by TAMMY MARSHALL & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ith every bite of French fries cooked in corn oil -- with every burger and every soda that people consume -- they are in fact eating corn. And it's not just any kind of corn that people are eating, but genetically modified, ammonia-fertilized super-corn, which grows faster than regular corn, is resistant to bugs and "tastes like sawdust."
So say Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the filmmakers and stars of King Corn. In their documentary, they move to Iowa to grow corn on one acre of land and then attempt to follow its pathways through the food system. The film delves into the history of American farming and shows its gradual transformation into today's agribusiness. On both large and small scales, corn produced on American farms is less tasty, less nutritious and less profitable than most Americans have been led to believe.
In the film, Cheney and Ellis receive $28 from the government before they start growing. That $28 is half of a subsidy they receive to farm corn. It the end, a portion of the U.S.-granted subsidy is the only money they make off of their endeavor.
Besides showing small-time farmers who are basically forced to grow what one farmer calls "crap," the stars of the film follow their corn and find out that Iowa's biggest crop is in fact not so slowly poisoning the nation. Yet another farmer laughs as he says, "We subsidize the Happy Meal -- we don't subsidize the healthy ones."
High-fructose corn syrup, now America's leading sweetener, is one of the main products made from the mass-produced plant. In the film, Cheney and Ellis go into their kitchen and attempt to produce the mega-processed sugar, which takes some knowledge of chemistry and a couple hours to make. Then they travel to the grocery store and find that in an entire aisle, every single item contains high-fructose corn syrup. The problem, they show, is that high-fructose corn syrup has zero nutritional value and is considered a leading cause of diabetes.
Then they follow where the majority of their corn goes to -- feeding cows. Corn-fed cows are penned up in cages and can't move, thus gaining weight faster, leading them sooner to the slaughterhouse and finally onto our dinner plates.
While Cheney and Ellis appear like two ex-frat boys bumping around Iowa eating hamburgers and trying to figure out where it comes from, their message is clear.
Since the release of Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation, it would seem that films about our declining food system have become a mass-market tool. Ellis, however, claims in an interview that King Corn is distinct from any mass marketing. "It's not a Michael Moore film. It's not anti-farmer. It's a film about how we eat and how we cultivate the cheapest food in the world," he says.
Cheney and Ellis, along with director Aaron Woolf, make the film appear innocent enough. The stop-animation and the depictions of massive cornfields and flat farmland are picturesque. Giant mounds of gold corn look like piles of pirates' treasure. At one point, baby-faced Ellis dives down a pile of yellow corn. His antics are reminiscent of Scrooge McDuck's daily gold swimming in the cartoon Duck Tales.
In fact, in the interview, Ellis blames everyone but the farmer for America's slowly acquired food dilemma: "I think what's kind of remarkable is that we are all responsible. People have the option of buying meat from a grass-fed cow, big food companies have the option of not selling a 72-ounce drink, and the big legislators have the ability to stop subsidizing the funding of cheap food and promoting the production of affordable, healthy food."
King Corn is in fact the story of the demise of the small-time American farmer. As an example, the same farmers from whom Cheney and Ellis rent their acre are forced to auction the entire farm.
Farms close and get sold to bigger outfits. People who've spent their lives farming are forced to move. King Corn is the farming equivalent of Michael Moore's Roger and Me without all the lying CEOs and politicians -- although just like Roger, they are still behind the demise of the American farmer.
Watch King Corn and meet the filmmakers at the Magic Lantern, 25 W. Main Ave., on Wednesday-Thursday, Jan. 23-24, at 7 pm. Tickets: $8. Visit www.kingcorn.net or call 838-7122.