Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Movie Review: King Corn

After seeing Super Size Me in 2004 I stopped eating fast food (except for Panera Bread). I think I had given up soda before that, but if I hadn't, that movie definitely stopped me of that bad habit.

Apparently after reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, recent Yale graduates Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis decided to find out about the US corn industry by moving to Greene, Iowa and growing an acre of corn. They documented their adventure in the new film King Corn adding plenty of interviews and facts.

The film starts by testing one of the things I've learned from interviews with Pollan (I have his book but haven't read it yet, it's next on my list), that American's are turning into corn. Cheney and Ellis have their hair tested in a lab and find a high amount of corn in it (yes you read that right though it's probably more correctly described as a specific protein found in corn). They describe their movie as finding out how corn gets from the farm to their hair.

They find a farmer willing to put them up and help them grow 1 acre of corn. The first thing they do is sign up with the federal Farm Program and are given $14 as an upfront half payment of their $28 subsidy. It turns out this subsidy is the difference between losing money and making profit. As is said later in the film subsidies are the leading industry in Greene, Iowa. From 2003-2005, 317 Greene residents received a total of $364,693 in subsidies.

They get their ammonia fertilizer and a month or two later seed their acre with 31,000 seeds which takes all of 18 minutes. The corn variety has been bred to allow corn to grow more densely packed. They'll yield 180 bushels in their acre, which is 5 tons of corn. 100 years ago, an acre would yield about 40 bushels. As we've bred corn to be more productive, we've also bred out the nutritional value; it's mostly sugar and has less protein than it used to.

I learned that the silk of the corn is how it's pollinated. Each strand of silk leads to a kernel. The other end sticks out from the husk and collects pollen allowing it a path to the kernel.

Oddly, the breed of corn commonly grown in Iowa is inedible by humans. The film uses several stop motion animations demonstrations. One shows shows the various uses of corn by percentage. This leads to several side trips. One leads to eastern Colorado to show how corn is used as feed for cattle. Cows evolved eating grass, but we had all this extra corn so we started feeding it to cows since it's cheaper and made them fatter faster, making it cheaper to raise cattle for food since they can be slaughtered faster. We now feed them corn for about 150 days which is about as long as they can handle it as it raises the acid in their stomachs and makes them sick. Livestock consumes 70% of the antibiotics in the US. I forget the amount (a pound? a hamburger?) of corn fed beef has 9g of saturated fat while the same amount of grass fed beef has 1.3g. 65% of the calories in a hamburger come from fat, "hamburger is fat disguised as meat".

Another huge use of corn is in creating high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). The process to mass produce this from corn was perfected in the 1970s. It's cheaper than sugar (partially due to sugar tariffs), easier to work with since it's a liquid and has a longer shelf life than sugar. In 1970 HFCS had 0% of the sweetener market, by the 80s it was 50%. Soda is 7-14% HFCS. In 2000, the average American consumed 73.5 lbs of HFCS. High fructose corn syrup has no nutritional value and is a cause of diabetes.

Earl Butz was Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon. If you heard of paying farmers not to grow food, that was the policy before Sec. Butz. To keep the price of corn from falling because of over-supply the federal government limited how much corn farmers could grow. Butz thought this was crazy and changed the policy to encourage farmers to grow food (by paying subsidies to do so). As a result food production soared, particularly corn (and soybeans) because that's what we subsidized. Cheney and Ellis interview Butz who's in his late 90s. He points out that before this policy Americans used 30% of their income for food and after, food prices dropped so only 17% of their income is used for food. This means more money can be spent on others things which is good. My first thought was that they can now spend it on medical bills.

The point that seems lost on Butz is that in addition to the price, the quality of the food dropped tremendously. With a new tremendous over-suppply of corn, in the last 30 years we've found new markets to sell it. The film explores it's use as feed and as a sweetener. In this context it's easy to understand the interest in ethanol as a fuel substitute, , even though it won't use less fossil fuels (which are needed for fertilizer and transportation); it's a new (huge) market for corn (which is also driving up the price).

The Farm Bill is the most important piece of legislation that most Americans don't know about. The current Senate version of the bill is for $288 billion. "Despite higher crop prices and farm incomes, the Senate Agriculture Committee endorsed a farm bill Thursday that would continue to reward farmers with a substantial package of subsidies, setting aside the deep cuts that reform groups had sought." In 2007 in the US there are 93 million acres of corn planted and only 2 million acres of vegetables.

Yeah, I mostly wrote about the topic and not the film; isn't that a sign of a good documentary? The hour and half went by quickly and I wanted to find out more information. The two stars are likable though indistinct. The feel is closer to Morgan Spurlock than Michael Moore as they don't try to humiliate the people they talk to. One of things I took from this film is that we haven't always eaten this way, in fact we've only done so since the 1970s and it's hurting us. Now I have to find something without high fructose corn syrup to give out for Halloween tomorrow.


Don said...

Try finding bread that doesn't contain HFCS, it's difficult. I've found some Pepperidge Farm breads are HFCS-free.

Howard said...


Nancy said...

Luckily I never get trick-or-treaters...

I was curious, after seeing the movie, whether other meat products (pork, chicken) are also fed this corn crap. I'm guessing they are.

I was also curious about how they measured the amount of corn in a person - proteins or some other markers - and what the biological process was for the corn to get there.

I could have done with a little less of watching the corn growing.

But yeah, I guess wanting to know more is a sign of a good documentary.

Howard said...

The second chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma explains it. Corn is one of the few plants that synthesizes Carbon in the form of C4, most plants form C3. (Sorry can't do subscripts in blogger comments). This makes corn more efficient than other plants and able to survive with little water and in high heat. C4 usually contains a higher frequency of the isotope 13C. What they find is the same frequency of 13C in human hair and skin.

Nancy said...

Cool. I might have to read that book.