Friday, April 4, 2008

King Corn: We are what we eat.

Corn, it is hot news these days. With crops at record prices and grocery bills rising everyone is looking at the corn industry. 

Corn is in almost everything we eat. Livestock is fed corn, farmed fish are fed corn, processed food are made of corn and the mighty sweeter, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), is made of corn. Corn is even used to fuel our cars in the form of ethanol thanks to a poorly thought out government policy.

Well for those of you are interested in an introductory course on the corn, two college friends, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, filmed a documentary on the industry called "King Corn." This pretty amazing film will air on PBS on April 15th. 

What's the story here? Well, Ian and Curt decided to move to Iowa in 2003 for a year to plant one acre of corn to follow it from seed to table. What they find out raises scary questions not only about what Americans eat but also how our agriculture is farmed. 

Their journey takes them first to have their hair carbon tested at the University of Virginia to discover that their bodies are made out of more than 50% corn! From Virginia, they venture to fields of Iowa where acres and acres of farmland are planted with corn and the grain elevators are overflowing with corn. Then to the grasslands of Colorado where cattle use to graze.  The fields are now cornfields that feed the cows in feed-lots.  Ian and Curt look at every part of the corn production cycle. They even speak to a high fructose corn syrup producer who thinks the liquid sweetener is the best invention since sliced bread.  

Corn is a commodity and Ian and Curt learn this very quickly when they taste their industrial corn for the first time.  It was inedible! They discover for their corn to become any type of food it must be processed.  

The film is in large part a homage to Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. In "King Corn," Pollan states, "If you take a McDonald's meal, you don't realize it when you eat it but you're eating corn. Beef has been corn-fed. Soda is corn. Even the French fries -- half the calories in the French fries come from the fat they're fried in, which is liable to be either corn oil or soy oil. So when you're at McDonald's, you are eating Iowa food. Everything on the plate is corn." 

The agriculture system today is a result of America's government subsidized farm program.  In 1973, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz declared, "What we want out of agriculture is plenty of food."
Well, we have plenty of food but our nutritional supply has degraded. When Ian and Curt speak with one of the Iowa farmers about their crops, the farmer admits that they do not eat their corn.  As he states in the movie, "We aren't growing quality, we are growing crap."

Ian and Curt's acre harvested 10,000-pounds of corn which could yield 57,348 cans of soda or 3,894 corn-fed hamburgers.  Sixty-three percent of their harvest went into feed for livestock, 32% into ethanol and 5% into sweeteners like HFCS.

A great visual into to corn industry and the American food system, "King Corn" should become required viewing for all schools across the country to teach children to eat better.  

"King Corn" will air on PBS on April 15th at 10:00 PM.  You can also purchase the DVD on their website.  

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