Film Review - King Corn

King Corn is a humorous and touching documentary about two best friends who decide to move to Iowa to grow an acre of corn after finding out through laboratory hair analysis that their bodies are primarily made out of corn.  But this is not your typical buddy picture.  While it traces a year in the life of two friends, the film focuses on the history of corn in modern America and the filmmakers' relationship with the crop they've decided to grow.

After the somewhat shocking discovery about their bodily composition, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis move to a small county in Iowa where, coincidentally, both had farmer great-grandfathers, in order to find out how they and most other Americans were “made out of corn.”  The two friends convince an Iowa farmer to lend them an acre of land to plant their crop.  They purchase genetically modified corn for planting, and with the help of their neighbors, some heavy machinery, and lots of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, they end up growing a bumper crop.  But as Ian and Curt show us, this isn’t your sweet summer corn-on-the-cob we're talking about – it’s corn bred specifically for industrial applications.  The two friends decide to find out what happens to the corn they've grown after it leaves the grain elevator, and find that tracing their crop is easier said than done.  Ultimately, however, they come to the conclusion that their corn is likely destined for one of two American industries: animal feed or corn syrup.

Americans are so “corny” because almost every product in conventional grocery stores – from steaks to chicken breasts to condiments to desserts to tomato sauce to frozen entrees (the list goes on) – is ultimately derived from corn, either in the form of high fructose corn syrup or from corn-based animal feed.  The filmmakers visit cattle feedlots which hold thousands of animals dining on corn-based feed, and learn that too much corn causes the cattle to eventually develop an acidic condition in one of their stomachs, acidosis, that eventually kills them.  And after having trouble getting a tour of a high-fructose corn syrup factory, they decide to make corn syrup themselves (note: the process requires sulfuric acid and other industrial chemicals). Both corn-fed beef and high-fructose corn syrup contribute to the obesity epidemic in the United States. Nutritionists and others interviewed in the movie also discuss the link between the diabetes epidemic and high-fructose corn syrup, especially corn syrup consumed in the form of soda.

The filmmakers trace the history of corn subsidies in the US – the current system started only about 30 years ago when the Farm Bill was changed to emphasize industrial-style monocropping.  The two friends lose money growing their acre of corn – the cost of seed, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and equipment rental outweigh the price per bushel they get for their corn.  However, they get government subsidies for growing the corn which makes up for the initial input cost. The film gets to the heart of the matter by revealing the farmers' frustrations. Many of them are multi-generation farmers caught up in the farm subsidy system. They realize that the current subsidies are putting an end to the more traditional farming of generations past, but they can’t remove themselves from the system without losing their shirts.

The movie contains interviews with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and several farmers in the Iowa town where Ian and Curt grow their corn. All in all, King Corn is a well-made, though provoking and sometimes humorous film about our modern food system.

For copies of the DVD and more information on the filmmakers' odyssey into the world of corn, check out the King Corn website.

Glossary

    footnotes

      King Corn is a humorous and touching documentary about two best friends who decide to move to Iowa to grow an acre of corn after finding out through laboratory hair analysis that their bodies are primarily made out of corn. But this is not your typical buddy picture. While it traces a year in the life of two friends, the film focuses on the history of corn in modern America and the filmmakers’ relationship with the crop they’ve decided to grow.