Movie Review: King Corn

King Corn Documentary Exposes the Awful Truth About Corn

KingCornFARMERS, CONSUMERS, OUR HAIR AND OUR HEALTH AND NUTRITION ARE BEING HELD CAPTIVE BY CORN.

In the first few minutes of the 2007 documentary King Corn, producers-protagonists Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis undergo an isotopic hair analysis. This is because a single strand of hair provides evidence of what we eat, the environmental factors affecting us and other facts of our general health. Hair analysis is done on preserved locks of historical figures to determine what might have caused their demise (in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, it helped to determine that arsenic was not the likely cause of his death at age 51).

The findings were consistent with just about anyone else in contemporary America who has had this analysis done, and that includes ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer. From this analysis we learn that Cheney, Ellis and Sawyer all have diets heavily based in corn, that 50 percent of the carbon found there comes from the kernels.

The images of these three and the rest of America chomping away at corn on the cob, slurping corn chowder or scarfing corn dogs are delusional. Corn infuses itself into our food system quite removed from its familiar field form. It is the basic ingredient in cattle feed, and as a syrup — corn sugar (high-fructose corn syrup, HFCS) —  it is in thousands of processed food products that crowd the shelves of grocery stores. As a sweetener in nondiet sodas, we get the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar that is sourced from corn.

From the movie we imagine that if corn were to disappear tomorrow, our entire food system would collapse. And we can pretty much trace this fact back to Earl Butz.

Butz was the secretary of agriculture in the Nixon and Ford administrations, from 1971 through 1976. According to the movie and similar reporting in The New York Times and elsewhere, Butz flipped around the Farm Bill, first enacted to stabilize prices for farmers during the 1930s Great Depression. The original bill paid farmers to not grow certain things, keeping supply restricted. Post-Butz, federal agriculture subsidies encouraged the opposite, the maximum production of corn. Butz said farmers should plant commodity crops such as corn “from fencerow to fencerow,” and he encouraged them “to get big or get out.”

This opened the floodgates: For seed, pesticide and herbicide companies (all in one at Monsanto Company), the vast arable plains were the limit. By the 1980s, food companies (ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo et al.) now had a burgeoning supply of something that was cheaper than cane sugar in the form of HFCS. In the middle were farmers, on a treadmill to get bigger, more productive, and without incentive to rotate crops into their land, which would restore nitrogen to the soil. It was corn, corn, corn, year after year, supported by an injection of liquid anhydrous ammonia, which more than quadrupled production over what was possible two generations earlier.

Funny thing about all that corn, however, as the documentarians discovered. The film takes Cheney and Ellis through a full cycle of the corn season, from seed to harvest and sale. They grew the corn on a borrowed acre of land in Iowa, where they discovered costs for this crop on steroids were greater than the revenues for selling the corn, a shortfall of about $19. No farmer can afford to lose $19 per acre, particularly when those still in business can farm thousands of acres. But thanks to the Farm Bill, a $28/acre subsidy brings it back to profitability. And everyone in the town where the acre sits says it always works this way, year after year.

You read that right. America’s hyperproductive corn-based food (and now, ethanol) economy is a chronic market loser. Most of the country’s 80 million acres in corn production need to be subsidized. The American taxpayer supports it to the tune of $9.4 billion per year, enabling multibillion-dollar agribusiness and food manufacturing companies to be profitable. Hugely profitable.

And let us not overlook the fact that so much of the cost of agriculture is based in petroleum: for fertilizer, for gas to run equipment and to transport output to faraway markets. The oil companies, you may have noticed, do not operate at a loss. Far from it, in fact.

Where does the corn go, postharvest? Half is fed to farm animals, and 32 percent is sold for export or for use in ethanol (which is only slightly less damaging to the environment than petroleum). The remainder goes into our food — which includes 74 pounds of HFCS per person per year, the majority of it in soft drinks.

A very disturbing set of statistics that cannot be ignored is this: In 1971, the portion of Americans who were overweight or obese was 47.7 percent. Today, it is 68 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Abundant corn, modified to contain more sugar and less protein, means less-expensive food and more of it. “Yes, food is cheaper now,” says King Corn director Aaron Woolf. “But we are only beginning to understand the full cost that cheapness demands from our environment, our health, and our social fabric.”

What can we do to stem the corn/obesity-industrial complex?

Michelle Obama is working on the obesity crisis, in particular, trying to find ways to stem the crisis in children. She largely advocates for behavioral changes (choose the right foods, find exercise you can enjoy) and was a vocal supporter of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in December 2010. The bill was signed into law by Pres. Barack Obama and allocates $4.5 billion over 10 years to enable schools to serve meals that meet healthier nutrition standards (as established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Also included in the bill is assistance to help communities create local farm-to-school networks, to create school gardens and to ensure access to drinking water in schools (in some schools, vending machines selling sodas were more plentiful than free drinking fountains).

And yet this bill has its critics, who claim it is a waste of money. Perhaps those critics need to learn about the annual $9.4 billion taxpayers spend to subsidize cheap sugar. The beneficiaries are soda pop companies and food manufacturers, not overweight children and adults and certainly not the health care system, burdened as it is with unprecedented levels of obesity-caused diseases.

On a per-household basis, more can be done as well. As journalist Michael Pollan, who covers the food industry forThe Times and is the author of several books on nutrition, describes in In Defense of Food (Penguin Books, 2008), “An oversupply of macronutrients [such as carbohydrates, the largest product of corn] … represents a serious threat to our health. But as the research of Bruce Ames [acclaimed professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at UC Berkeley] and others suggests, the undersupply of micronutrients may constitute a threat just as grave. We’re eating a lot more seeds and a lot fewer leaves (as do the animals we depend on). Leaves provide a host of critical nutrients a body can’t get from a diet of refined seeds. There are antioxidants and phytochemicals; there is the fiber; and then there are the essential omega-3 fatty acids found in leaves, which some researchers believe will turn out to be the most crucial missing nutrient of all.”

In other words, more green salads, broccoli, kale, fresh peppers, carrots, celery, avocadoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, herbs (cilantro, basil, oregano, etc.) and just about anything else sold fresh and unprocessed in the produce section of the store. Frozen vegetables and fruit count as well; nutrient retention in frozen foods is found to be relatively high.

A move away from beef and pork to chicken, fish, eggs and legumes would significantly reduce the demand for corn products too.

But we can also support local farms, encouraging a stronger network of farmers who choose to defy the thinking of Earl Butz, to not get big but to instead stay smaller, to produce foods with a more natural and organic approach, less dependent on huge agribusiness corporations and the petroleum industry. You can do this through co-ops and farmers markets — and by establishing your own garden.

In time, grocers and the food industry will catch on and try to get a share of this market, and they might succeed in doing so. They may cannibalize some of the farmers markets or expand the size of the market overall.

And what about those farmers who grow corn today? They are on government support, as are the agribusinesses that supply them and the food and beverage manufacturers that buy from them. Shifting their land use to healthier and more diverse products would be good for people and good for the environment.

You may well have heard this before, many times. But there’s nothing corny about it.