Friday, October 19, 2007

King Corn: Or How Earl Butz Changed the Way Americans Eat

How does corn grown in Iowa get into the structure of a hair follicle belonging to a guy from Massachussetts?

That is the question that drives two friends--linked by a common Midwestern ancestry--to move to Iowa for a year and plant an acre of corn to see how this ancient crop came to dominate the American diet of the 21st Century.

The result is a romp of a documentary called King Corn that opened here in the District of Columbia last night, a film that manages to charm as well as ask some profound questions about how this country feeds itself.

What eventually emerges from this lighthearted buddy film, however, is a tragic lesson in how a few well-placed individuals--in this case the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Earl Butz, working with a supportive president, Richard Nixon, and profit-hungry corporate interests--can alter the life and health of an entire nation in lasting ways. It was Butz, himself raised on a family farm, who flipped the federal system of farm supports on its ear with the specific intention of flooding the country with cheap food.

In this film, you will actually see Butz, now frail and confined to a nursing home, defending decisions that turned Americans into lab rats for corporate agri-business. Butz sees cheap food as a driver of American wealth, but we are now witnessing the true costs of his master plan: a national epidemic of obesity, sky-rocketing health care bills, a generation that most likely will be the first with a shorter life expectancy than its parents'.

After moving to the small Iowa town of Greene, our film-making duo, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, quickly discover a landscape awash in corn. That's because the federal system Butz devised no longer pays farmers to refrain from overproducing--a system that kept crop prices high in the past--but now actually subsidizes the growing of huge surpluses.

The resulting tsunami of cheap corn becomes an essential ingredient in every fast food joint, in virtually every processed food product on grocery shelves, in the feed of industrially produced poultry, pork and cattle. Laboratory analysis of a human hair snippet shows that the carbon in the body of an average American is, in fact, mainly corn-based. As food author Michael Pollan confirms in the film, nearly everything in the typical American diet revolves around cheap corn.

"We are not growing quality here," declares one Iowa corn farmer. "We're growing crap!"

In fact, the corn grown on most Iowan farms is not edible--not by humans, anyway. The American legacy of diverse, self-sufficient family farming has been tossed in the dust bin. Farms are becoming bigger and bigger, more and more industrial, more and more obsessed with a single crop, and more and more dependent on government stipends. Family farmsteads are plowed under as consolidation swallows up generations worth of agrarian tradition. Our connection to the land has been severed.

The name of the game now is 1,000 acres, a big tractor, genetically-engineered seeds and a tank of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer parked at the end of the rows. Once the seeds are planted, it's just a matter of watching the corn grow, spraying occasionally with pesticides and herbicides, then driving truckloads of corn to the local grain elevator--usually overflowing with grain well before the season is over.

Cheney and Ellis try mightily to get a tour of a high fructose corn syrup plant but are rebuffed. Instead, they get an earful from an industry spokesman, who describes how much tastier food is when treated with HFC. We see tanker trains filled with empty calories, destined for eager bellies on all four compass points.

In tracing the path of corn products outward from Iowa and across the country, we meet a cab driver in Brooklyn who has dropped 100 pounds since he stopped drinking sodas based on corn syrup. He recounts how his father lost his legs to diabetes before dying, how his mother, his sister and he himself all suffer from the disease.

In the end, we are left chuckling as Cheney and Ellis return to their acre the following spring and plant grass, a small act of defiance against the corn juggernaut. But we know that while corn has been very, very good for corporate agri-business, the country is saddled with a huge corn conundrum.

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