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Corn-fed America

The high cost of cheap food

Nov. 19, 2007
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Corn-fed America
The high cost of cheap food

by David Luhrssen

November 15, 2007

If we are what we eat, then most Americans are pure corn. The problem isn’t that we’re chowing down too many frozen or canned kernels. It’s the unhealthy and unnatural genetically engineered corn that factors into much of what we buy in supermarkets and is used to produce the processed foods that have pushed obesity and diabetes to record levels.


King Corn, an amusing and entertaining documentary, traces the sources of the food problem displayed in Super Size Me. At first the movie may seem a little too pat, as filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who look like a couple of overly ironic college kids who never learned how to tuck their shirts into their jeans, set forth for distant Iowa to plant an acre of corn in order to understand how it is grown and where it goes after harvest.

That they arrive in farm country in December speaks loudly about their knowledge of agriculture, albeit they have some paperwork to fill out for the U.S. Department of Agriculture before planting time. Much to their surprise, the federal government will pay them $28 for their acre of corn, plus other subsidies. As explained by the patient farmer who lends them an acre of his land, farmers would never make any money without federal funding.

A suspicion grows faster than their crop: Cheney and Ellis knew a little more than they were letting on. King Corn is a cogent investigation of America’s food chain in the form of a fish-out-of-water buddy picture. The “Gee, that’s a big tractor!” banter is the organic sugar meant to make the hard medicine of their message go down. Many of us probably assume that federal farm subsidies are a good thing, the hedge that keeps family farms from the poor farm.

But the present system, a 1970s innovation by Gerald Ford’s agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, spurred the production of low-grade corn that is turned into unhealthy cattle feed, high-fructose syrup that has transformed most sweetened foods and bottled sodas into hazardous substances and a host of other high-calorie, no-nutrition food additives. Family farms? Fewer and fewer exist as vast tracts of land are consolidated into holdings that can easily be tended by today’s behemoth tractors.

King Corn will shatter the cherished agricultural illusions most Americans have preserved from the era of “Green Acres.” Those sweet golden ears of corn, growing as high as an elephant’s eye in the summer sun? The corn being planted for industrial purposes is all but inedible as Cheney and Ellis discover when they bite into one of their husks. The corn produced by many American farmers and paid for by American taxpayers is a biological modification, insidious in its resemblance to the wholesome corn on the cob from the farmer’s market.

Donning suits and ties and tucking in their shirts, Cheney and Ellis pay a scheduled call on the offices of Earl Butz, the mastermind of modern American agriculture. Respectfully, they listen to the old man and acknowledge that his argument has some validity. His methods have flooded the market with large quantities of staples, driving down food prices and enabling Americans to spend a smaller-than-ever percentage of income on feeding themselves.

What Butz refuses to acknowledge is the initially hidden but increasingly apparent cost of his scheme. What good is the production of more food at lower cost if the food is slowly killing us?


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