Corn: It’s what’s for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Corn is so woven into our American diets, from livestock and farmed fish feed, to high fructose corn syrup, food additives and the coating on your French fries that corn is literally what we’re made of.
Case in point: when the makers of the film King Corn recently appeared on Good Morning America, Diane Sawyer’s hair was tested for corn-based carbon and the tests revealed a content of 50% corn.
If you haven’t had an opportunity to see the film, King Corn is a feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation.
In King Corn, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat – and how we farm.
I recently had the opportunity to interview the director of the film, Aaron Woolf.
One of the things I loved about the film is the way it unfolded without drawing all the conclusions for the viewer and without pointing blame at any one person or entity. I thought it was refreshingly respectful of the farmers and the other people in the film who live in that world of industrial agriculture, such as Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon, who a lot of people blame for the death of the family farm.
We’re all in this together. The fact is that we have this food system where cheapness and convenience have been our main priorities and a full cost accounting of our food system hasn’t really been effectively calculated – where we incorporate the health and environmental consequences of the choices we have made. I don’t think the blame can be placed on any one factor. If anything, perhaps the scrutiny should begin with ourselves. By not asking questions and by buying into the system the way that it is, in some ways, we have ended up with the food system we deserve. It is a system that needs public vigilance to evolve and reflect our changing values. And as for Earl Butz, he’s coming from a very different place. He graduated from Purdue University in the middle of the depression…when there was real scarcity. Ian and Curt came of age in the middle of an obesity epidemic.
One of the things that struck me about the film was how beautifully it was shot. All those long, gorgeous shots of the cornfields were just stunning.
That was a conscious choice. Even though we were questioning the fact that our diets have become warped by our dependence on this one heavily subsidized crop, we wanted to convey our reverence as Americans for this plant and show the almost mythical connection we have with this crop. If you look at the iconic pictures of pilgrims arriving on our shores, met by Native Americans bearing armloads of corn, and the engravings of corn on so many of our public buildings, is easy to conclude that corn is the one food crop we most associate with the New World and ourselves.
How has making this film changed the way you live and eat?
Certainly it changed the way I wish I ate and it is changing the way I actually eat now as well. I feel deeply connected to the issues, but I’ve also seen the way our food choices are such a complicated mix of desire, appetite, religious and ethical considerations, and cultural and economic factors…and for me change happens slowly. One surprising outgrowth of the King Corn projects is that I opened a grocery store in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. The store is called Urban Rustic. The goal was to create a store where all the food can be traced back to its origin.
What about meat? Knowing that cows, in particular, are fed a diet of corn that is actually poison to their system, when their stomachs were designed to eat grass?
I do eat meat and that is something I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about. Human beings get their sustenance from other things that were once alive and I feel that my goal, at least, is to eat things that had a dignified life. I don’t make that much of a distinction between plant life and animal life. An asparagus plant that is doused in chemicals is in some ways like a cow in a confined feeding operation. I have this ideal that agriculture would look more like Mother Nature. The typical fast food meal of hamburger, fries, and a soda seems so distant from the corn field it all came from, but that is what modern agriculture has become. Corn turned out to be a really good window into the food system we’ve chosen and created.
What is the most important environmental message that viewers can take away from this film?
The environmental messages in this film are more implicit than explicit. (Actually we’re working on another film that traces the runoff from that acre of corn all the way to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico). What I want people to understand is that our food choices have profound implications not just for our own health but also for the health of the environment and rural communities.
What advice do you have for our readers about choosing the best possible food for their bodies and the environment?
1. Choose fresh foods from real sources, such as farmers you know.
2. Read the ingredients: If you can’t pronounce most of them or if it’s longer than a paragraph, you probably don’t want to eat it.
3. If you can’t trace where the ingredients came from, think twice before buying it.
4. Buy Local: The average food travels 1500 miles from farm to plate.
5. Know that you can’t avoid corn and that corn per se is not a bad thing. It’s in the wax on vegetables, toothpaste, pharmaceuticals, everything. People with corn allergies know this all too well.
Thanks to Mr. Woolf for stopping by the green gathering. If you’re interested in further information, please visit the King Corn website.