How talk of an acre became talk of an industry
Here’s a story seemingly about not knowin’ nothin’: two friends from Boston decided to figure out why we grew so much corn in the U.S. So, naturally, they went to Iowa and hired an acre of land to grow their own corn.
As anyone would, given a compelling question.
In King Corn, friends Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis found their grandfathers both came from the small town of Greene, Iowa. In this documentary (a form we know as dedicated to a version of a story rather than seeking objectivity), the two friends plant, fertilize, weed, and then harvest their acre of corn. All with the help of local farmers. But this is not the gotcha-style documentary that Michael Moore practiced. These friends seem genuinely interested in all aspects, ask the dumb questions that any of us (non-farmers) might ask, and make connections with the farmers, families and communities along the way. They let their questions propel them and others join in, though we have a strong hunch where the questions are going.
As they tell their story, they identify Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under Nixon and Ford. They note how Butz initiated a government policy shift that turned small farmers into big producers (especially of corn) rather than keeping them as small producers (that is, paying them to not produce to keep prices high). The friends also talk with Michael Pollan and a number of other fancy academic big-shots with opinions and research on food and agriculture. What they found turned the conversation.
- Massive feed lots that have dialed up cattle production by letting them stand and eat corn nearly constantly. So: faster to market. The cattle continue to eat toward an upper physiologic limit and must ingest a constant stream of antibiotics to continue eating. That would be our beef industry.
- A high fructose corn syrup industry spawned from the great quantities of corn produced. High fructose corn syrup seems incredibly malleable and shows up in a high percentage of the produced foods we buy. And high fructose corn syrup, as we are learning, is just more sugary, empty calories that help contribute to our nations struggle with obesity.
What’s odd is that raising corn, on its own, is a money-losing endeavor. But with the subsidies our government kicks in, it becomes profitable for farmers to set aside enormous sections of land to grow it. And the resulting industries and practices have a problematic relationship with our culture and health.
King Corn ends up as an uncomfortable look into an industry we all partake in. And like all documentaries, there is a clear point of view, which was fun to watch. I’m certain the beef and high fructose corn syrup industries have excellent and solid rebuttals for the conclusions any viewer might form from the film.
We’re all happy with cheap food, but the film helps us ask about the long-term cost of our cheap food.
What I appreciated about the tone of the film was just two guys just asking questions (yes, I bought into that portrayal of the friends). And rather than Michael Moore-style bombast, the filmmakers presented a couple sides to the story (though certainly not all sides) through conversation. The result helps me begin to rethink the low-priced, easily available food that surrounds us and for which I am grateful.