Mosaic Films, 2007
written by Aaron Woolf, Ian Cheney, Curt Ellis, and Jeffrey K. Miller
directed by Aaron Woolf
90 minutes, not rated
So these two guys become good friends in college, and after a while they discover that not only are they both from Boston, but they both had great-grandfathers who came from the same small prairie town. They take an interest in the food industry, and one year they decide to go out to that Iowa town and see how the food they eat gets created. First, they go to a scientist who does isotope tests on their hair, and he tells them that most of the protein in their bodies came from corn plants. This surprising result makes it clear that what they need to study is corn. To do this, they propose to grow one acre of it themselves, on borrowed land, and then try to follow it through the system.
The guys' names are Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis. The town's name is Greene, Iowa. The crop is "field corn" -- not corn on the cob, not sweet corn, not popcorn, not anything meant for direct human consumption, but a type of grain engineered to contain nothing but pure starch, as a feedstock for industrial processing. It isn't food, it's raw material for the manufacturing of food. Most of the corn grown is of this type; the kinds that consumers see directly are a minor sideline. It's genetically engineered, it's herbicide resistant, and with enough fertilizer it can produce two hundred bushels an acre -- five times the yield that more natural farming techniques could boast a century ago, and twice what was possible even in 1970.
And it's subsidized. Corn growers get direct payments from Uncle Sugar on a scale that dwarfs all other farm programs. This stuff gets grown in gigantic quantities not just because it produces calories cheaply and abundantly, but because we're paying taxes to have even more of it grown at an even lower price. An average taxpayer has to cough up somewhere around forty bucks a year for corn subsidies.
Curt and Ian make a likeable pair, a friendly and unassuming presence to follow through the film. They illustrate points by making cute little stop-motion animations out of toys and corn kernels. Unlike most "issue" documentaries, they make this one a pleasant experience. They approach everything with openness and apparent naivetee -- which must be at least partly a put-on, as they had been taking an activist role on food issues as students well before beginning this film project. But they scrupulously avoid any obvious activist behavior on camera. Instead, they talk to distant relatives and learn about their local family histories. It's also much more nicely photographed than is typical of its ilk; their colleague Aaron Woolf knows his way around a camera.
I've seen quite a few earnest little documentaries about Important Issues in the last few years, and this one stands well above most of its siblings. Especially because it's one that can genuinely let you learn something, instead of just lecturing you with someone's point of view. It raises very important and under-considered public issues while steering clear of stridency and alarmism. These guys could teach Michael Moore a thing or two about how to bring important questions into open public debate.
There's some quite nice music in here, from a little group of folkies called the WoWs. The pace of the film suits the music and the place: nothing is rushed, it's never intense and in-your-face: there's always time for a shot of Ian and Curt goofing around with a baseball or looking at old pictures of great-grandpa in his airplane. If this sounds boring, I'll just say that for me, the tone and tempo of the film worked very well. It's perfect for a couple of guys who are there to learn, not to preach.
So they plant their corn. First they soak the soil with a buttload of nitrogen. Like their neighbors, they use pure liquid anhydrous ammonia, the most undiluted possible form of fertilizer -- this is to a conventional fertilizer product such as ammonium nitrate as crack is to conventional nose candy. Then they buy the genetically engineered seed, and run a planting machine over the soil. Their acre is covered in less than twenty minutes. After the corn starts to grow, they hit every other plant in the acre with herbicide, so the crop doesn't have to share sunlight or nitrogen with anybody.
I found it surprising that the film did not mention insecticides. They never say what means, if any, of pest control were used on their crop. And there are plenty of other ecological issues that the film doesn't address, from soil erosion to nitrogen runoff to aquifer depletion to total dependency on fossil fuels -- see, the yields are so high largely because the plants get more of their energy from synthetic fertilizer than they do from sunlight. The question of the environmental sustainability of this kind of intensive farming is left for others to deal with. Curt and Ian's concern is only about what we end up eating.
To find out how the corn ends up in our food, they take the some of the months where the corn is growing to hit the road. First, they find out what percentages of corn are used in what industries. The third biggest usage (and growing fast) is ethanol production -- they leave this topic for someone else. Second biggest is cattle feed. And the biggest is high fructose corn syrup.
Beef first. They head to Colorado to visit feedlots, where cattle are fed a mixture of field corn and silage. The silage is mainly the non-grain parts of the corn plants, and similar plant waste from other crops; it's roughage, the sort of material that cows are naturally equipped to digest.
Now, what makes cattle so valuable and important is their ability to create protein and fat in prodigious quantities from materials that, for human stomachs, have absolutely no nutritive value whatever. A cow can literally make old newspapers into food. A cow needs no protein of any kind, no fat, no carbohydrates, not even a single vitamin. It only needs roughage.
So what happens if this metabolism, which can make rich food out of wood pulp or half-composted leaves, is fed a diet already rich with corn starch?
The answer, we learn, is that it grows very fast and gets very fat -- the feedlot system deliberately limits the animals' ability to exercise, to make sure they get even fatter -- and if it isn't slaughtered practically as soon as it reaches adult size, it will soon die of the overindulgence. A cow cannot even survive into the prime of its life on such a diet, let alone into old age. According to our beef industry, it has no need to. And what kind of meat does it make? Our boys interview one foodologist who describes the material going into today's fast food burger as "fat disguised as meat".
Ian and Curt happen to love hamburgers.
The grotesqueries of the beef industry have been touched on in other documentaries, such as Fast Food Nation and Super-Size Me, not to mention The Meatrix. This film doesn't add anything new to what's been revealed elsewhere about feedlot cattle raising, except the key point that all this cheap, fatty, unhealthy meat depends directly on the overabundance of cheap, starchy, unhealthy corn. The federal subsidy that floods the market with surplus syrup is also responsible for the overabundance of bargain burgers. They cover the topic in a fairly brief amount of screen time.
After beef, it's time to address high fructose corn syrup. And interestingly, while feedlots welcomed their little film crew, syrup factories one and all refused them admittance. So here's what they do: they get instructions how how the syrup is made, and replicate the process on a kitchen stove!
I'm sure I was like a lot of other people when I assumed that if someone was making high fructose corn syrup, they did it by growning high fructose sweet corn. Nope, it's all field corn -- the fructose and other sugars come from an industrial process that breaks down starch the way a refinery breaks down petroleum, using acids and enzymes and heat. And the damn stuff gets put into everything, from spaghetti sauce to peanut butter to salad dressing to multigrain bread. And cookies and candy bars, of course. Even if you avoid obvious sweets, it's damn difficult to buy processed food that doesn't contain corn syrup, just as with hydrogenated vegetable oil. It's so damn cheap that it's hard for any food product maker to justify not using it. But the majority of the syrup does go into one place: sweetened beverages, such as soda pop and "juice" drinks.
After the harvest, they follow the end of the corn syrup trail to, of all places, Brooklyn. There they find a neighborhood awash in soda pop and, coincidentally, in type II diabetes. Nobody has managed to prove that soda pop is the number one cause of America's twin epidemics of diabetes and obesity, but the conclusion is pretty obvious.
And we're paying for this to be done to us!
After the corn is harvested, their one remaining task is to total up the economic yield of the harvest. And surprise surprise, the corn loses money, becoming profitable only because of the taxpayer subsidies. (Historical note -- these subsidies got a huge boost with the previous farm bill, when a militant Republican congress saw a golden opportunity to reward their friends and punish their enemies by using a farm subsidy program as an excuse to engineer a huge transfer of wealth from coastal states to the midwest... that is, from blue states to red ones.)
Curt and Ian's final road trip is to interview the man who engineered the modern subsidy system: Earl Butts, who was president Nixon's secretary of agriculture. The old system had been one of price supports -- a regulatory technique that evolved in response to the Great Depression, which was designed to keep family farmers from going bust in years when the supply of crops happened to exceed demand -- a circumstance that can be ruinous in a market as inelastic as that for food. This old system was notorious for the fact that it sometimes paid farmers to not grow food. Earl Butts thought this was ridiculous, and that it would be far better to produce more food than to produce less. In doing this, he forgot the wisdom of two hundred years of free-market philosophers, who knew that pushing prices artificially higher or artificially lower are both parasitic drains on the economy. He forgot that what farmers needed was price stability, not unearned artificial profits. He did not realize that subsidizing the industry could not only harm America's health, but turn what was once considered the noblest and truest of human industries into a sinkhole of corporate corruption.
The boys put on their best clothes and find that Mr. Butts, though now elderly and frail, is completely clear on what he did and why he did it: because as a farm child himself he remembers the backbreaking labor that once was needed to keep people fed, and because he takes it as self-evident that more production for less work is beneficial: it makes everyone richer because less of their cash and time is required for the necessities of survival.
Butts may be free of regrets, but the same is not true of the people of Greene, Iowa -- or the ranchers in Colorado or anywhere else they go. To me the most striking facet of this documentary is how farmer after farmer shakes their head at what agriculture has come to. Family after family goes out of business, and those that are left find themselves unable to take any pride in what they make. They know it's crap, they know it's not healthy. But more positive alternatives are so hard to come by that, in the end, farm towns simply end up gradually emptying themselves of people.
Ian and Curt's final act, after considering the consequences of their experiment in subsidized corn raising, is to buy out the acre they grew their corn on and plant a new crop: the wild prairie grasses that used to be native to that land. They are not alone in this. Though this isn't shown in the film, they are enthusiastic to let us know that all across the midwest, some farmers are resisting the bulk-industrial agriculture system -- raising herds of bison, conserving heritage vegetables, and growing grains organically. They see it as a hopeful and growing trend.
The next farm bill is coming up for debate soon. Every little bit of public awareness helps. If there's one thing that motivates a politician more than corporate payoffs, it's a pissed-off electorate.
For these reasons, and because this is an issue that most Americans would seemingly prefer to ignore, and because of engaging style and above-average filmmaking craft, I am recommending King Corn as a film that should go to the top of your list of documentaries to see.
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