by Jessica Mosby
Blaming someone or something for America’s obesity epidemic seems like an obvious national debate, but naming Iowa corn as the culprit seems almost laughable. I find it hard to believe that millions of people are ruining their health by binging on corn on the cob.
After watching the documentary King Corn, which is currently playing in select cities, I was shocked to learn that corn is indeed wreaking havoc on America’s health. Gone are the days of idyllic Midwestern family farms growing tasty organic vegetables. Today large corporate farms grow genetically-modified corn that is later used to create the real criminal: high-fructose corn syrup.
Filmmakers Ian Cheney, Curt Ellis, and Aaron Woolf succeeded in making a 90-minute film about growing corn surprisingly entertaining and engaging; fortunately, the pace of the film doesn’t resemble the slow growing nature of the corn they documented. I attended a special free screening of the film and a Q&A with the filmmakers and author Michael Pollan, a contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley, whose book, Omnivore’s Dilemma asks the question “What should we have for dinner?” and then declares that how we answer it may well determine our very survival as a species. (Omnivore’s Dilemma was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by both the New York Times and the Washington Post.) The film’s showing was organized by the Society for Agriculture and Food Ecology in Berkeley, California. After I left, I personally felt ready to take on the world and completely change my already health-conscious eating habits.
The madcap adventure, which is the film’s premise, started when best friends Ian and Curtis decided to move to Greene, Iowa and grow an acre of corn after having their hair tested by University of Virginia professor Steve Macko. Hair is an accurate portrait of our health, including our eating habits. Most Americans’ hair is 70 percent carbon – the result of a corn-saturated Western diet. Ian and Curtis wanted to go to the source of the food they were eating in Boston (mostly fast food, the guys love hamburgers), thus moving to Iowa and growing corn seemed like an obvious decision. The reality that neither had any farming experience nor had ever lived in a rural Midwestern agricultural community didn’t seem to deter them.They chose the small Iowa town of Greene because, in a bizarre coincidence, both of their great-grandfathers were raised there. In January of 2004 they loaded up their old Dodge Ram pickup truck, and headed west, filled with naïve optimism. Once in Greene they persuaded local corn farmer Chuck Pyatt to rent them an acre on which they could plant the ubiquitous crop; Ian and Curtis had no idea what an acre actually looked like. For the next 11 months, they learned how to farm corn.
The romantic view of the Midwestern farmer diligently toiling the land and then living off homegrown food is now painfully archaic. Ian and Curtis learned that the farming process is now completely industrialized. It only took 18 minutes of riding around in an air-conditioned truck listening to music to plant 31,000 seeds of genetically-modified corn on their single acre. Everything from fertilizers to pesticides are sprayed using modern farming equipment that require very little human energy. Industrialized farming means that fewer actual people are needed to grow a dramatically increased volume of food: one acre can yield 200 bushels or 10,000 pounds of corn. Most Iowa farmers in the Corn Belt farm 1,000 acres.
This modern method of farming has detrimental effects on the environment when you consider the fuel needed to run the farming equipment; the fertilizers and pesticides sprayed on the crops, and the water table polluted by these fertilizers and pesticides. I was physically sickened during the scenes where enormous tractors with up to a 90-foot span sprayed pesticides on the fields; only the weeds are killed because the corn has been genetically-modified to resist the pesticides.
Within a few months of planting, the previously barren fields are filled with thriving green corn stalks. Ian and Curtis diligently monitor the progress of their acre, and are so excited when they see actual corn cobs on their plants that they break some corn off and take a big bite – only to immediately spit it out. They’re not growing sweet corn. The corn that is now grown in Iowa cannot be eaten right off the stalk because it is not intended to be eaten off the plant and tastes disgusting (unlike the sweet corn that most people know and love). There is something truly perverse about being surrounded by crops that you can’t eat; even though Iowa has some of the richest soil in the world, most Iowans import all of their food.If you can’t eat the corn, where does it go? Much of the corn is used to create high-fructose corn syrup, the now ubiquitous American ingredient. Since the 1980s, this chemically-created additive is in every soda we drink and many of the sweet foods we eat. Look on the labels of food in your cupboard, and most of the processed food will list high-fructose corn syrup. Despite its omnipresence, high-fructose corn syrup is doing nothing but harm to our health, since it has little nutritional value and loads of calories.
Even more disturbing than corn’s role in creating high-fructose corn syrup, is how America’s corn surplus is used to feed cows, even though feeding corn to cows is extremely unhealthy for the animals and actually shortens their lifespan. Cows should be fed grass; their stomachs cannot digest an all-corn diet usually leading to life-threatening infections. Cattle farms have solved this problem by feeding cows antibiotic-enhanced corn. Unlike the cows my family raised for meat on our hobby farm in Central California or the cows that lived next to my dorm during college at the University of California, Davis, cows raised on the Colorado cattle farms featured in King Corn do not idly graze in grassy fields; rather, they stand close together in muddy corrals eating corn all day. Cattle farmers have created these conditions so that the cows gain weight much faster (mostly fat and not muscle) and are subsequently slaughtered sooner - you know, before the corn kills them. The meat that we’re eating today is much fattier than in previous decades, and therefore less healthy.
The food we’re eating today is plentiful, but its degraded nutritional worth has led to an explosion of obesity and diabetes. Bad food is cheap to produce and buy. For the first time in history, obesity is associated with poverty. Ian and Curtis chose to personify this national epidemic during an interview with a Brooklyn cabbie who gave them a ride. They were in New York as part of their journey to find out where the corn they grew in Iowa actually goes. The cab driver tells them that he once weighed over 300 pounds (he produces photo evidence), but after he stopped drinking his usual two liters of high-fructose corn syrup filled soda every day, he lost one third of this body weight. Sadly, his weight and diet had already taken their toll, and he is now diabetic.
What complicates the corn debate is that America’s cheap food policy was not intended to harm our health. In 1973 Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz transformed the farm subsidy program by eliminating the government’s control of the food supply. New Deal era farm support programs paid small farmers to not farm all of their land, but Butz created new farm subsides that rewarded increased production and the planting of uniform commodity crops, thus increasing the supply of food and decreasing the cost to the consumer. He told farmers "get big or get out.” Sadly, this led to the end of many sustainable family farms that grew diversified crops.The government continues to subsidize farmers, including Ian and Curtis for their one acre. It is so misguided that the government doesn’t subsidize the farming of healthy food. Less than one million dollars was spent by the government on helping farmers’ markets in 2005, but over $9.4 billion dollars was paid to corn farmers. Reform is slow, because, as Michael Pollan said during the Q&A, it is difficult to argue with a cheap food policy. But America’s current cheap food policy doesn’t actually help the small farmer, because crops are sold at an artificially low price. Ian and Curtis lost money on their one acre until $28 in government-funded farm subsidies kicked in.
I have always imagined farming to be labor-intensive, but as I watched Ian and Curtis do so little actual manual labor, I realized that machinery has taken the place of people and encouraged farmers to only plant one crop. Farming 1,000 acres of corn is easier and cheaper than farming ten 100-acre plots, each with a different crop. Ian and Curtis spent their free time creating homemade graphs and amateur animation, all with the ever-abundant corn kernels, to illustrate their points. These whimsical touches help the film avoid coming off as self-righteous and overly political. When discussing controversial issues, they weren’t busting down doors and yelling at people. When they visited Butz in his retirement home, they respectfully interviewed him about why he changed the food policies in the 1970s. Butz still stands by his decisions, citing the lower cost of food today and the less labor-intensive methods that allow people, especially children of farmers like himself, to leave the farm. Ian and Curtis didn’t fight with Butz when he neglected to acknowledge the malignant effects of the policies he created. I liked Ian and Curtis’ non-confrontational style.
After seeing the film, I am only eating food from farmers’ markets and I am reading the labels of everything already in my cupboard. I hope that we as country change the food we eat and how that food is produced. Anyone looking for evidence of a grassroots movement needs to look no further than the King Corn screening I attended: a friend and I arrived over 35 minutes early and were almost turned away because the building was already filled to capacity! During the Q&A that followed the screening of the film, Ian and Curtis said that the Berkeley audience, many of whom are locally grown organic food and farmers’ market devotees, are not their target demographic – we are already on the team. The filmmakers plan to tour the corn-belt and meet with young members of those communities in hopes that after seeing the film, many will return their farms to sustainable family operations that grow food they can actually eat.
About the Author Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.