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KING CORN (2007)



PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: capitalism, animal rights, environmental ethics

CHARACTERS: Ian Cheney, Curt Ellis, Earl L. Butz

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR AARON WOOLF: Dying to Leave (2003)

SYNOPSIS: “Two friends with one year to spare and a deep curiosity about the American food distribution system set out to grow and acre of corn and see what becomes of their crop in director Aaron Woolf's agricultural-themed documentary. Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis are best friends from college who have decided to move from the east coast to the Midwest in hopes of getting a better idea where the food they consume on a daily basis actually comes from. Corn is America's most productive and subsidized grain. Upon relocating to Iowa, the pair and seeks out the assistance of friends and neighbors in procuring the land, seeds, fertilizers, and herbicides needed to grow a one-acre bumper crop of this highly-versatile commodity. As their maize is harvested and the sometimes-troubling realities of modern faming begin to emerge, the pair sets off on a mission to track the progress of their product and find out just how it is used to create a variety of different food products. What emerges is an informative and at times disturbing account of both the food Americans so readily consume without so much as a second though and the alarming state of the contemporary agricultural industry.” -- Jason Buchanan, All Movie Guide

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. The movie opens with Ian and Curtis saying that we are the first generation of people that will likely have a shorter life span than our parents, largely because of the food we eat. A scientist then states that a disproportionally large amount of the carbon in our bodies comes from corn. Both of these are probably little known facts. Whose fault is that?

2. Since the 1920s, U.S. agricultural policy has involved government subsidization for farmers. Prior to 1973, the government regulated agricultural production by keeping supply and demand in balance, which sometimes meant paying farmers to take some farm land out of production. This stabilized agricultural prices, kept them high, and allowed smaller farms to survive. Was this a good policy (as opposed to no policy of restriction or subsidization at all)?

3. In 1973 Nixon’s agricultural secretary, Earl L. Butz reoriented the U.S. farm program by not restricting what a farm can produce. Butz states in an interview with the film makers that under the old farm program, “We paid farmers not to produce, one of the stupidest things we ever did, I think.” According to Butz, the increased agricultural production in this country has driven food prices down now so that we only pay about 17% of our incomes on food. Previous generations paid twice that amount. Butz acknowledged that this has led to large scale farming where smaller farms can’t compete, and while he was Secretary of Agriculture he routinely told farmers “get big or get out." Did Butz make the right decision?

4. Even under Butz’s restructured farm program, the U.S. government still subsidizes farmers. At the time of the movie, the government was paying farmers $28 per acre of corn. According to the film, if you grow corn without payment from the government, you’ll lose money. Is anything wrong with this policy, and what would happen if it was discontinued?

5. According to the film, the government subsidy system essentially rewards overproduction of corn. One person stated, “We subsidize the happy meals, but not the healthy meals.” Is this an accurate assessment of the results of the government subsidy system?

6. Corn yield has increased by selecting types of corn plants that grow closer to each other so there are more corn plants per acre. This has increased the yield from 40 bushels per acre in the past to 200 bushels of corn per acre now. The trade off is that it has more starch and less protein. Is the trade off worth it?

7. Most farmers use genetically modified seeds to make crops like corn resistant to the herbicide weed killers (e.g., Liberty-ready, Roundup-ready). The result is that an entire field can efficiently be sprayed with herbicides without killing the crops. This keeps the yield per acre high and thus lowers the cost we pay for food. What if anything is bad about this?

8. The corn that Ian and Curtis grew was essentially inedible in its unprocessed form. As one person in the film said, “It’s a raw material like feed stock for all these other processes” -- specifically, ethanol for fuel, feed for animals, and high fructose corn syrup for food. Is anything particularly bad about this?

9. Corn grain isn’t a healthy food for cows, and too much of it will produce acidosis, which will kill them. Large cattle feedlots are unsanitary and expose the cows to diseases. Antibiotics are put into corn feed to help combat both acidosis and disease from confinement; about 70% of the antibiotics in this country go to that purpose. All of this is driven by economics: corn is cheap food, and confinement allows cows to put on weight quickly. Is the tradeoff worth it?

10. According to one expert in the film, the muscle in factory farmed cows looks more like fat tissue than muscle tissue. Steak from grain-fed cows has about 5 times the saturated fat as grass fed cows. Again, this is driven by economics: steak with less saturated fat would mean spending more money on how cows are raised. Is the tradeoff worth it?

11. The corn sweetener industry emerged as an outlet for the excess corn that was produced after farming was deregulated. About 70% of high fructose corn syrup goes into beverage sweeteners. One problem this creates is obesity: one expert stated that drinking calories doesn’t produce the digestive “stop signals” that eating calories does. Another problem with sweet beverages is that it contributes to type 2 diabetes. Can we really blame corn sweetener or Earl Butz for this?

12. Near the end of the film the narrator states, “We spend less of our income on food than any generation in history, and fewer of us are needed to produce that food than ever before. But we also might be the first generation to live in a time when abundance brings too much.” Is the narrator right?


REVIEWS:

“King Corn” opened my eyes to the food industry. I was not aware of the millions and billions of dollars that are made off of this simple crop. The two men that made the documentary were very interested in corn. I really did not care too much about this certain topic but now I do. I find myself looking at the labels on all the food I consume and wondering is there high fructose corn syrup in them. What really hit home were the images of the man putting his hand inside the cow and removing the waste. If these grains can harm cows, them they certainly can cause damage to our bodies. Now that I see the problems the feed can cause us, I really want to start eating grass feed beef cattle. This is healthier for us and our children to come. I did notice how the women they interviewed had a very flat affect. She seemed like nothing was bothering her and that everything she was doing was right. I do appreciate the film and its filmmakers for showing this to the public. We as the consumer need to be more educated on what we are putting into our bodies. At some points in the movie I did fall asleep, but I got the main overall purpose of the film. It made me feel bad for some of the small mom and pop farmers, but this was soon going to happen with the modernization of the world. I would recommend people to see this film as well. — C.J.

King Corn was an alright documentary. It didn’t try to shove the filmmakers viewpoints down your throat like some others (anything Michael Moore, Super Size Me, Religulous). It did open my eyes to this whole world of corn production and particularly to the fact that corn is in virtually everything that we eat. As far as the agricultural side of the movie, the only part that surprised me was the huge surplus of corn that is stocked up and left over from year to year. Are there not other things that this surplus can be used in, besides food products for humans or livestock? The production of high fructose corn syrup and its implementation into almost every sweetened product on the food market was pretty astonishing. The biggest surprise was the cattle farms that immobilize the cattle as much as possible and just pumped this corn into them basically. I prefer lean meat and would rather have beef from better animals, but I do understand the supply and demand issue that raising cattle in this way helps solve. However, I will be cutting down on my sweetened drinks intake at least for a while. — T.E.

I really enjoyed King Corn. I don’t watch many documentaries anymore thanks to America’s douche bag, Michael Moore, but this one has really jump started my interest again. I had no idea how the agriculture system in America worked. This film did a great job at showing the process of overproduction of resources. We are overproducing corn and using it in everything from food to fuel. But the film shows how this process is not so decidedly good or evil. There are pros and cons to the overproduction of food. One major benefit of over production is cheaper food. Lower food costs make it easier for us to not only feed ourselves but also to help feed the less fortunate. That appeals to the utilitarian mindset that America seems to have but a drawback to cheap food is that quality suffers. Also, because food is so cheap we tend to eat more. Obesity is plaguing our country and it appears that by trying to make things better, we have only created other problems. This movie has a ton of great topics for thought. It has made a lasting impact on me. Now I buy the more expensive “healthy” groceries. I also drink about a tenth of the soft drinks that I did before seeing this movie. The guys really did a good job of presenting an unbiased opinion and presenting only facts. — J.R.

King Corn was an eye opening movie and I still look at the ingredient list on things I buy. It showed how different today’s farmers and the farmers from the 20’s and 30’s are. The industrial age has changed the life style of farmers and how they grow their crops. I too thought that farmers still toiled over their crop everyday and had to take a lot of care in doing so, but when Ian and Curtis begin to grow their crop they realize that it’s more of a waiting game than what most of us would think of when we think of farming. Also, the image of a farmer growing his own food was shattered when Ian tried to at the corn and it was practically inedible. The fact that a farmer who grows thousands of acres of corn and cannot even feed his family with it is very shocking to me. One man is quoted in the movie saying, It’s a raw material , it being corn, like feed stock for all these other processes. I believe that there is something wrong with growing food that you cannot eat. We should strive to make food healthier not alter it in a way that makes it inedible we can make it so we can use it in so many ways that other foods can already do. Also, another man is quoted saying, We subsidize the happy meals, but not the healthy meals. This movie has made me rethink the way I look at food and what I choice to eat. — D.H.

The movie, King Corn, was the first documentary movie I have ever watched, and I really enjoyed it. The movie in essence gives the down low on the corn industry and how it affects the American culture. Throughout the movie you journey with two young men from the Boston metropolitan area to rural Iowa. Upon arrival at Iowa, they somehow got a farmer to let them “borrow” an acre of land to plant corn on. During their odyssey, they speak with many researchers and experts on corn, and how it has transformed American culture. The uprising of corn from a simple plant in Mexico to an inedible crop in America is an intriguing story that has an ugly side to it. Corn as a raw material has many uses particularly High Fructose Corn Syrup. This ingredient has many uses, especially in food. If you look at almost any food label, you will find that particular ingredient. This ingredient has been linked to causing the obesity epidemic. We also learn the complicated side of farm economics and how subsidies manipulate the corn economy. Some farms are paid to under produce and over produce, but at what cost. The cost is the implication that small farms cannot survive without merging with larger farms in the industry. Overall, I really enjoyed this film and would recommend it to anybody who enjoys documentaries and being educated on current events. — J.M.

King Corn presented me with enough information about the negative impacts of the corn industry to make me swear off soda and beef. As an American consumer, I rarely think about where the products I eat and drink come from. Apparently, Ian and Curtis were also unaware of the origin of food. This, coupled with a finding that most of their hair samples were composed of corn, led them on a journey to figure out the corn-based food economy. While there were several scenes that were shocking in this film, a few stand out in my mind as especially heinous. The most disturbing image of the film was the hole-y cow. I was amazed to learn that the corn-based diet these cows were being fed actually ate up their stomachs. Not only is this an instance of animal cruelty, it seems like a health risk for those that consume beef. The standard of living for corn farmers was also a concern brought up in this movie. The farmers were growing a crop they knew was subpar and still barely making a profit off of it. At first it seems difficult to empathize with the farmers because they chose to go into this profession. However, in small Midwestern towns there are not very many job opportunities. Also, the farmers have little control over the quality of corn they grow. They take whatever kind of corn the government is willing to pay them to grow. If they chose to grown a different type of corn and did not take advantage of government aid, most farmers would go out of business due to high cost of farming and low crop prices. — D.O.

King Corn: This documentary style film observed the journey corn takes from the stalk through its processing and utilization in a smorgasbord of empty-calorie foods, largely unbeknownst to the majority of those consuming these foods. For this reason, I found this film incredibly interesting and informative, not to mention aesthetically pleasing and artistically superb. The scenes presented in this film shed precious light on important health issues the American people are currently facing at the price of cheap, bountiful amounts of tasty but unhealthy food containing what is referred to as high fructose corn syrup (manufactured from highly processed corn). This high fructose corn syrup is a cheap and tasty replacement for regular table sugar, but as this documentary reveals, comes at a price: providing no nutritional value. This mass production of corn does not only affect the corn industry (as well as those foods with high fructose corn syrup), it also largely influences the beef industry. As the narrators of the film explain, forcing cows to consume mass produced corn in order to speed up their growth is a cheap and easy alternative to simply allowing cows to graze and develop naturally. In this way, cow farmers can save more money on buying cow feed and make money faster by growing cows at a faster rate and selling them for meat sooner. However, stuffing cows with corn feed is terribly unhealthy for the cows. As researchers in the movie state, if the cows were not killed so quickly, they would instead have died from food poisoning. As corn does not digest correctly within the stomachs of a cow, it has aversive effects on their body when forced to consume it. Also, growing the cows in this way causes their meat to be much more fatty, as opposed to how grass-fed cows are more lean and healthy. This means that corn is not only poisoning an incredibly amount of foods consumed unknowingly by many people every day, it is also causing other animals to yield more fatty products, thus being increasingly less healthy for us at the top of the food chain. I found this movie particularly interesting, as it highlighted the cost of the age of plenty. — J.D.

King Corn is a documentary about two friends, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, use one acre of land to test the nutritional value of modern corn agriculture. They realized that the burgers, sodas, and candy are all composed of corn. This movie was eye opening and has made me rethink my diet. This movie helped me understand the importance of eating healthier and more aware of what is better for my body. After hearing the statistic, if you drink a soda a day you double your chances of getting type two diabetes I started being more aware of how many empty calories corn syrup offers, and that it is only a sweetener and has chemicals in it that I don’t in my body. They presented interesting facts about how cows cannot live past four months of being corn feed before they get sick and even die. Ian and Curt even try eating the corn they produced and discovered that eating it raw is not exactly fulfilling, nor palatable. I thought that this film effectively and intelligently informs its audience of the dangers eating fast food. The film never once seemed to stand on a soap box, instead it offers the viewer a chance to re-evaluate exactly how much high fructose corn syrup is commonly used. This film also helped me understand the history and philosophy of agriculture over the past few decades. However, I found the aesthetic value of this movie to be pleasing and in accord to the movie as a whole, for all ages. — D.M.

An informative journey through the science, history and policy behind America’s favorite source of empty calories, King Corn raises consciousness on why eating cheaply may not mean eating better. The film follows the lives of two college friends as they move to Iowa to grow an acre of corn for a year after learning (through laboratory analysis) that their bodies are made up mostly of the yellow stuff. The viewer quickly learns that most of what they eat is derived from corn in one way or another: sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, thickened with cornstarch etc. Even most beef on the market today is corn or corn derivative fed. Not only does it result is beef that is less healthy (but cheap), the consumption of a primarily grain diet is harmful to cows, resulting in acidosis … not to mention the horrid conditions of feed lots in which cows are confined until they reach market weight. But King Corn is not interested necessarily in animal rights, but in whether or not the current policy of over production of corn, which has led to cheap prices and inferior corn, is really such a good idea. Sure, Americans spend less money on food than ever before, but at what cost to our health? The most poignant scene is an interview with Earl Butz, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture who is primarily responsible for the change in U.S. policy which led to today’s over production agenda. If you live in the U.S. and eat, then this documentary is a must see.

King Corn was an extremely well-done documentary. The two filmmakers, Ian and Curtis, played an active role in the film without being the “stars”. Their plan to grow an acre of corn is a novel idea by today’s standards; most college graduates without an Agriculture degree have no interest in growing corn, especially such a small plot of it. I enjoyed watching Ian and Curtis operate the farm machinery. The information about corn syrup was alarming. It is in almost every packaged food we consume (many people consume only packaged food). I liked watching the scientists make corn syrup, although it was a bit disturbing to see what it actually looks like before it is put in my food. The makers of King Corn were not out to “get” anyone; they reported the facts and the different obstacles they experienced. This film was special to me because I worked at a grainery in the summer of 2009. Although I worked only during wheat season, I heard horror stories of how angry farmers got if their corn didn’t get the grades they thought it deserved. One detail I liked about the film was the use of the toy farm and small plastic farmers. It was an original way to transition different parts of the film. I had the exact same farm and toys when I was little and it was entertaining to see them onscreen. These filmmakers objectively showed audiences objective facts and figures and did not propagandize the film for their own cause. This method shows how credible and disturbing the statistics really are. — C.R.

King Corn: This movie had a huge impact on my diet and buying habits, for a week or two. Actually because of this movie I have instituted a “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” boycott; at least personally, the kids have to have it to survive I believe. I was completely unaware of the impact of the corn industry, and I at first found myself being upset with the corn growers. After more careful inspection I found the blame pointing toward our government; which only responses, I believe, to the electorate. We have become so complacent that most Americans are unaware of the items we ingest; and this film brought that home to me. The movie required me to inspect my own behavior to see what is the true cause of the state of our health in America. I was also drawn into the movie because of the back story of the two young film makers. Even if their relationship was odd, they seemed courageous to research their own family history and find the ties to a subject worth documenting. They could have just done a documentary film about some random topic and make a living, but the strove to connect to the story and make the audience become interested in the lesson to be taught. The last scene with them playing baseball in the unplanted field was the best ending in a documentary I have ever seen. The film demonstrates the lengths two young graduates will go to, not to find a real job. — L.T.

 
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