Friday, January 9, 2009

King Corn - A movie review

Because I rent all my movies from the library, I tend to be a little behind the times on checking out the latest and greatest. Here it is 2009 and I just recently had the opportunity to watch "King Corn" (2007). See the trailer here

"King Corn" is a documentary detailing the journey of corn from field to plate, as told by Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis. Cheney and Ellis, upon hearing reports that their generation will have a shorter lifespan than their parents, decided to do a little investigating into what we eat and discovered that our diets are monopolized by corn. Corn? Most people would assume wheat, right? All those pastas and hoagies? I thought we were bread eaters.

But it's true. Our food is swimming in corn. And Cheney and Ellis, in their journey towards discovery, share with us two very important lessons: 1) farming is different today than it was in past generations and 2) corn is in just about everything we eat. Let's start with Lesson #1.

Lesson #1:  Farming is different today than it was in past generations

Food shortages in the 1970's created new national food policy. It fostered the philosophy of "more is better" - basically, "get big or get out." Corn subsidies were introduced and with them came monocultures, acres and acres of crops. Farmers were encouraged to farm every acre with corn, and if their neighbors wouldn't expand, just buy them out. More, more, more. 

Granted, it's an efficient system. Machinery made it easier for less people to manage more farmland. Smaller farms no longer had a place, families moved to the city. How could they compete? As Cheney and Ellis report, in one acre, they plated 31,000 seeds. "It was not exactly a hands-on experience, but then again, it only took us 18 minutes."

Food and farming became measured in yield. Not that the plants are producing more, but the plants have been modified to tolerate living closer together. Iowa farmers are now producing up to 200 bushels per acre (that's 5 tons of food per acre)! More, more, more. Corn gets cheaper, government subsidies bail the farmers out. More, more, more.

So what happens to all this corn? How does it all end up in our bodies anyway?

Lesson #2: Corn is in just about everything we eat.

First, let me clarify that when we're talking about corn here, we're not talking about corn-on-the-cob, that wonderful summer-time treat. We're not even talking about canned corn here. Sorry Mr. Jolly Green Giant. You're not really part of this equation. What we're talking about here is corn that is meant to be processed - into animal feed and sweeteners. Go on. Get up and go in the kitchen. Check those labels. I'll wait until you come back... What did you find? Corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, hydrolized corn protien, etc...

In an effort to figure out how all this corn ends up in our diet, Cheney and Ellis went on a 1-year experiment of their own. They contacted an Iowa corn farmer and "borrowed" one acre of his land to grow their own corn. They jumped right in, applying for government subsidies and all. Learning from the corn farmers of Greene, Iowa, they planted seeds, fertilized, harvested, and deposited their crop in the local grain elevator. But what happens next, they found disturbing. 

Of the grain they grew, 32% will be exported or turned into ethinol. So that doesn't enter our food supply. But of the rest of it, most will become sweeteners or be fed to animals (aka that juicy hamburger at your favorite restaurant). 

Corn in lifestock - Anywhere from 60-90% of food rations for feed-lot cattle is corn. Here's the catch. Cattle aren't meant to eat corn and by the time they are slaughtered, their are dying from a host of other diseases. Mmm. Burger anyone? But grass-fed, the way nature intended, the cattle take far longer to mature and fatten to slaughter-weight. Corn-fed sure seems to be more efficient, right?

Of course, then there is the antibiotics that have to be given to cows to help cattle survive the conditions of confinement. A burger anyone? Still no takers?

Ok, enough about how we are killing cows with our cheap, overproduction of grain. How about some sweet talking - corn sweeteners. Well, Cheney and Ellis weren't permitted to take a film crew into a high fructose corn syrup factory, but they did get one factory to give them a recipe, which of course, they made. "It's definitely sweet," one of them said after tasting it and quickly spitting it back out in the sink.

High fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, became a player in the 70's. With corn being so cheap, it was a way to make all those wonderful processed foods cheaper for the manufacturers. And we all like cheap food, right? No wonder it took so much time to get it out of our house. It's in everything. No really. Go back to the kitchen again and check it out. I'll wait...

What we've really found in all this is that the efficiency, the so called "improvements" to the food system have actually degraded the nutritional quality of food. It has led to obesity and diabetes epidemics. Been to McDonalds lately? The burger (corn fed), the soda (high fructose corn syrup), the french fries (fried in corn oil). Getting the picture?

Ok. So that's the problem, but what is the solution? Here's the thing, people once spent twice the amount of money on food than we do today. Yes, the affordability and availability of food is important, but is the extremes in efficiency to which we've taken that goal healthy? Is it sustainable?

As 2009 proceeds, we reflect on the year that has passed and make plans for the future. I'm willing to bet that many of us have made resolutions with regards to food. Where does your food come from? Is it processed? Filled with corn, soy, and a lot of mystery ingredients? Do you want to fill your body with cheap, nutritionally devoid foods, or reward your body with quality, nutritionally dense foods. Eating well doesn't have to be a wallet-emptying experience, but we have to change our focus, becoming mindful of our food choices. 

Check out the movie. I've heard much of it before (from Michael Pollan mostly, who appears in this video WITH HAIR), but it's still a great reminder of the way our system works - for increased efficiency and productivity... not for our health and wellness. But we do have a choice. So in 2009, may your resolution be to eat well, enjoying whole, unprocessed foods. Explore your local farmers market. Renew your love of good food one bite at a time. I'll be with you the whole way!


Seraphim said...

A really interesting post, thanks for that!

I feel I am mostly protected from this as we only eat organic/100% home produced foods, but it still makes you think - it's still happening, no matter what I am eating.

I like cows. When I was young I wanted a pet cow. Really.

Thanks again for the great post ;)

Jena said...

Alright,alright, I'll watch it. It has been on my Netflix list for awhile now and I have never gotten around to actually getting it. I like how you summed it all up to not being sustainable. Around here people think it is a good thing that corn is everywhere, it is hard to get them to see the downside.

Anonymous said...

i loved this movie. saw it on pbs late one night then dragged the kids in to watch the repeat presetation a few nights later. after that came pollan's books and a realization just how far my family was removed from our food. it's funny how far you can travel in such a short span of time. a year ago we ate out 4 times a week (at least) yesterday morning we had frenchtoast made from a (slightly) modified bread recipe i got from your site - pecan/blueberry- and the left over eggnog i made for new year's eve (alcohol free of course). i found it very telling that one of the farm families won't eat the corn they grow..... if they won't, why should we?

greeen sheeep said...

Why do I never think of the library for movies?

Next time Hubby is gone I am going to check this out. I'm just as behind as you are. Even worse, since I still have yet to see this!

Green Bean said...

My husband and I watched this movie last year when it was on PBS. I loved it if, for no other reason, that my husband who would never read Omnivore's Dilemma (no time) can sit down and watch a movie and come away with a similar feeling. No more corn! He swore off soda that night and hasn't had any since.

Young Snowbird said...

I rented the video from Blockbuster is past fall. It seemed crazy to me that our government subsidizes food that is actally making us sick (obesity, diabetes, heart disease.) And the cows. Toxic acidosis because they aren't supposed to even be eating corn. Now the signs of "corn-fed beef" mean something entirely different to me!

The Cooking Lady said...

I would say that under 5% of our food has HFCS in it.

Took us ages to cleanse out our cupboards. But it was liberating to say the least.

What that basically means is that we no longer purchase anything boxed, unless we read the labels. It wasn't a far stretch from where we were headed, but we dug deep and let it go.

Loved this post and that movie is on our Netflix Q.

Heather @ SGF said...

Seraphim - It really does make you think and I know the HFCS people were trying to get the FDA to name HFCS a "natural" food so that marketers can use HFCS and still call their product "all-natural." You really have to be careful these days. Even more reason to eat whole, homemade foods!

Jena - Well, I think it's important that we not vilify corn. It's a healthy part of a whole foods diet. But like anything done to extremes, it has become an unhealthy, if not dangerous, staple of the typical American diet. Too much of a good thing is still too much. Corn is good, but as with everything... in moderation.

blondeoverboard - Good for you. Wait... french toast, you say? That's my favorite! Any leftovers???

Greeen Sheeep - Oh, the library is the BEST place. It's free!!!

Green Bean - That's wonderful! It's hard to believe what's in our food, and easy to mindlessly eat it, until we are woken up one day with reality. It may hurt at first, giving up those packaged items, or as in your hubby's case, the soda. But it is so worth our health to do it.

Young Snowbird - that's what we get when we allow lobbyists to decide the laws for us, not to mention their intervention in the food guide pyramid. Who are we to trust? Both Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle are good sources. Oh, if only they were in charge...

Cooking Lady - That's fabulous! Good for you. It does take a little extra time to read labels, but if you choose whole foods, it makes it a no-brainer.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Thanks for the reminder. I've been meaning to watch this for a while now.

Michelle said...

I had never heard of this one before; I just reserved it at the library.

I hope I do not get more depressed....

I have to say that you have very much inspired me (not just with this post, but with your lifestyle in general) to seek out our Farmer's Market this year and focus much more on whole, local foods. Thanks!

ttammylynn said...

Firstly, yes too much government intervention has caused quite a problem with our food supply.
Secondly, I think that our president-elect is already headed in the wrong direction. I think that he needs to encourage us all to grow a garden, raise a few chickens perhaps a goat or a cow instead of offering more government intervention and handouts and such. Why don't we empower Americans? Kill the zoning regulations and allow people to grow a garden and raise some livestock(I get it if they don't want roosters, but chickens are pretty quiet). It is the old way, it worked. Kids grew up with a sense of purpose and a work ethic, women worked for the home and hearth and men supported their families...what is wrong with traditional values and real food? It worked, it still would except that we've been spoiled with the promise of bigger and better while still suffering with less and less for more and more. Ever notice how everything that says "made in china" breaks pretty much as soon as you use it or you are left wondering what chemicals might be in it? Yikes...yeah, where are we headed anyway?

Green Resolutions said...

I actually started a Netflix account this week and added 6 documentaries, including this one. Thanks for the post. I look forward to watching the movie.

Farmer's Daughter said...

I really liked this movie. I taped it off PBS and showed it to my botany students, but they weren't as interested as I was. Oh well.

Heather @ SGF said...

Crunchy Chicken - It was on my list for awhile too. I'm such a procrastinator... :)

Michelle - I hope you like it. I don't think the movie was depressing really. It motivated me more than anything to make sure we don't partake in a system that makes us unhealthy. I guess a good way to say it is that it reinforced my dedication to fresh, whole foods.

Oh, and you are VERY welcome! I'm so glad you're enjoying the farmers market. It has to be my favorite time of the week!

Tammy - I totally agree. Politicians treat us with kid gloves, but the truth of the matter is the last presidential candidate that tried to tell us to cut back, was voted out of office (Carter). No one has dared since. So we have to start taking matters into our own hands. Growing our own food and demanding that the silly restrictions be dropped is a good first step!

Green Resolutions - Hope you like it! Netflix is a great resource for stuff like this. They have EVERYTHING!

Farmer's Daugher - Kids these days! :)

Young Snowbird said...


fyi, zoning regulations are set at the state and local level. If you want chickens, talk to your local politicians to get the zoning regs changed. It can be done!

Wife to 1, Mom to 5 said...

I really liked Tammy's comment: Why don't we empower Americans? When I first read Pollan's books, I felt very overwhelmed by the sheer depth of this problem. Then, I decided to just do one thing at a time, in my family. We've come a long way in 6 months. Thanks for the movie tip ~ I hadn't heard of it before.

Anonymous said...

here's the eggnog recipe. it's so fresh and creamy!

14 egg yolks
1 pt heavy cream
1 cup honey or sugar
nutmeg to taste

combine in a blender or beat until well mixed. keep refrigerated. if you like the traditional eggnog, add 2 ounces each of brandy, rum and whiskey. the grown-up version needs no refrigeration and will keep up to 6 months. i got some flip top beer bottles (like grolsch beer comes in) from freecycle to store mine in. makes a great icecream add in too!

Anonymous said...

Young Snowbird,

Here are a couple of wesites that are dedicated to helping those who don't live on farms with raising chickens (and changing rules to do it legally) in urban settings:


Heather @ SGF said...

Young Snowbird - Thanks!

Wife to 1, Mom to 5 - I love Pollan's books too, but you're right. If you don't take it a step at a time, it's easy to get overwhelmed.

blondeoverboard - thanks for the recipe. What did you do? Did you use it straight to dip the bread in for french toast or did you add anything to the egg nog?

Anonymous - Thanks for the links!

Anonymous said...

I often tend to skim or rush through blog posts. I read every word of this one carefully and was truly disappointed to get to the end. You're a really good writer. I'm definitely going to watch this film.

Heather @ SGF said...

Anonymous - Glad you enjoyed the review! The film was incredibly interesting. Definitely worth checking out - you might try to library or if you have a Netflix/Blockbuster subscription, those are great places to find the documentary also.

Anonymous said...


i used the kiddy version of the eggnog for the frenchtoast. the growed up version is for when the little ones are driving me nuts!