KING CORN (2007) — Documentary Retroview

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king corn posterIf you believe you are what you eat, you’ll no doubt be shocked to learn that you’re mostly corn. Aaron Woolf’s documentary reveals that the majority of Americans eat mostly corn–or, to be more specific, food products derived from or containing corn. In King Corn, Woolf follows young eco-activists Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis–who met and became investigative cohorts while undergrads at Yale–as they return to the scene of their coincidentally similar family roots in rural Greene, Iowa, to plant and harvest an acre’s worth of corn, and then to trace their crop as it is processed into the food products that nurture the increasingly obese and unhealthy–and always hungry–American population.

Two Eco-activists Follow the Corn Trail in American Food Production

Without much difficulty or drama, Cheney and Ellis convince a local farmer–who actually sells his family farm during the course of the filming–to let them use an acre of his land to plant their crop.

Acting as our eyes and ears about current corn conditions and concerns–government subsidies, fertilizer, pesticides, soil type and the like–the eco-duo call on local experts to advise them about the best corn to plant, best way to plant it and, indeed, to do some crop maintenance for them.

Personal Involvement

While the corn grows, the newbie farmers visit with their nearby relatives and talk family and farming–and conglomerate economy. We see that this rural Iowa town–indeed, the entire county–has been transformed by corn growing and corn subsidies, that family farming is on the decline and those who’ve followed in the footsteps of farming forebears are walking away from their ancestral homesteads and the entire enterprise.

As the boys watch their grass–yes, we learn, corn is a type of grass–the boys become rather attached to their flourishing crop and, when the time comes for them to sample its issue, they’re quite surprised and dismayed to discover that the corn they carefully nurtured tastes “like chalk.”

In reality, they come to understand, there‘s no need for it to taste good. It‘s actually not intended to be eaten, rather it’s to be made into the high fructose corn syrup and corn fillers that are used to ‘enhance’ and ‘sweeten’ consumer food products ranging from ‘fresh’ orange juice to pre-pattied hamburger meat, among millions of other items–including ethanol or drinking alcohol.

The corn that Cheney and Ellis–and the farmers whose land surrounds their single-acre–are growing is a type of yellow corn that has been genetically engineered to thrive in closer proximity to other stalks–so planting can be much denser and more fruitful. Knowing that, and it should come as no surprise that the produce doesn’t taste good–or, even, like corn.

All About Corn

In a little history lesson that’s presented with animation and archival footage, Cheney and Ellis report that the transformation of corn–a plant that originated in Mexico and actually has numerous varieties–into America’s singularly most important and biggest agricultural crop began in 1973, when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz redesigned America’s government-subsidized farm program from supporting crop prices by limiting production to paying farmers to expand acreage in use and increase yield per acre. The resulting corn glut was gobbled into ‘sweetening the deal’ on the production of other foods–such as feedlot cattle who much be slaughtered before the corn they‘re fed actually kills them!

Eventually, when Cheney and Ellis found out they must relinquish control of their little crop to the greater corn processing conglomerate, rather than abandon their follow-the-corn-from-crop-to-supermarket-shelf agenda by buying some partially processed corn with which to make their own high fructose corn syrup. Then, after they’ve worked the alchemy, they’re somewhat dismayed to find that the ubiquitous sweetener doesn’t taste good either.

How Corny Are You?

So, why then, one wonders, are Americans devouring the stuff as though it were the last apple on the tree? Because it’s cheap, and available, and they don’t know enough to realize that’s what they’re ingesting when they eat something that doesn’t look the least bit like an ear of corn and bears their favorite brand name of soft drinks, ketchup, breakfast cereal, jams, jellies, peanut butter and luncheon meats. Read the labels of the contents of your refrigerator and pantry, and you’ll find that almost everything you’ve got on hand contains corn.

Will this film change anything? Probably not. King Corn doesn’t roll out as a revolutionary, earthshaking, pattern-shattering revelation about the world‘s food chain. But, it’s down-home, friendly and entertaining presentation might just prompt you to–as Cheney and Ellis do at the beginning of the film–get a strand of your hair analyzed (a certain type of hair analysis, we learn in the film, actually indicates just what you‘ve eaten during your lifetime).

Will you join the throng to take the hair test to find out for yourself just how much of a corn by-product you are?

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