Independent Lens: King Corn
Airs Monday, November 16, 2009 at 10:30 p.m. on KPBS TV
Friday, November 13, 2009
Behind America’s dollar hamburgers and 72-ounce sodas is a key ingredient that quietly fuels our fast-food nation: corn. In "King Corn," recent college graduates Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis leave the east coast for rural Iowa, where they decide to grow an acre of the nation’s most powerful crop.
Alarmed by signs of America’s bulging waistlines, the filmmakers arrive in the Midwest enthusiastic about their new endeavor. For their farm-to-be, they choose a tiny town in Floyd, County, Iowa—a place that, coincidentally, both Ian and Curt’s great-grandfathers called home three generations ago. They lease an acre of land from a skeptical landlord, fill out a pile of paperwork to sign up for subsidies and discover the U.S. government will pay them 28 dollars for their acre. Ian and Curt start the spring by injecting ammonia fertilizer, which promises to increase crop production four-fold. Then it’s planting time. With a rented high-tech tractor, they set 31,000 seeds in the ground in just 18 minutes. Their corn has also been genetically modified for another yield-increasing characteristic: herbicide resistance. When the seedlings sprout from Iowa’s black dirt, Ian and Curt apply a powerful herbicide to ensure that only their corn will thrive on their acre.
By summer, their modern farm is thriving, and the Corn Belt is moving toward a record harvest of 11 billion bushels of corn. But where will all that corn go? With their crop growing head-high, Ian and Curt leave the farm to see where America’s abundance of corn ends up. As they enter America’s industrial kitchen, they are forced to confront the realities of their crop’s future. In Brooklyn, it sweetens the sodas of a diabetes-plagued neighborhood. In Colorado, it fattens the feed trough of a 100,000-head cattle feedlot. Ian and Curt are increasingly troubled by how the abundance of corn is helping to make fast food cheap and consumers sick, driving animals into confinement and farmers off the land. Animal nutritionists confirm that corn feeding can make cows sick and beef fatty, but it also lets consumers have fast food at low prices. As feedlot operator Bob Bledsoe says in "King Corn," “America wants and demands cheap food.”
As Ian and Curt discover, almost everything Americans eat contains corn. High-fructose corn syrup, corn-fed meat, and corn-based processed foods are the staples of the modern diet. America’s record harvests of corn are supported by a government subsidy system that promotes corn production beyond all market demand. As Ian and Curt return to Iowa to watch their 10,000-pound harvest fill the combine’s hopper and make its way into America’s food, they realize their acre of land shouldn’t be planted in corn again—if they can help it. Watch a preview.