'King Corn' dominates American diet 

Filmmakers hope to be a catalyst for change

Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis spent their college years, like most Americans of their generation, subsisting on Dunkin Donuts, fast food burgers and supersized sodas. Despite their Yale education, they hadn’t the faintest idea what went into the processed food they were consuming five times a day.

Spurred by a campus visit from Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, upon graduating Cheney and Ellis decided to find out what they were actually eating. The result is a film called King Corn that documents their journey. Starting from an acre of Iowa corn, the men visited both cattle feedlot and chemistry lab in their quest, filming every step of the way.

Ellis will be in town to talk with the movie’s viewers Thursday at Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church. Speaking from the King Corn office in Portland, Ore., he said, “There was something kind of embarrassing about graduating from college and not knowing a thing about something as fundamental as the food we’re eating.”

As he and his costar Cheney were to learn, everything on their plates, no matter what it looked like, was largely made up of corn. A typical processed diet’s meat, soda and fries originate from this humble grain.

Pollan (who will appear Monday, Feb. 25 at Butler University) ventures so far as to call soft drinks “liquid corn” because of the high-fructose corn syrup they contain. The ingredients of a typical donut are about 50 percent corn-derived, and even the salt on french fries is held together by a corn product, according to Ellis.

The two men endeavored to plant their own corn and follow the grain’s path through the industrial food system. They found that government subsidies have created an abundance of cheap corn while forcing farmers to “get big or get out.”

According to IUPUI’s Ryan Adams, current government policy favors corporate agribusiness, to the detriment of small farmers in Indiana and across the country. Adams, who teaches a class called “Anthropology of Food,” says a combination of narrow profit margins and government subsidies makes farmers increase production in order to stay afloat.

“That increased production has consequences in terms of our consumption,” he says. Policies that promote “pushing corn on us and researching the uses of corn” reshape the surplus into cheap, fatty meat, high-fructose corn syrup and other unhealthy food products.

In a nation where waistlines expand year by year, cheap corn is often implicated as one of the primary reasons for obesity, diabetes and related illnesses. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition calls it a “distinct likelihood” that increased consumption of high-fructose corn syrup is linked to increased obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three of America’s current first-graders is likely to develop type 2 diabetes, a disease formerly diagnosed in adults over 40.

The industrial agriculture system wreaks havoc not only on the nation’s health, but also on the environment, as Pollan and others have extensively documented. The chemical- and energy-intensive practices contribute to soil degradation, contaminated waterways, loss of species and global warming. Though King Corn focuses on the health question, Ellis said they had plenty of material on the environmental side of the equation.

“We had a very strong environmental story we wanted to tell,” he said. The filmmakers traveled to the Gulf of Mexico, where there is a “dead zone” largely resulting from Midwestern fertilizer runoff. They went to San Francisco, where protestors decried genetically modified organisms. Back in Iowa, where they applied pesticides to their acre of corn, they traced the chemicals’ connection to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma rates.

“In the end there just wasn’t room enough in the story to include all that,” he said.

However, the duo, together with King Corn director Aaron Woolf, recently obtained a grant to produce a companion piece that delves into the environmental impacts of agribusiness. The 30-minute documentary will likely be aired on PBS and shown in community screenings across the nation. (King Corn is scheduled to run on PBS’ Independent Lens series on April 15.)

“The last thing we wanted to do was point fingers at farmers or even at agribusiness,” Ellis said. “We’re as invested in the system as anyone. As consumers we shape the way farms look in this country.”

This dynamic results in a film that is decidedly not polemic. The men remain nonconfrontational even when interviewing former Secretary of Agriculture (and former Purdue professor) Earl Butz, originator of the modern subsidy system.

Since their experience filming King Corn, however, Ellis, Cheney and Woolf have become newly invested in food issues. Ellis said he now buys grass-fed beef, and he became an advocate for a revamped farm bill. By showing the film in communities throughout the grain belt, he and his cohorts hope to be a catalyst for change.

Everyone can work for a better food system by spending their grocery dollars differently, agrees Indy Sustainable Food Alliance’s Angela Herrmann. “We use our dollars to vote every time we buy food,” she says. “So every time you spend a dollar at a grocery store buying industrialized, corporately packaged food, that dollar supports that system. On other hand, if you use that dollar to buy locally produced food through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture, you’re supporting the local food system.”

Ryan Adams points to the loss of connection between food consumers and producers as “the biggest story of the late 20th century.” But people have an innate need for relationship. “That’s why farmers’ markets are such a hit,” he says, “because they reestablish the emotional connection that is part of human nature.”

Most Americans have a nostalgic connection to farming, Ellis notes, and many in the industry wish things were different. “It doesn’t really feel like a family farm if because of the pesticides you’re using, you can’t legally bring your child on the tractor. It doesn’t feel like you’re feeding the world if what you’re feeding the world is high-fructose corn syrup.”

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