On the way home every day, I drive down a road that bisects massive, increasingly tall fields of corn. As a backyard gardener, I have the hobbyist’s envy of professional fields like these. How do these vast tracts of plants maintain that deep, healthy green when we haven’t seen rain in weeks? Why isn’t there a single weed between the rows? How does it grow so danged fast? And how do they get away with packing the stalks so close together? Well, the answers—chemical fertilizers, specialized pesticides, more fertilizer, and genetic modification, respectively—can be found in King Corn.
King Corn, though, is about more than just growing corn. College friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis begin to ponder the nature of the food we eat and what it does to our bodies. After having hair samples analyzed, they find out that much of what courses through their body comes from corn. The two decide to travel to Greene, Iowa—where, coincidentally, their ancestors once lived—to grow an acre of their own corn.
There doesn’t turn out to be much to the actual growing of the corn. Anhydrous ammonia fertilizes the soil, a modern tractor setup allows them to plant 31,000 kernels in 18 minutes, and a specific herbicide tailored to the exact breed of corn they’re growing takes care of any weed issues. Apart from that, the picture they and director Aaron Woolf paint of modern corn farming consists of sitting around watching the corn grow and making sure the farm subsidy paperwork is in order.
And it’s really farm subsidies that make up the heart of King Corn. As the film explains, an early ‘70s shift in US government priorities toward producing as much food as possible has led to America’s current state of cheap, abundant corn and its profound, unforeseen ramifications for its food supply. Corn dominates the feed that goes into America’s cattle, and high fructose corn syrup has replaced sugar as the food industry’s sweetener of choice.
In fact, the corn that Cheney, Ellis, and the Iowa farmers around them grow isn’t even meant for human consumption: it’s for the sole purpose of providing ingredients for the food industry. This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with the burgeoning simple-food genre spearheaded by books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, or by films like Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. But as Cheney and Ellis fill their free time by traveling to Colorado feed lots, visiting the Mitchell Corn Palace, talking to locals, and making their own high fructose corn syrup, we get to see them discover many of these things for themselves.
In the process, they show the seemingly unstoppable momentum that industrialization and subsidies have accumulated. Modern farms, with their fencepost-to-fencepost philosophy, can grow four times as much corn as those of Cheney and Ellis’s great-grandfathers, to the exclusion of traditional farm activities like raising livestock and growing one’s own food. Now, as even the farmers themselves lament, farms can cover more than 1,000 acres, with smaller operations failing every year (in one of the film’s more poignant moments, the pair return six months after they sell their corn to find one of the farms featured in the film up for auction).
To serve America’s need for cheap meat, cattle are fed with corn and corn products in shoulder-to-shoulder pens because it makes them gain weight and enter the food chain more quickly. High fructose corn syrup, especially in tandem with America’s growing appetite for liquid calories, has exacerbated the country’s obesity epidemic and contributed to increased rates of Type II Diabetes.
Surprisingly, though, for all of the issues raised by Cheney and Ellis’ experience, the film doesn’t take on a demonizing tone. Where someone like Spurlock or Michael Moore would juxtapose an interview with a food industry spokesperson with a clip that contradicts the spokesperson’s claims, Cheney and Ellis instead take her claim that high fructose corn syrup has led to greater variety in food, and prove it by finding that pretty much everything in a convenience store contains the stuff.
Similarly, when they interview former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who launched the subsidies reconfiguration in the early ‘70s, they don’t lambaste him with accusations or tough questions. His viewpoint is that the changes he implemented led to Americans spending less of their take-home pay on food than ever before, which he sees as a positive thing.
The most scathing commentary in the film probably comes from the farmers and townspeople themselves. Intimately familiar with the changes that high-yield corn has brought about, they are far more direct with their opinions than Cheney and Ellis. Here, you could potentially accuse the two of cherry-picking quotes, as some farmers come across as defensive in a bonus feature chronicling premieres of King Corn in Iowa. In another bonus feature, however, Iowa’s Republican Senator Charles Grassley comes across, surprisingly, as much more considered and philosophical about the whole thing than Virginia’s Representative Bob Goodlatte, who may have a great future as a food industry lobbyist.
In fact, if there’s one fault to be found in King Corn, it’s that the topic is so monolithic and many-tentacled that the film can’t give full attention to any one aspect. One moment, it’s a lament for the loss of small town America and the family farm; another, it’s a passing expose on the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock. Taken as a whole, it paints a comprehensive picture, but is seen best as a stepping-off point to more focused sources for many of the issues it raises. With such issues getting more complex by the day, however (consider the current tension between biofuel and food needs, for example), gentle overviews may be more valuable than ever.