The Documentary, King Corn

King Corn (film)
King Corn (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Documentary, King Corn

I have shown many films in class over the last five years. I tend to shy away from documentaries and use commercial movies to make points. For instance, I use the film, Sabrina, to bring up the issue of class differences, and it is a consistently successful film commanding class attention and getting intelligent responses when they analyze the influence of class.

However, I have two documentaries that have been consistently successful in class use. One of them is Gasland, the other King Corn.

King Corn is story of two men who do a simple experiment in the pursuit of truth. Concerned by the diminishing life spans of Americans, they discover that their diet is primarily corn. They journey to Iowa and grow an acre of corn to see how the process works. They talk to many people in their travels and these conversations are the best part of the film.

The issues of corn, overproduction, factory farming and high fructose corn syrup are very controversial and can be very emotional. The documentary’s approach, the humble seeker after truth, sets the emotional level very low and the film is amusing and relaxing. Nevertheless my students do leave the film uneasy about the state of American agriculture and there are usually a good many comments about what we should be eating.

I usually add some lecture material on the Cuban Embargo, and go into more depth on the high fructose corn syrup controversy.

If you are a fellow instructor I recommend you use the film. It used to be available of Netflix but now you have to purchase it or find it on the web.

It can be purchased here – for the very reasonable price (today) of $10.49 for a new copy.

James Pilant

From around the web.

From the web site, PBS.

As Ian and Curt discover, almost everything Americans eat contains corn.
High-fructose corn syrup, corn-fed meat, and corn-based processed foods
are the staples of the modern diet. America’s record harvests of corn
are supported by a government subsidy system that promotes corn
production beyond all market demand. As Ian and Curt return to Iowa to
watch their 10,000-pound harvest fill the combine’s hopper and make its
way into America’s food, they realize their acre of land shouldn’t be
planted in corn again—if they can help it.

From the web site, Docurama Films.

Engrossing and eye-opening, KING CORN is a fun and crusading journey into
the digestive tract of our fast food nation where one ultra-industrial,
pesticide-laden, heavily-subsidized commodity dominates the food
pyramid from top to bottom – corn. Fueled by curiosity and a dash of
naiveté, college buddies Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis return to their
ancestral home of Greene, Iowa to figure out how the modest kernel
conquered America.

From the web site, Food Democracy.

There is legislative logic to the flood of cheap corn-based foods. In
2005, federal subsidies spent $9.4 billion in taxpayer money to promote
corn production. For Iowa farmers, these payments often mean the
difference between profit and loss on a given acre. With subsidies
promoting production beyond market demand, the raw materials for an
obesity epidemic are readily at hand.

From the web site, Eco Streaming.

My father calls this part of the U.S. “God’s Country”. And I do believe
that he is correct. It is an amazing place in our country, and in the
world. But now the corn grown there is not for us to feast on as it used
to be.  It is used primarily for manufactured sweeteners and animal
feed. You can learn more about this when you see the film by two young
men determined to discover the genesis and path of our food production.
They set out on a journey to grow one acre of corn, and they learned
more than they ever knew they would. See King Corn. You can rent it at your local video store. It is worth a watch.

From the web site, Groundswell.

Live from the Union Square subway:  A big food message that tips its hat to changing consumer perception.  When I saw this poster, the first thing I thought of was the film King Corn
The filmmakers explain that grass-fed cows used to take 2-3 years to
get fat and ready for our beef consumption.  Once we started feeding
them corn, however, they got to the same weight in just 15 months
By changing the diet of our cows, we’re forcing them into false
maturation.  With this, and so many of our industrial food ways, we
wrestle nature into the ground.

From the web site, Abagond.

Things I liked about the film:

  • They talked to Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, a book I have. Cool.
  • Professors talking in measured tones about terrible things.
  • The public relations woman for a high fructose corn syrup plant was suitably reptilian.
  • They put on safety glasses and made their own high fructose corn syrup, sulfuric acid and all.

From the web site,  The Public Amateur. (If you want a cinema based analysis of the film this is where to go.)

On the odyssey of the pilgrim researcher, many experts are consulted. In the set up they visit a lab where they have their hair analyzed to get the data version of the typical American eater. Yup, the hair speaks counter-intuitive truth to reason: a diet of soda and hamburgers and snack foods delivers what they suspected: the main ingredient in their hair is corn. Look in the bioinformatic mirror and you read what you eat/are.

One of the strengths of the film is their respect for the Iowa farmers they encounter. They don’t assume anything about their informants’ lives, opinions or class affiliation. They refrain from interpreting and judging what they learn, but the knowledge they acquire complicates the decisions they have to make. And despite their restraint, those complications are ethical ones.

From the web site, BE: Nutrifit.

King Corn is a documentary about two men, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who
study where their food comes from.  The film begins with the
realization that corn is in most of our foods and that it is one of the
most productive and most subsidized grains in the United States.  Iowa
alone produces 2 trillion corn crops which is the largest in American
history and is enough to feed the entire United States (Wolfe, Cheney,
Ellis, & Miller, 2012).  Ian and Curt move to Iowa to plant their
own crop of corn and then follow it through the food system.  They end
up raising all sorts of questions about the food we eat, how it is
farmed, and what happens to it after the harvest.

From the web site, The New Home Economics.

It’s just amazing to see how much Earl Butz‘s farm policy in the 1970s, which I’m sure he enacted with really good intentions, has changed family farms, our health, and our environment, and all for the worse.  Does that mean the old farm policy of the 50s and 60s would work now?  I don’t know.  But something has got to give, and the farmers in the documentary were in agreement that the ridiculous amounts of corn they produce are, well, ridiculous.

I wish I knew what the solution was.  Simply educating consumers to make informed choices is a start, but I just don’t think it’s enough, not when our government is pouring giant subsidies on a crop that no one can eat.

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