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King Corn

Posted by tinako on September 9, 2010

I just finished watching King Corn, a fascinating documentary about how cheap corn powers a cheap food economy.  This film is very well done, with engaging graphics and music and good camera work.

I was dubious at first of  Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis’ idea.  Driving to Iowa in January to plant an acre of corn seemed like a pointless exercise in literally watching grass grow.  But they seem to have spent their time well, interviewing the locals and experts including Michael Pollan, whose The Omnivore’s Dilemma inspired the movie.  There was no way for them to follow their own corn, which is mixed in with everyone else’s, so they took a journey before the harvest to see where their corn might go.  They even made their own high fructose corn syrup when  no manufacturers would let them in to see it done.

This is a quiet film.  I like how these understated, good-natured guys just let their subjects talk, allowing the viewers to come to their own conclusions.  This approach sometimes caught the interviewees in some bizarre statements, such as the feedlot owner who said he got a warm fuzzy feeling looking out at the cattle and knowing he was feeding a lot of Americans.   I was most surprised that many of the people involved expressed their reservations that this is a very good system.

One of the more interesting parts for me was their visit to Earl Butz, who set up these subsidies under Nixon.  Unapologetic, he said Americans pay less for their food than ever before, so we can spend more on other things.   He’s very proud of that.  Cheney and Ellis show great understanding when they say it’s easy to see how someone like Butz who grew up with a hard farm life where food was expensive would see this system as a great success.

Nevertheless, they go from there to a store that is filled with cookies, crackers, and soda.  They look at the shelves, and you know this can’t be a good system.

Watch the movie to find out what they do with the corn they grew and the land they grew it on.


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