Did you know that your hair acts as a record of everything you've eaten? The new ITVS documentary, King Corn opens with filmmakers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney visiting a small lab to get their hair tested. They discover that they are made up primarily of corn. To many in the Bay Area, home of Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, this revelation comes as no surprise. Pick up a box or bag of any processed food and you will find high fructose corn syrup as one of its major ingredients, if not first on the list. Trouble is, most people don't read these lists and cannot grasp that the elements of a McDonald's happy meal are really just corn disguised as a hamburger, fries and a coke.
To learn more about how the American food system works, Ellis and Cheney move to Iowa to plant an acre of corn. The two start with a frozen field and end with an over-abundance of the grain. What's surprising is that it's not corn they can actually eat! It's a hybrid version that has been genetically modified to contain more sugar and less protein than its natural ancestor and cannot be plucked from the stalk and steamed for dinner. It's a type of corn that is only "edible" once it has been industrially processed. In fact, of the 92.9 million acres of corn planted in the U.S. in 2007 only 253,500 acres are sweet corn -- corn on the cob. The rest will be used in ethanol, livestock feed and end up as the main ingredient in an increasingly large variety of food products. This corn just turns up everywhere.
King Corn may have the "tell me something I don't know" quality that many experienced with last year's An Inconvenient Truth. While it doesn't make the film's message any less important, this impression may be a function of the time it takes to produce such a documentary. The filmmakers began working on the subject in 2004, documenting a year in the Iowa cornfields and traveling the country to follow corn's progress through the food chain. Over the intervening years, the dysfunction in America's food industry has become more prominent in the mainstream media. Those of us addicted to NPR have heard volumes from Michael Pollan since last year's release of his book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.
What's interesting about King Corn is the apparent disappearance of that famous mid-western common sense. The farmers involved in producing record crops of corn say themselves that they aren't producing food; they're producing crap. Yet they don't seem to know what else to do. When did these farmers forget how to grow food? I thought that was the most touching part of the documentary. It made me think how folks once had pride in the food they grew and the products they produced, and this pride made American agriculture and industry the strongest in the world. Where is that pride now? Where is the common sense? When one sees mountains of corn piled up outside already glutted grain silos and understands the devastating risks and effects of a mono-culture, one wonders how the system got so warped.
Earl Butz, the Nixon-era Agriculture Secretary responsible for creating many of the policies run amok today, shows up in King Corn. It's no wonder that Butz, who got his degree in Agriculture in 1932, at the height the Great Depression, created policies geared toward making America into a land of plenty. Because of these initiatives, Americans now spend a smaller percentage of their pay on food. It's a good policy, if you believe that our economy thrives on folks having more ready cash to spend on other things -- until you factor in the rising costs of health care.
It is confounding that more of us are unable to follow the link between this system of low-priced, low quality foods, the growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes in America, and the rising cost of health care. While we might save money on cheap food, we end up paying with our health. And how much are we REALLY saving? The price of corn is so low and the crop so abundant that the only way farmers end up turning a profit is through government subsidy. Makes you wonder about the contents of the 2007 Farm Bill.
King Corn opens Friday, November 2, 2007.