King Corn is a documentary opening this week in San Francisco and Berkeley, and throughout November nationwide (it already played in New York, Washington, DC and Boston). Directed by Aaron Woolf, King Corn follows Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, two Yale friends who discover that their great-grandfathers came from the same small town in Iowa. They decide to move to Greene, Iowa to spend a year farming an acre of corn and make a documentary about it, in the process exploring the powerful but largely unseen role corn has in American life.
Raising an acre of corn — a ludicrously small amount in this age of a farm industry dominated by big companies — requires them to learn from a host of earthy characters, which is all very entertaining, but the science facts of the documentary are what’s really interesting. For example, 150 pounds of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer allows their one acre to grow more than four times the corn their great-grandparents could grow on the same acre. Using modern machinery, in 18 minutes they plant 31,000 kernels of Liberty Link transgenic corn. Why is it significant what brand of corn they plant? Because when weeds show up, our charming college-boy farmers use Liberty brand herbicide. Using the herbicide on non-Liberty Link corn will kill the corn.
But the really freaky stuff is still to come. You see, the college boys’ corn is not an edible variety; rather, it’s the type that is used for industrial processes, primarily as feedstock, to produce ethanol, and to create high-fructose corn syrup. First, they travel to eastern Colorado, where a great percentage of US feedlots are located, to explore the horrible and debilitating effects of corn feed on commercial livestock; it produces systemic acidosis since cattle evolved eating grass, not high-starch foods like corn. This is not news to anyone who’s read much about vegetarian politics, nor, probably, is the fact that nowadays 70% of the antibiotics consumed in the US are given to cattle through their feed, because acidosis causes or aggravates all sorts of infectious diseases. This sort of info has been around since at least my own college days in the ’80s.
But the rise in high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has happened more recently; it’s all but replaced cane sugar in the American sweetner industry. Certain sources assert that this highly-processed substance is more dangerous than other types of sugar in terms of contributing to diabetes and obesity, but the most recent studies (all funded by the corn lobby, by the way) seem to indicate that it is no different nutritionally.
Nonetheless, cheap HFCS has contributed to the cheapness and profitability of junk foods, almost all of which contain the crap. Cheney and Ellis try to tour a high fructose corn syrup factory and instead get to interview a creepy corporate clone who gives them a sales pitch about the stuff and explains that they can’t take a tour because of concerns about the safety of the food supply. Cheney and Ellis then cook up some high fructose corn syrup in their kitchen, which is wildly entertaining for science geeks and tastes oh-so-great, from the looks on their faces when they slurp it down.
The kicker? Despite their earthy Iowa friends’ frequent observations on profitability, Cheney and Ellis only make money on their acre because of government farm subsidies.
King Corn is moderately subtle as a documentary, but I walked away with one simple fact: “Corn is creepy.”
Middle image by Peter D. via ICanHasCheezburger.