We just watched King Corn this evening. I know, it’s been out for a while; we’re a bit behind the curve here. But if you are too–if you haven’t seen it–it’s worth the time. It’s funny and lowkey, and sort of sneaks up sideways on its subject, an exposé of commodity corn.
I didn’t know the setup when we started watching: two recent college graduates (Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis) get their hair analyzed (!), learn they’re “made of corn,” and decide to go back to the Iowa town both their grandfathers had farmed in years before, and grow an acre of corn. The movie’s partly about the people they meet and the work they learn to do (they’re city kids from Boston), but as it goes on, it’s more and more about the industry itself.
Ian and Curtis learn that the sudden burgeoning of corn began in the ’70s, when then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (whom they interview) presided over the deregulation of that and other crops, with the result that profits fell, and farmers had to grow more and more to stay in the business at all. Corn was bred to tolerate close spacing. It’s nutritional value fell, but suddenly, we were swimming in the stuff. (You should see the piles, like dunes. They even climb them like dunes.)
That was the beginning of the corn fructose industry, which transforms a crop with low nutritional value into one with none. The byproducts from the fructose industry–the solids left over after the “juice” has been squeezed out–are used as cattle feed, so Ian and Curtis go look at feed lots. Here’s one tasty tidbit: a feedlot with a hundred thousand head produces as much waste as a city of over a million.
And here’s another: the high corn diet makes cattle gain weight much faster than the old-fashioned grass diet, but it isn’t good for them. It causes stomach ulcers and other problems and would kill them if they weren’t slaughtered within a few months.
Oh, and here’s yet another: a steak from corn-fed beef contains perhaps 9 grams of fat. The same-sized steak from a grass-fed cow contains less than one and a half. (I think it was 1.2.)
It’s when one of the experts being interviewed drops a fact like that one that Ian and Curtis exchange glances. Often we see only one face, but the look is always startled, a bit befuddled. This is an exposé with a light touch.
Even so, my eyes were rolling in my head by the end, and I am vowing, once again, to stay away from mass-produced meats. Aside from the fact that I’m sorry for animals sickened by their diet, I have to wonder what effect it has on human health to be eating meat from an animal that isn’t well.
I did have some unanswered questions, like, where the heck did these guys live during their time in Iowa, and what did they live on? The closing credits mention grants, but nothing’s said of those in the course of the movie. A line at the movie’s end credits Michael Pollen for having inspired the project, but again, that’s not mentioned earlier, though they do interview him. Maybe they thought that using his name too early would tip their hand, or alienate their audience.
At any rate, it’s a great movie, chock full of information gently conveyed. And although it’s certainly got an agenda, it isn’t heavy handed. It’s that rare thing, an exposé with a light touch.