“King Corn” (2007) is an independent American film about corn. Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis return to their great grandfathers’s town of Greene, Iowa to grow an acre of corn (0.4 hectares of maize, mealie, Zea mays). They find out that corn is not quite what you think it is. Aaron Woolf directs.
Corn was pretty much how people imagine it to be until the 1970s: family farmers growing ordinary corn and selling it. The government sometimes paid farmers not to plant corn to keep prices at a level so that family farmers would not go broke in huge numbers.
Then in the 1970s all that changed. Instead of limiting the amount of corn grown, the government poured money into corn so that huge amounts of it would be grown. It became big business – all those family farms have been going under one by one ever since.
Corn is now so plentiful and cheap that Americans spend way less on food than they used to – because now most of what they eat is corn in one form or other.
- Meat: Most corn is turned into meat. Cows used to be grass-fed. Now they mainly eat corn even though it makes them sick. So sick that without antibiotics they would die before they were ready for market.
- Sugar: Half the sugar Americans consume comes from corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup. It is so cheap that Americans consume way more sugar than they used to. For many it is more than their body needs or can even handle, making them fat, even diabetic.
- Even French fries: half the calories comes from the oil, which is made from corn.
Ellis and Cheney had their hair analysed: over half of it came from corn!
The corn itself has changed. When Cheney and Ellis tried to eat some of their corn, they spat it out: it tasted like chalk or sawdust. It is not meant to be eaten. It is meant to be a raw material that is processed into other things: animals feed, ethanol, high fructose corn syrup, etc.
It has been genetically engineered not just to grow closer together but to withstand chemicals that kill insects, weeds and other living things.
With the machines they have now, it took them just 18 minutes to plant their acre with 31,000 seeds. With the present-day fertilizers, their acre produced 5 tons of corn, four times more than the same piece of land did in their great grandfathers’s time. By early summer the corn was already way over their heads.
Yet without government payments they would have gone broke.
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.
Its opening weekend made $6,753.