I met Curt Ellis last year when he traveled to Columbia University to showcase his new documentary “King Corn”. I was just starting to get really interested in the sustainable food movement at the time and knew a bit about U.S. production of corn from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, so I was interested in seeing what he and the film’s co-creator Ian Cheney had discovered during their journey. Curt and Ian are two Yale graduates who were curious about the origins of their food. After realizing that our generation has a shorter lifespan than our parents because of our eating habits, they started to keep track of what they were eating and discovered that their diets largely and unknowingly consisted of corn. Having no other post-college plans, they decided to drive out to Iowa for a year to plant one acre of corn using common industrial agriculture methods and document the journey of corn from farm to table to learn how it becomes such a major element of our food.
What they discovered was:
- The federal government grossly subsidizes the production of corn. However, it’s difficult for small farmers to make a living off of growing corn unless they generate massive harvests so increasingly, they are selling their plots to larger growing operations.
- The quantity of bushels/acre typically grown has greatly increased over the last century as a result of increased pesticide use and genetically modified seeds which enable corn to grow in closer quarters.
- It was impossible to trace where their individual corn harvest went once it entered the mill, although most of it likely became livestock feed. Feeding cattle corn products in large feedlot operations (where most of our beef originates) contributes to regular antibiotic use in cows. Since cow digestive systems did not evolve on corn diets, they develop ulcers and resultantly are given antibiotic concoctions, accounting for 70% of all antibiotic use in the U.S.
- The corn that farmers grow in the Midwest is completely inedible unless it’s processed. The average Iowan farmer cannot feed him/herself off his/her land since the majority of their acreage goes to subsidized corn production.
- “Our overproduction of corn can make it very hard to eat well in America, even if you want to” because the processed corn becomes a major, unhealthy component of many common foods (ex. the component high fructose corn syrup in jellies, sodas, breads, etc.)
Curt followed his presentation of “King Corn” with his sequel documentary “Big River.” “Big River” takes a look at the disastrous effects of Midwestern corn production on the environment and human health. Because of the enormous amounts of pesticide/herbicide used on corn fields in order to augment yields, nearby waterways become contaminated with chemicals such as atrazine. The chemicals reach the Mississippi River and then travel all the way down to the Gulf. Consequently, fishing communities in the Gulf struggle to make a living as the water becomes uninhabitable for most fish and shrimp. Also, groundwater (drinking water) becomes contaminated from the farms’ pesticide/herbicide use. 33 million Americans have been exposed to atrazine through their drinking water and just in the farming community Curt and Ian lived in, half of the farmers’ wives have already passed away from cancer. Lastly, Curt examines farming’s effect on climate change and finds that erosion caused by the overburdened, degraded topsoil (from heavy-duty agricultural use) has decreased Midwestern soil’s ability to store carbon, thus sending it back into the atmosphere.
Both films are fantastic and Curt was dedicated enough to share his films that he gave all attendees at the screening copies of both movies. If you want to borrow either, let me know! As for Curt’s latest projects, he has started a really cool initiative to institute food gardens at public schools in high childhood obesity areas. The AmeriCorps program under development (please don’t let AmeriCorps end!!!) is called FoodCorps and will begin August 15, 2011 (how exciting)! Curt and Ian also now own their own production company, Wicked Delicate. In addition, they have created “Truck Farm,” a 20-member CSA operated out of the back of Ian’s pickup truck in Brooklyn (it’s possible!)
- Watch the King Corn trailer
- Apply for FoodCorps!
- See a video about FoodCorps
- View the “Take Action” section of the King Corn website to see what you can do!
- Watch Curt and Ian’s spoof of the Corn Refiner’s Association pro-high fructose corn syrup propaganda, where they compare high fructose corn syrup to DDT.
Thanks for reading! 🙂