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King Corn

Posted by admin | Posted in Movies | Posted on 13-09-2010


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Engrossing and eye-opening, KING CORN is a fun and crusading journey into the digestive tract of our fast food nation where one ultra-industrial, pesticide-laden, heavily-subsidized commodity dominates the food pyramid from top to bottom – corn. Fueled by curiosity and a dash of naivet‚, college buddies Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis return to their ancestral home of Greene, Iowa to figure out how a modest kernel conquered America. With the help of some real farmers, ood… More >>

King Corn

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Comments (5)

King Corn is kind of like Super Size Me’s little brother. It traces the pervasive influence of corn on modern America, including the obesity epidemic and the fact that Iowa is growing trillions of bushels of *non-edible* corn to continue receiving lucrative government subsidies. College buddies Ian and Curt, both from the east coast, discover that they both had distant relatives from the same small town of Greene, Iowa. Ian and Curt decide to go to Iowa and plant one acre of corn, following it through its lifecycle, including where it goes after the harvest.

The film starts off slowly as the reasons for the trip are explained. The prerequisite talking heads introduce some scary factoids about how Americans are literally made of corn; if you do a hair analysis, it’s like a diet diary, and the vast majority of the American diet (corn-fed beef, fast foods and processed foods) contains corn derivatives. Much of the corn we ingest is in the guise of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheaper alternative to sugar that is produced via a scary chemical conversion involving several toxic acids. HFCS has been directly linked to the current obesity crisis and its impact on Type II Diabetes (the body processes HFCS differently from table sugar). Prior to the 1970s, hardly any company used HFCS due to its high cost. But after then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz did away with the old New Deal market control policies in favor of rapid expansion in 1973, there was a constant surplus of cheap (and non-edible) corn, fueling the rapid expansion of the corn syrup industry. Here’s a quick test: walk into any convenience store and count how many items contain corn, specifically corn syrup. The list includes obvious choices like soda and candy, but you’ll also find HFCS in deli meats, breads, ketchup, pickle relish, spaghetti sauce, and cough syrup. Oh yes, and one main variety of corn grown in Iowa (Liberty) is genetically modified, as is at least one ingredient in HFCS manufacturing.

Corn production geared towards ethanol is briefly mentioned, but the majority of the focus in King Corn is on the impact of non-edible corn on the nation’s food supply. In this respect, it’s kind of a gentler version of Supersize Me; there’s no shock value for the most part. Also mentioned is the disastrous consequence of converting cattle from grazing animals to force-fed confined ones. Cattle normally forage for a plant-based diet, but it is far more profitable to bring them up to market weight by forcing them to stand still and eat continuously. In addition, the acids present in corn cause deadly ulcers for the cows, who are slaughtered before developing acidosis. The end result is that 70% of the antibiotics in the US are used on livestock (antibiotics combat both the acidosis and the infections resulting from confinement). Literally everything at McDonald’s contains corn: your hamburger is corn-fed, the bun contains HFCS, your soda contains HFCS, the French fries are fried in corn (or soybean) oil, and your ketchup and pickle contains HFCS. Ditto for most vending machine foods, frozen dinners, and anything you don’t make from scratch. It’s extremely difficult to escape buying foods containing corn, since a variety of pseudonyms are used, including baking powder, caramel color, dextrose, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, stearic acid, and vanilla, making it a nightmare for anyone with corn allergies.

Perhaps the most effective element is that of nostalgia. Ian and Curt also take time to find their long-lost relatives in Greene, and to reflect on the rapid changes in our recently agrarian society that have forced farmers to maintain massive farms harvesting non-edible corn. In other words, the farmer can’t even feed himself with what he’s growing. Without the hefty government subsidies, such large-scale corn operations would be out of business. They interview various farmers and ranchers who are disgusted with the system, but who have little real choice (one farmer says flatly, “We’re growing crap!”). We’re shown the evolution of farming equipment and of the family farm itself as a quaint reminder of the past; there are nostalgic shots of Main Street and hometown parades, quiet diners and local bars.

Ian and Curt’s visual style is playful; the charts and graphs are hand-drawn, interspersed with stop-motion plastic farm toys to get the point across (and the dancing corn on the map of the US was great, too). The quirky soundtrack is a standout as well. DVD extras include some outtakes, a music video, bios, and some great 1950s-style educational clips. King Corn is a thought-provoking look at the old adage “You are what you eat,” and boy, it’s scary.
Rating: 4 / 5

Although not perfect, I’ll give any documentary, movie, TV show or book five stars if it alters my life and King Corn definitely rates five full stars. I would highly recommend that everyone purchase or at least view this movie once; I had the opportunity to see it this week on PBS’s series “Independent Lens.” Corn is nothing but a “raw material” that is separated to almost its basic elements and used to build our daily “garbage” diet.

I learned about the relationship between obesity and the use of high fructose corn syrup (aka HFCS) by accident a few years ago when I made a visit to Victoria, Texas and they sold Dr. Pepper with “Imperial Sugar” and the 10-2-4 logo on the bottle. I didn’t know that sometime in the early 70’s that the soft drink companies switched from sugar to HFCS as the sweetener. Who would have thought that decades after being told that sugar is bad for your teeth, etc., etc. that it is actually much better for you than the HFCS alternative!

After watching this documentary I did some research and HFCS is in almost everything you buy. For example, it is that main ingredient in many of the ice cream syrups on the supermarket shelves… HFCS is in everything form hamburger and hot dog buns to “low fat” salad dressing! Honey graham crackers… EVERYTHING! Fast foods are full of this HFCS junk and this is only one of the many things you’ll learn from this documentary.

Where I live in Corpus Christi most of the population is obese, they exercise little (if at all), have a high incidence of diabetes and fast foods are their favorite filler. In fact, at the local Driscoll Children’s Hospital on one side you have the emergency entrance and on the other the “golden arches.” No joke! It is really sad.

One can only project into the future after the wheat gluten from China killed our pets in the United States… Will we outsource growing corn to China so we can get even cheaper HFCS to fatten and kill our population off?

My only minor criticism is that the filmmakers didn’t explore our government’s role in ruining our diets by providing a version of “corporate welfare” to factory farms that produce this junk. As it turns out, they would not be in this business, save the subsidies they get from the USDA. Go figure!

UPDATE 13May08: A recent story in the The Wall Street Journal [1-year subscription] (May 7, 2008, Page B3A) by Susan Buchanan raises some interesting points on the use of corn syrup.

I do not want to give anyone the impression that the only reason that our nation is obese is due to HFCS. In fact, the problem with obesity in the United States is the result of many interrelated and complex factors. They include, cheaper foods coupled with larger portions, an increase in eating out (especially at fast food joints), reduction in exercise and, unfortunately, a greater acceptance of being overweight as the “norm” in our society.

As this film points out, our government is responsible for subsidies to make something that is unprofitable profitable, while at the same time making food cheaper with heavy doses of HFCS inside. I wish, instead, that our government would give big subsidies to organic farmers and tax breaks to those who walk or ride their bikes to work. Instead, our government (FCC) is more concerned with giving us more channels of digital TV by February 2009; another major cause of obesity is the time spent sitting in front of the tube. Where I live the Corpus Christi Police Department and Nueces County Sheriff’s Department have almost a zero record in regards to protecting pedestrians, joggers and bicyclists. It is downright dangerous to make an effort to be physically fit where I live. At the same time, the situation in Corpus Christi is not, by any means, unique in our country.

To reduce the epidemic of obesity in the United States we need a multi-pronged attack on the problem that includes support from our government for more healthful ways of life and a population that will say NO to eating junk and YES to exercise.

Rating: 5 / 5

Whether you are well versed in the ways of the industrial food chain or just beginning to learn about it, King Corn is an entertaining film that delivers a lot of information. 2 friends plant an acre of corn, giving the viewer insight on the entire process. There are many other subjects touched upon, including the far reaching impacts of conventional agriculture, the disappearance of family farms, the economic impact of corn on small town America. This film would be a great starting point for people just learning about the current state of the food system, or the film the well versed person might lend to their less than knowledgeable friends. Much of the truth in The Omnivore’s Dilemma delivered by 2 nice guys, Fischer Price stop-motion animation included.
Rating: 4 / 5

This documentary film is a sort of prequel to Fast Food Nation, and does for film what Michael Pollan has done in his two books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Best friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis relocate from the east coast to Greene, Iowa (population 1,015) to grow an acre of corn and then follow its fortunes after harvest. Planting an acre of 31,000 genetically modified kernels takes eighteen minutes. Fertilizers, sprays, water and time will yield about 200 bushels or 10,000 pounds of corn. That’s why there are literal mountains of corn in Iowa. But none of it is edible, and was ever intended to be, until it is artificially processed. Over half of the crop goes to feed cattle, another third goes for ethanol and exports, and then a significant minority of it goes to make high fructose corn syrup and similar sweeteners that you’ll find on virtually every label of processed food. In short, this is corn that is not really food. Cheney and Ellis netted a loss of $19.92 on their acre of corn, but that’s before massive government subsidies put them in the black. Not even the farmers in this film were happy about agribusiness as usual, but that’s the story of corn to date.
Rating: 3 / 5

This interesting film illustrates what happens when food becomes more of a vehicle for making money than for feeding people. Most of the corn we grow in our ‘breadbasket’ is inedible for humans, and is used as feedgrain for cows (I wonder how much the cows like it as well).

In addition to documenting their farming experiment, the filmmakers visited a massive cattle feedlot in Colorado. It brought to mind another movie that explores our meat industry Fast Food Nation. As the meat industry, like the cigarette industry, increases their global marketing, ever increasing amounts of grain are being used to feed cattle; along with creating fuels. Amazingly, some crops are being genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals Transgenic Plants: A Production System for Industrial and Pharmaceutical Proteins.

With growing food crises around the world, one wonders when we’ll reach a tipping point and decide to create a food system that serves people instead of serving the interests of executives at Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland Rats in the Grain: The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland, the Supermarket to the World. Thinkers like Frances Moore Lappe have long argued that the real issue behind a lack of food security is not a lack of food, but rather a lack of democracy World Hunger: Twelve Myths. We need to dethrone ‘Kings’ of corn and many other commodities and put decision making power into the hands of civil society, as Vandana Shiva has advocated for so eloquently Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. See some of Shiva’s presentations on YouTube, she’s a modern-day Gandhi.

A couple other resources to help us create a sustainable, organic, biodiverse, and localized food system:

Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works (Our Sustainable Future)

Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth

Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair

Mother Earth News

How to Save the World

Rating: 5 / 5

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