harvest, Ian and Curt explore what might happen to their acre of corn once it’s sold. What they find is astounding and troubling all at the same time. Some of the corn is fed to cattle in high-production feedlots all across the country in three forms: corn feed, a corn by-product that’s like a mash, and shredded and ground corn stalks. All parts of the corn crop are used, and all are unnatural for these animals to consume. Cattle are made to be fed mostly grass, with only grains like corn as a dietary supplement. Feed them only corn, and they will get sick and eventually die. So, these cows are fed corn to fatten them up quickly, not allowed to roam, given antibiotics and hormones to counteract their unhealthy diet and unsanitary living conditions, and killed as soon as possible and shipped to our grocery stores and fast food chains. Other animals like chicken and pigs share a similar story. This means that we are eating corn every time we eat meats grown in commercial factories.
Much more of the corn that is grown by America’s farmers is processed into the now-highly-publicized high fructose corn syrup, a cheap sweetener found in everything from bread to salad dressing. The duo is denied access to any plants that produce this substance, and an interview with a corporate talking head is filled with glossed-over and highly-rehearsed clichés that have little to no truth at their core. When Ian and Curt try to make their own corn syrup, it is entertaining as they turn their humble kitchen into a science lab and frightening when more than one ingredient needed for its production is highly toxic and necessitates the use of gloves, lest they burn off a finger. And yet, just about any packaged food on our supermarket shelves contains this ingredient.
A troubling sub-plot in all of this is what has become of the traditional American Family Farm. What was once a humble family operation, passed down from generation to generation, has become a government-subsidized, highly-mechanized machine in which the big get bigger and the rest are left behind in the dust. Partly due to legislation in the 1970s that lifted the ban on the over-production of crops, the current business of corn farming is little more than producing the highest volume of the cheapest product with little to no focus on quality or nutritional value. As on farmer in King Corn puts it, he now plants acres and acres of “crap” that’s not doing anything to make the country healthier. Whole towns are simply dominated by huge corn elevators and containment structures and little else. Gone is the concept of living off of the land and only making and taking what you need: industrialized foods necessitate industrialized farms.
Overall, King Corn is worth the watch, and one that I will view again. It will not only give you a great understanding of our country’s corn industry, it will inspire you to check your food labels, make more careful food choices, and become a more informed consumer overall. While specific steps to change are not detailed in the film itself, they are hinted at and come as logical conclusions to the problems presented in the film. As one cattle production lot owner put it, if Americans ask for all grass-fed beef, we’ll give it to them. If the demand is there, the industry will follow. Even my young kids who watched the film with me came away with simple truths to consider when we buy our food. Whether you want to educate yourself, your family, or even your students, neighbors, and friends, King Corn is an excellent look at the industrialized food age we now live in, kernel by kernel.
I watched King Corn via Netflix’s on-demand service. You can also rent or purchase the DVD. To find out more about this film, purchase it, or purchase related products, visit their website here.