Corn-based documentary unearths America’s No. 1 crop
Directed by Aaron Woolf
Corn: It’s everywhere, though most of us probably don't realize it. During the past 30 years, the New World plant has become absolutely pervasive in the United States, turning up in everything from soda to meat to jokes (just joking), and contributing to cheap foods that have negative effects on our health. Hence, the documentary King Corn. Without calls to action or divisive language, this artistic little piece of investigative journalism explores the hand-in-hand transformation of corn and the American food supply.
The film begins with co-producers and best friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis having an isotope analysis conducted on their hair. The scientist who runs the tests explains hair is like a tape recorder for our diets. Everything we ingest eventually turns up in it. The results, he tells Cheney and Ellis, show that most of the carbon in their bodies originates from corn. This bit of information sets the stage for the rest of the film, an examination of why Americans have become a people made of corn.
Cheney and Ellis (along with behind-the-scenes director and producer Aaron Woolf) strike out for Greene, Iowa, where with the help of some friendly farmers, the two men chronicle the planting, growth and harvest of a single acre of corn. Over the course of one year, they learn what they are growing--and indeed most of what the country grows--is not the sweet corn on the cob we may imagine. Most of it is one starchy, tasteless, genetically modified monoculture grown for processing. This corn is a far cry from the more nutritional, higher protein varieties domesticated in Mezoamerica thousands of years ago.
In terms of where this corn turns up in our foodstuffs, the film focuses on two major forms it takes: corn syrup and livestock feed. In this context, we begin to see how it permeates our food chain. It’s in the biomass of corn-fed meat, with beef in particular rendered fattier and considerably less healthy than the few cows still eating grass--the food they evolved to eat. Corn syrup, a highly processed, low-cost sugar substitute, shows up in a tremendous number of foods. Juices and sodas are the usual (but far from the only) syrupy suspects.
King Corn also examines the death of family farms, first through the rise of technology during the early 20th century, then by drastic changes within the federal government in the early ’70s. As Cheney and Ellis learn, with the use of machinery, it takes only 20 minutes to plant their one acre. This makes it easy to understand how massive farming operations are possible. Then, when costs are calculated, their crop yields a loss of $18, which is recouped with government subsidies. As the film explains, this is how corn farmers make their money--usually not by profiting from the crop itself. This strange reality is the result of a 1973 revolutionization of agriculture aimed at creating a massive food supply. As the originator of that policy, former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to “get big or get out.” The nearly 100-year-old Butz tells Cheney and Ellis the great secret to America’s success is its cheap food supply, citing that on average we spend only 16 to 17 percent of our incomes feeding ourselves.
While the film is fascinating, one could cite some gripes: First, the narration, while mostly light-hearted and amusing, doesn’t always live up to standards set by the film’s apt cinematography and composition. The voice work leaves something to be desired and the writing isn’t always on-track. In the film’s onset, one narrator says, “For some reason we felt drawn to the Midwest.” Any reasonable viewer might deduce they were drawn to the Midwest because that’s where the corn is. Also, though it’s impossible to touch on every aspect of corn, they could have included more facts.
Nevertheless, King Corn explores the replete U.S. food supply in a way not often pondered within pop culture ... through corn! Also, unlike the 2004 food documentary Super Size Me, this film doesn’t have much of an agenda other than plainly presenting an investigation. Information-heavy scenes are tempered with quiet and beautiful shots of the humble Iowan scenery, while stop-motion animation is used to illustrate ideas like the rise of large-scale farming and the corn’s travels across North America. Meanwhile, corn farmers talk honestly about their plight, with one admitting that they are producing “the poorest quality crap the world has ever seen.” In the end, viewers are left with much to chew on regarding all the corn we put in our pie holes.