Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis graduated from college at the turn of the millennium. Their post-collegiate goals didn't seem too fleshed out. In summary: "We want to live as long as our parents."
For most American generations, this isn't wildly ambitious. But in this era of rampant obesity and record numbers of diabetics, their prospects aren't sunny. Both of hearty Iowa farm stock, the two men decided to get in touch with their roots, returning to Greene, Iowa, where their great-grandparents had worked the soil three generations ago.
The two Yalies sent a letter to one very skeptical farmer, Chuck Phytt: "We're writing with a strange proposal. We want to move to a single acre of your land to grow corn." The results are chronicled in the documentary King Corn, airing Tuesday on WEDU-Ch. 3.
Part Michael Moore polemic, part Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) gonzo journalism, King Corn takes a hard look at major agribusiness, the farm bill and all the factors that have dramatically changed the way we eat in recent decades. There are consequences to $1 hamburgers washed down with cheap 72-ounce sodas, both made with corn. Sure, they're filling and inexpensive (we spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other developed nation), but in a sense, the adage is true: We are what we eat.
At the start of the film, scientist Steve Macko performs a hair analysis on Cheney and Ellis — both are big fast food eaters — declaring that much of the carbon in their bodies comes from corn. Despite its growing use as a fuel source (ethanol), America's most subsidized and productive grain finds its way into nearly everything we eat. High-fructose corn syrup, corn-fed meats and corn-heavy processed foods make up much of the American diet.
The crop that was once a native grass of many varieties has been narrowed to essentially one genetically modified breed, a monocrop that is not nearly as nutrient-dense as its predecessors. Thus, the sodas, animal feed and processed foods that are made from it are nutritionally skimpy and "energy-dense" (that means highly caloric).
"What we didn't know was that we were growing an acre of sugar," lament Cheney and Ellis near the film's end, their corn looking abundant behind them. "We thought we were growing an actual crop destined to be eaten by actual people. Instead, we were growing fast food."
Despite its gloomy outlook on America's No. 1 crop, King Corn is a breezy, entertaining buddy flick — two city boys fumbling their way through tasks farmers have mastered for generations in America's farm belt, its underlying message laid out simply and persuasively.
The beginning of the experiment — the actual planting of the crop — is underwhelming. Because of advancements in farming technology, it takes 18 minutes to plant 31,000 kernels of genetically modified corn on their tidy acre. And using ammonia fertilizer and powerful herbicides means they can grow four times as much corn as their grandparents (its disturbingly robust progress is tracked with stop-action photography).
While they wait for their bumper crop to mature, Cheney, Ellis and the film's director, Aaron Woolf, have a lot of time on their hands. Naturally, their thoughts turn to where and how their kernels will enter the food system. This is where King Corn becomes a monster movie every bit as sinister as King Kong.
Today, the Corn Belt produces nearly 11-billion bushels (that number was 7.1-billion in 1987, but experts expect a downturn in acreage planted in 2008). Cheney and Ellis wonder, is all this corn a good thing? To find out, they turn to corn's arch nemesis, author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma). A vocal opponent of all the sneaky corn in our diet, Pollan explains that because acreage and productivity skyrocketed over the past three decades, we had to figure out what to do with all that corn. Thus, the corn sweetener industry was born.
And though some studies indicate that a sweetener is a sweetener, meaning calories from table sugar are the same as calories from high-fructose corn syrup, others disagree. A recent study at Rutgers University tested soft drinks and found that those sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup contained compounds called reactive carbonyls, compounds linked to diabetic complications.
Fruits of their labor
In Park Slope, Brooklyn, the filmmakers chat with a cabbie. The camera pans down a convenience store aisle of colorful sodas and juices as the cabbie says, "Just by stopping drinking soda, I lost about a third of what I weighed. I was at high risk of Type 2 diabetes." A New York doctor then says that one in eight New Yorkers has diabetes.
Cheney and Ellis have another seemingly chance encounter in a McDonald's with a man who talks about confinement feedlots, a description that leads them to visit Bledsoe Cattle Co. in eastern Colorado, where 14,000 to 16,000 cattle are "finished" each year.
We learn that grass-fed cows take several years to reach market weight. Though corn-fed cows are fattened more quickly, cattle weren't meant to be on a corn diet, so they often succumb to acidosis (symptoms are varied, from immune problems to liver abscesses). To combat potential illnesses, livestock consume 70 percent of the antibiotics in this country. And then we consume the livestock.
After the first crop's harvest (government subsidy: $28), the documentarians decide to call it quits. They buy the acre of land and let it go fallow. Amidst acre after acre of bobbing ears of corn is a shaggy, weedy square in which they play Wiffle ball.