Behind America’s 99-cent hamburgers and 72-ounce sodas is a key ingredient that
silently fuels our fast-food nation – corn. In the revelatory, Morgan Spurlock
(Super Size Me)-style documentary, King Corn, we meet two college buddies, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who move from the East Coast to the Heartland to learn where their food comes from. Ironically, 80 years ago, Ian and Curt’s great-grandfathers lived just a few miles apart, in the same rural county in Northern Iowa. Now their great-grandsons are returning with a mission. They will plant an acre of corn, follow their harvest into the world, and attempt to understand what they – and all of us – are really made of: corn.
The following is an interview with Curt Ellis about his entertaining and informative
film, which is now available from the Earth
How did you get started on this journey?
Ellis: My best friend, Ian Cheney, and I were graduating from college and we
realized we knew next to nothing about the food we were eating every day. It
felt like our education was incomplete.
On a whole other level, the obesity and diabetes epidemic caught our attention. We saw a report that said people of our generation were likely to have a shorter life expectancy than our parents. We decided to look into this and fill the gap in our education, because we wanted to understand where our food was coming from. We wanted to know why is this food so bad for us.
It led us to a surprising place – a corn farm in the middle of Iowa. It turns out that much from the food we’ve been eating all of our lives comes from corn. There’s high fructose corn syrup in our sodas, corn in our hamburgers and all of this can cause obesity. In the process of trying to learn more about our diet, we had our hair analyzed and discovered that the actual carbon in our bodies is more than half corn. Ian found out he was 58 percent corn and I was 53 percent corn. We were pretty shocked. We only ate corn on the cob a few times each summer…we had no idea that the fundamental underpinning of our diet was corn.
What inspired you to plant your own acre of corn and "experience" the farming process?
Curt: We felt like if we didn’t know that we were half corn, then probably other people didn’t know it either. We decided to "tell" this story and we figured out the best way to learn about the role of corn was to grow it ourselves and follow it to market. We moved to Iowa and grew one acre of corn in the way a typical farmer would grow a 1,000 acres of corn. We used genetically modified feed, anhydrous ammonia fertilizer and a $400,000 combine.
It worked well. We grew 10,000 pounds of corn. That’s enough to sweeten 57,000 cans of soda or make 4,000 corn-fed hamburgers.
Why create a film about this issue?
Curt: In the process of tending our field, we realized that the American diet has fundamentally changed in the last half century. It’s become much more industrialized and much less healthy. The reasons include government policies in the form of subsidies, which has given farmers an incentives to produce corn whether or not the market needs it. And, it’s given big food companies a steady stream of cheap, raw materials to make fast food. In the last 40 years we’ve shifted our food system so that the least-healthy foods are abundant and affordable and the healthiest foods are expensive and hard to get.
We thought we found a villain in this story, and that was Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz. But, when we tracked him down, in a nursing home in Indiana (he was 96), it was clear to us that when he revolutionized the corn subsidy system, he did it for what he thought were good reasons: to make food abundant and affordable. Butz was a child of the Great Depression, so to him, abundance could never be a bad thing.
For two kids who have grown up in the obesity epidemic, it was clear that America had taken a good idea too far.
Do you think the situation with farmers and subsidies, as it relates to corn, has gotten better since you have illuminated this issue in your film?
Curt: The corn economy has changed a lot in the last five years. It still has some fundamental problems. Because of ethanol, farmers are making more of a living in the marketplace than from the government. But, our food system is still dependent on processed corn and fast food.
I was amazed to see how much food contains processed corn products. What can people do today to avoid these products? What do they look for?
Curt: It’s not that corn itself is inherently bad. It’s that the processed industrial food that corn becomes are bad for us. The real way to eat healthfully is to eat real, unprocessed food. Look for carrots that look like carrots.
Learning everything you did about where food comes from, do you still eat fast food?
Curt: No. I think one reason Americans eat so much fast food is because they don’t know where it comes from. If they knew, they wouldn’t eat it.
What was the mission of your film and what can people do to make a real difference?
Curt: Our film developed a mission along the way. The mission is to help more people understand where their food is coming from and to understand the policies that drive the way eat. With some simple changes in farm and food policy, we can make some big strides in helping all Americans get access to healthy, affordable and fresh food.
What are the top five scariest things you learned about high fructose corn syrup?
Curt: Number 1: It’s in everything from bread to spaghetti. Number 2: In five years of researching high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), we never got into a factory to see it being made, because the is industry doesn’t want people to know where it comes from. Number 3: We learned from the Chair of Nutrition at Harvard that drinking one soda per day doubles your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes. Number 4: Prior to 1975, Americans didn’t eat any HFCS. Now we eat more than 100 pounds a year. And Number 5: It’s delicious. We find it incredibly hard to resist. We like sweet foods and we like the taste of fast food and junk food, which is why we keep stuffing ourselves with it.
Do you think there is a connection to the disappearance of bees and corn? It’s been reported that in the past year and a half that bees have been exposed to an ever-increasing number of diseases due to pollution and GMO cultivation. The chemicals used to treat corn, sunflower seeds and grain are specifically suspected of being the main culprits.
Curt: I have read and heard some of this, but I’m not qualified to discuss it.
What kind of controversy have you stirred up?
Curt: The film did a good job of contributing to public debate about the 2007 Farm Bill that sets all the subsidies. And, getting urban people talking about farm policy is one of the most powerful ways we can make a difference.
The film drew a lot of fire from the HFCS lobby, and they have mounted a PR campaign about how great HFCS is. On their site, www.corn.org, they have a section called "Myths of King Corn." In four out of the five myths, they question statements made in the film by what they call a "commentator," who is actually the Chair of the Harvard Department of Nutrition.