Documentary film King Corn tells the story of two college friends who, in a post-graduate quest narrative, set out to understand America’s food system, particularly the centrality to it of corn. They lease an acre of land in Greene, Iowa (coincidentally, home to grandparents of both of the young men) and plant, well, what else, but corn? (Their tiny acre is surrounded by thousands of acres of corn, all looking exactly the same as theirs). The acre of corn offers a way for the two guys, genial, laid-back tour guides, to investigate current U.S. farm economics and why so many of us eat the food we do.
Their acre is, after the application of government subsidies, fertilizers and a combine harvester headed where most other U.S. corn ends up. That’s in a feedlot, where it’s used to fatten up (fast) beef cattle, who mill in their thousands, with nothing to do but eat…corn, without shade or vegetation or distraction. Or a processing plant, to be made into the high fructose corn syrup that’s become endemic in supermarkets, bulking up and sweetening products in every aisle but fresh produce.
The film is indebted to Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, a deconstruction of the corn economy, and Pollan appears in the film. So does recently deceased Earl Butz, U.S. Agriculture Secretary in the early 1970s. He’s credited with unleashing the ocean of mega-corn in which we, and others, are engulfed. He doesn’t have any regrets: we have cheap food, he tells the filmmakers, and lots of it.
King Corn tells the story of corn in the U.S. But as food prices rise and protests about them around the world stay in the headlines, it’s worth watching. What’s happened in the U.S. is taking place in other countries, too. Mega-corn has gone global. And countries are having trouble feeding themselves, or paying high food prices on world markets. King Corn’s protagonists have a telling scene: their corn is high and they want to taste the sweet yellow kernels. Corn on the cob in the raw, right? Nothing like it: they find the corn inedible. It’s become industrial food. It’s not meant for eating. It’s meant for processing…ultimately, us.