Examining a landscape where crops only feed food
Aaron Woolf’s documentary King Corn, which opens the weekend of conversations about local farming and sustainable consumption, is a sound prototype for the new wave of average-Joe, populist eco-docs. Two young, affable frat-boy types move from New England to Iowa to explore their roots (both had great-grandparents who were farmers in the town of Greene) and the simple life and realize that working on the Corn Belt isn’t as quaint an existence as it once was.
If the film’s easygoing, learn-as-you-go charm seems insincere at first — one of our tour guides, Ian Cheney, strikes the film’s lone note of sarcasm during a cellphone call, saying “I’m gonna grow an acre of corn and see what happens with it. What’s up with you? How’s your high-paying job?” — it winds up feeling homey and enriching, a rejoinder to those expensive lectures from Michael Moore and Al Gore.
And indeed, we pretty much do just watch Cheney and his friend Curt Ellis grow some corn and figure out where it goes. The destinations are predictable — corn syrup, animal feed — but the scope of Iowa’s enormous crop allows the movie to politely argue that the industry has spun out of control. Corn no longer feeds us; it feeds our food.
Interspersed with scenes of stickball and farming lessons, Ellis and Cheney present cute stop-motion animation videos with cornel kernels and Fisher-Price farm trinkets that illustrate the expansion of the American corn farm. Since the 1970s, when the government began paying farmers subsidies to produce greater volumes of corn, the nation’s production has grown by 39 percent. Corn seeds have been modified to grow in tighter spaces, yielding a massive but inedible and less-healthy crop used to feed livestock in packed enclosures and to artificially sweeten nearly every product in our convenience stores.
"Our system wasn’t created by accident or with malicious intent — it’s the product of taking one idea too far,” Cheney says. “The goal of the film was to start a conversation, not to create a polemic, and we really wanted to make a film not only that was fun to watch, but that would reconnect farmers and consumers, rather than alienate anyone. I think that any attempt to bring people into a conversation about our food system should be fun. What could be more boring than a film about corn and agriculture subsidies — and seemly irrelevant to the average city person. And yet the story ... affects every one of us every day.”
Cheney and Ellis follow the presumed trajectory of their harvested acre to a livestock farm (where the animals don’t roam in open pastures, because they’re now devoted to the corn crop) and, in the film’s lone semi-manipulative, Michael Mooreian leap to conclusions, to Brooklyn. In the borough, the soda-consumption capital of the country, where one of every eight residents has diabetes, they happen across a soda-delivery driver who lost 100 pounds after he quit carbonated beverages.
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