June 2008 Issue

A Today’s Dietitian Interview:
King Corn — A Tasteful Look at the Crop That Dominates a Nation

By Sharon Palmer, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 10 No. 6 P. 40

From syrupy sweeteners to grain-fed beef, it’s become quite clear: Corn has Americans under its yellow thumb. Aaron Woolf’s enlightening documentary questions our agricultural system and its deleterious effect on the nation’s health.

Best friends Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney watch a sample of their hair undergoing analysis at the University of Virginia, learning that the carbon in their bodies originates primarily from corn. We’re not tal King Corn on the cob but corn material in the food system—from high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and hydrolyzed corn to corn-fed beef, pork, and chicken. “Our generation is at risk for a shorter life span than our parents because of what we eat,” Ellis and Cheney report in the opening dialogue of the feature documentary King Corn, which premiered in April 2007. Thus, the pair set out for Iowa, the land of their great-grandfathers, to rent a single acre of land and grow corn, hoping to solve the mystery of how all that corn got into their hair.

Sure, you probably already understand that our commodity-based agricultural system has grown massive in scale and the public is dependent on far too many processed foods, contributing to many of our health problems. But in King Corn, director Aaron Woolf lets the impact of our broken-down agricultural system gradually sink in, drop by drop, like a spring drizzle on a newly planted crop. As we ramble behind Ellis and Cheney on their rural road of discovery, we share their glimpses of deserted farmhouses giving way to immense plots of corn, tanks of fertilizers, 90-foot spray arms for herbicides, and mountain-sized harvests of corn. When the corn harvest comes in and Ellis and Cheney move out into the world to follow the trail of their acre of commodity corn, we are surprised to find that it was never destined to end up at a summer BBQ or even as cornmeal for corn bread. Instead, their corn was bred from the start to end up as livestock feed or corn sweetener. Yet, King Corn isn’t anxious to shove a moral lesson down your throat; instead, the story unfolds as calmly as a corn plant unfurling its leaves and reaching for the sun.

Ellis and Cheney’s singe-acre cornfield serves as a window for us to see how far agriculture has come in the three generations since their ancestors lived in Iowa. In their great-grandfathers’ time, farms supported the community with food to eat in balance with the supply and demand of the market. But in 1973, the farm program was reinvented with a new philosophy of expansion. The government was essentially paying farms to get bigger. In Iowa, that meant the old homesteads, tomato gardens, and pastures were mowed down to make room for genetically modified commodity corn fields fed with fertilizers and tamed with herbicides for four times the yield their great-grandparents saw.

When the two friends pluck their first beautiful ear of corn to taste, they spit it out, commenting that it “tastes like chalk.” This corn was never meant to make it to the dinner table—at least not as a tangible form of corn. After their acre is harvested—part of the biggest corn harvest in American history—Ellis and Cheney take their corn for a 71/2-minute ride to the town grain elevator, where it is weighed and dumped into a mountain of corn, making it impossible to track its destination. The guys follow the Iowa commodity corn to its fate as animal feed and sweetener.

King Corn reminds us that cattle once foraged the open range but now are confined and fed up to 90% grain to move into the food chain faster. Today’s corn-fed cattle in conventional feedlots produce more beef at a lower cost. But cattle aren’t meant to eat a corn-based diet, so they produce more acids, contract ulcers, get sick, and require antibiotics. The resulting meat is also higher in saturated fat. Ellis and Cheney note that if you’ve lived in America for the past 30 years, chances are you’ve tasted only corn-fed beef.

Another route their corn likely traveled points toward the corn syrup plant, where cheap sweeteners are created to satisfy the growing sweet tooth of America. The increased consumption of sweeteners packs a punch of adverse metabolic effects and an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

At the end of their journey, Ellis and Cheney point out that you can take a fast-food meal and trace it back to corn—from corn-fed beef to corn-sweetened soda to French fries fried in corn oil—and add, “The agriculture that our great-grandparents had helped build was now growing fast food.”

Recently, I chatted with King Corn director Aaron Woolf to discover the inspiration behind the movie, how viewers are receiving it, and where he plans to go from here.

Q & A With Aaron Woolf, Director of King Corn
Sharon Palmer (SP):
How did the collaboration begin among you, Curt Ellis, and Ian Cheney to create this film?

Aaron Woolf (AW): Curt is my cousin and Ian is his best friend, so it was a family project. It was about going back to find their relatives in Iowa. I’ve been making documentaries for PBS for 15 years, and I’m always interested in how policy decisions affect people. I’ve been wanting to look into the food system for a long time. I’ve traveled abroad a lot, and I’m always struck by the irony that such a rich country as ours can have such a terrible diet. Curt studied rural life and utopian societies and Ian studied sustainable food programs at Yale. I have a policy standpoint. We all came at this from different directions.

SP: What has the reception been for King Corn?

AW: No one expected a film about corn to go nearly as far as this film has gone. When you are a documentary filmmaker, you don’t dare dream that your work will get a fairly wide release in cinemas as King Corn has had. There has been some real academic interest in it, and it [had] a national PBS broadcast on April 15, 2008. This is all you can wish for in a documentary. It doesn’t happen very often. I think the film struck a nerve with people because, let’s face it, we all eat and many Americans are beginning to take a serious look at what we are eating. I think maybe this film resonated with people as well because it doesn’t really lecture them.

SP: How was the film received in the healthcare community?

AW: The first public screening of the film was at a medical college in Auckland, New Zealand, sponsored by the nutrition department there, long before it premiered at film festivals. It was clear to us from the start that healthcare professionals had a real stake in the content and message of the piece. We’ve since shown the film at a number of healthcare associations and to nutritionists, and there has been a lot of buy-in from dietitians and nutritionists, especially considering issues like food allergies, obesity, and diet-related diseases.

The reality is that we are subsidizing with our tax dollars a system that virtually guarantees a high volume of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods. There’s no getting around that fact. We could be subsidizing other foods that are higher in fiber or more complex in carbohydrates. We could be subsidizing more local produce in this diminishing petroleum environment in order to lower energy use and promote fresher foods. You know, I believe the theory that it is appropriate for humans to eat seasonally, but many Americans have come to equate bounty and luxury with mega-groceries that can provide every food item at every time of the year.

SP: How can dietitians have the opportunity to view King Corn?

AW: We suggest that you set up a community screening. This is a great way to view the film and then organize a discussion around the issues raised. I have often said that a film like ours is only the beginning of the discussion. There are also DVDs on sale for individual use. Information about community screening and DVD sales is on the Web site at kingcorn.net.

SP: In the film, I was surprised to see that even the farmers in Iowa were not happy with the current agricultural system.

AW: One potent thing we learned when we were making the documentary is that there is a lot of opportunity for consumers and producers in the food system to come together and address common frustrations. Many farmers we met knew as little about where their crop went as we knew about where our food came from. I think this fact created an immediate bond between us when we moved to Iowa. Even the big, conventional corn farmers yearned for a connection to consumers. It was a big surprise for us; as we spent more time with the farmers, we found that the farmers were very aware of what’s going on with the land. When one farmer said, ‘We’re growing crap,’ we were taken aback by such a strong admission. But I think the fact remains that farming is an incredibly proud profession, and many farmers we met would really like to be growing real food for real people for a fair market price.

SP: Did you find people that defended the current agricultural system?

AW: A lot of people defend this system. They are willing to accept the appearance of short-term gain over long-term gain. For much of the processed food industry, the prospect of an endless supply of artificially cheap commodity inputs is an obvious plus. But we as a society are not doing a full cost accounting of our food system. There are many expenses of our current system that become known down the road in the form of long-term health problems and environmental degradation. I think we should be looking into the way the present system depletes our precious topsoil and contaminates our groundwater.

SP: During the film, Curt and Ian show the expenses and profit for their acre after the corn is harvested, and they end up showing a loss. Even though they will get subsidies, how is this system profitable for the farmers?

AW: Some subsidies kick in when market prices for commodity crops are low, so actually the reality is different today than when we made the film as far as direct payment for corn due to ethanol demand and higher input costs. Corn prices today are up. But even with the changing economics, it is still clear that we have yoked ourselves to a system that promotes unhealthy foods. We’ve built a food system dependent on large yields of corn entering the processed foods infrastructure and then coming out as high fructose corn syrup and the kinds of cattle feeds that produce fatty beef from animals raised in unhealthy conditions.

SP: The film doesn’t get into organic corn production in Iowa. Did you observe organic corn production going on there?

AW: Most of the corn produced there is a conventionally raised commodity product, but on the other hand, Iowa has the fastest growing organic corn production in the country. Some parts of Iowa have some of the best soil in the world, and I think it’s worth considering as a society if we should use that soil almost exclusively for commodity crops. But it is encouraging that now there are organic vegetables and corn being produced in Iowa.

SP: How do you plan to follow up King Corn?

AW: Well, I’m sure that I will continue to make films that look into issues of environmental health and society. But in the meantime, I have opened up a grocery store with a café called Urban Rustic [urbanrusticnyc.com] in Brooklyn, N.Y., that focuses on local food distribution. About 80% of our food is organic and 50% to 60% is local, which is definitely a challenge during winter in the Northeast. We feature grass-fed beef and local farmstead cheeses and produce. The whole thing—the film and the store—started with this mission to find out where our food comes from. It seemed like a relatively simple idea at the time, but it’s really turned into a kind of life-changing project.

— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.

Sneak a Peek at King Corn
Biting at the chance to take in the critically acclaimed documentary King Corn? Check out kingcorn.net for information about viewing the film in various venues. You can order a King Corn DVD online or set up your own King Corn community screening by downloading and completing the screening application.