King Corn

Documentary; Released: 2007 Featuring Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis; Directed by Aaron Woolf

Corn on the cob, canned corn, creamed corn, pop corn, corn bread, corn dogs, corn chips, corn taco shells, candy corn.... Well, except for that last one, we humans have come up with many inventive and delicious ways to eat corn. But there are some insidious ways we consume corn, most notably via meat consumption (where corn is heavily used as a feed grain) and corn sweeteners (which today dominate the non-diet part of the sweetener market). In scientific terms, we are largely what we eat, and we in the US owe a lot of our flesh, for better or for worse, to corn.

But what does it mean that we have become a part of the "corn matrix"? In King Corn, we find out. The storyline follows two college buddies, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, as they trace the trail of corn kernels that runs from agricultural extension offices through corn fields to silos and feed lots and processing plants.

The scale of the corn-related food economy in the US is hard for the average person to fathom. It gets easier as King Corn shows us the endless fields of 10-foot-tall corn plants; the tractors and huge pieces of farming equipment; the mountainous piles of harvested corn; the muddy feedlots with confined cows eating from troughs full of a feed mix that is mostly corn; the huge industrial-style buildings used to refine corn into sweetener.

To bring the material to life, Ian and Curt relocate to the heart of corn country (Iowa) to get first-hand experience in a variety of activities related to corn:

  • They apply for farming subsidies.
  • They spend a season growing an acre of corn, including driving tractors, plowing, seeding, spraying, and harvesting. (You may feel more inclined to buy organic after you see the chemical dosing the corn field gets.)
  • They even make a batch of high-fructose corn syrup. (Did you know that the process uses sulfuric acid?)
  • They talk to locals about the impact that industrial corn farming has had on farm families and farm towns.

The film also covers the ills of some corn-related aspects of our society:

  • It discusses problems with concentrated animal feeding operations and what an extended corn-based diet does to cattle—we have to have to give them drugs because the corn eventually makes the cows sick.
  • The risks of consuming sweetened drinks are explored—drinking 1 soda per day doubles the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
  • Corn is also noted as a poster child for the falling taste quality and nutritional values that plague today's industrialized farm products.