Last night my wife and I watched the documentary King Corn, which I highly recommend because it serves up one of my favorite combo meals:  information and humor.

 

I heard about King Corn when Nora Gedgaudas interviewed Curt Ellis, one of the film’s creators.  Ellis and his co-creator Ian Cheney decided to learn about the dominance of corn in our food supply by growing an acre of corn in Iowa, then following where corn goes after it’s harvested.  The short answer is:  it goes into pretty much everything.

People like to blame the big, bad food industry for turning us into a nation of corn-eaters, but it was clear to me (and yes, this fits nicely with my own bias) that the problem is rooted in stupid government policy.  Before Ellis and Cheney even till the ground, the farmer whose land they’re renting tells them, “Without the government payments, you wouldn’t make any money growing corn.”

Duh!  As they explain in the film, farmers in Iowa used to grow a variety of crops.  Now most of them grow corn, period.  Why strictly corn?  Because they get subsidies for it.  Take away the subsidies, and corn would be far less plentiful, or much more expensive, or both.  As any economist will tell you, you get less of what you tax and more of what you subsidize.

Mountains of cheap, government-subsidized corn are the reason corn syrup replaced sugar as a sweetener, and also the reason most cattle are raised on corn.  Why should a cattle rancher buy enough land to let the cattle graze when it’s cheaper to have a few tons of corn shipped in?  As Dr. Al Sears told me during our interview, grains are literally cheaper than dirt – he compared the per-pound price.

So your tax dollars are making nutritionally inferior food cheaper to produce.  Those of us who don’t drink sodas are helping to buy them for people who do.  Those of us who would prefer to eat grass-fed beef are helping to make corn-fed beef cheaper, which pretty much guarantees it will dominate the market.

Doesn’t that just make you proud of your politicians?

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14 Responses to “Weekend Bonus: King Corn”
  1. James says:

    Thanks for the movie tip Tom. I hadn’t heard of it but just ordered the DVD online.

    Enjoy. It’s also available on Netflix. In fact, if you have the Netflix package that allows streaming movies, I believe it’s available for instant viewing as well.

  2. Eileen says:

    I live in Iowa and you’d think with the acres and acres of farmland, I could go to the farmer’s market and bag some grass-fed beef. Hell No! The best I can do is “non-GMO corn fed”, and it ain’t cheap.

    The free-range chickens eat “organic grain”. I’d like to see their free range, but suspect I’d be disappointed. The yolks from their eggs are pale.

    The Berkshire pork are also fed non-GMO corn.

    I kind of wondered why these animals aren’t allowed to graze and forage…now I know why! Thank you.

    I knew subsidies had a lot to do with the dominance of corn, but the film makes it clear just how screwy the system is. What’s funny is that many reviewers compared it to Super Size Me. That’s hogwash. Super Size Me was a semi-brainless “blame the evil corporation” suckup to the Hollywood and academic anti-capitalist crowd.

  3. Ellen says:

    Tom, you are so right. I call this Food Supply Politics. I define it as the harmful effects associated with the U.S. government’s influence over the economics of food commodities and the market forces which drive food consumption and health care costs.

    The players include the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the food processing industry, the agricultural industry, and the health care industry.

    Each of these organizations plays a part in influencing the food supply market through the propagation of misinformation, and they use that influence to manipulate food consumers. These organizations are intent on the goal of profiting from the billions of dollars spent on food and health care each year, all at public expense.

    I believe food supply politics are endangering the supply of clean, whole foods and the effective provision of health care in America.

    On my website, I have a list of things each person can do to break up this cycle. And it’s actually not that hard for each individual.. if each person would stop buying grain fed meats and products that contain corn, soybeans, canola or cottonseed, it would really change the agricultural and food markets in this country.

    You’re exactly right; we can at least vote with our dollars. But it’s too bad it takes such effort to find, say, grass-fed beef.

    I like your step-by-step guide to Food Supply Politics.

  4. Ben P says:

    Don’t forget tariffs. It’s tariffs that keep the price of sugar up in the US. Since sugar cane is a tropical plant, there isn’t much grown in the US. HFCS probably wouldn’t even exist if there weren’t tariffs in place that kept the price of sugar artificially high. There was not a reason to develop the technology to make HFCS without a glut of corn on the market and very high prices on sugar. The thing I find weird is that it wouldn’t be that hard to make HFCS as 50% glucose and 50% fructose, therefore having the same effect on the body as sugar (sucrose), but the kind used in soft drinks is HFCS-55, which is 45% glucose and 55% fructose. Who knows what that extra fructose does to one’s body, but it probably isn’t good.

    From what I’ve read, fructose is more damaging to the liver. Too true about the tariffs.

  5. Gita says:

    I just watched the film. Not nearly as entertaining and watchable as yours, but it does have some good information. I had no idea of the magnitude of the issue. Really, it just makes me sad….

    It’s frustrating when you think about it; all those subsidies because politicians want to buy votes in the farm states. I knew a guy in college who grew up on a farm; he told me his parents refused to participate in the subsidy program because they thought it was a stupid idea. I hope they were able to survive as farmers.

  6. Paul says:

    I understand that our politicians are buying votes in the farm states – but why do the government subsidies have to be for CORN? Why can’t they subsidize veggies that are actually goof for us?

    That’s a darned good question. I’m against all the subsidies. The amount produced and price of a commodity should be determined by supply and demand, not governments.

  7. Matt R. says:

    I saw this move a while ago and enjoyed it. “King Corn” only cemented my belief that behind every problem, there’s a political cause.

    To err is human, but to really screw things up, you need the government.

  8. Ayana says:

    Okay now this documentary is the next one on my list. The teaser you posted sold me. I bought yours I liked it so much. I will rent this one and decide if I want to keep it. Thanks. :)

    Always pleased to hear that a rental led to a sale. I appreciate the support for the film.

  9. JaneM says:

    Just watched your movie last night – finally got it from Amazon.com after waiting about 3 weeks. Terrific! I’m going to pass it along to friends and family. I got King Corn a while ago from Blockbuster online. It was really, really interesting. It makes you think more about term limits, as our politicians are too deeply ingrained into the system to have the strength to do the right thing. That’s the real problem – no one wants to do the right thing anymore. Everyone only wants to make money.

    “Ingrained” is the right word, pun and all. I appreciate the support for the film.

  10. Cassandra says:

    Saw this movie a while back and it made me slightly depressed for the rest of the week…especially since I live about two blocks from a grain elevator in the middle of rural NE…and half of my friends are farmers and are basically making a living off of my tax dollars…awesome. And yet, THEIR children qualify for free school lunches?! Not cool.

    If this nonsense keeps up, the federal government could end up running trillion-dollar deficits … oh, wait …

  11. Rabbi Hirsch Meisels says:

    Do you possibly have an idea when a product lists “corn syrup” if that’s the HFCS? or is it something else?

    Rabbi Hirsch Meisels
    Jewish Friends With Diabetes International
    http://www.FriendsWithDiabetes.org

    “Corn syrup” on the label can mean corn syrup solids, which are often a powder — the liquid is removed in processing. HFCS is a liquid. The solids are less fructose, more dextrose. Either way, they’re both highly-processed sugars that aren’t natural to the human diet. I’d avoid both.

    This link describes how both are made. It isn’t pretty.

    http://www.madehow.com/Volume-4/Corn-Syrup.html

  12. kat says:

    just watched King Corn tonight. one on the “must watch” list along with Food Inc, the Future of Food, and of course, Fat Head!

    thanks :0)

  13. freak says:

    “Mountains of cheap, government-subsidized corn are the reason corn syrup replaced sugar as a sweetener”

    The government also subsidizes the sugar industry, by guaranteeing producers a minimum price, thus causing sugar to be priced artificially high. That is the other main reason for the switch to hfcs.

  14. Walter B says:

    _King Corn_ is available on free Hulu at

    Worth a look, but I already knew all the information.

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