King Corn

King Corn, a documentary about the supremacy of corn grown for production of sweeteners and animals in American agriculture, was released ten years ago. At the time, some reviewers considered it too low-key compared to supposedly harder-hitting documentaries like Super-Size Me! But I think that King Corn has held up a lot better than some of its more shrill and polemical contemporaries, and I am going to try to get you to watch it.

First, let’s consider whether the problem addressed is still a problem. Have rates of obesity or diabetes gone down since the movie was made in 2007? Quite the opposite. In adults age 40 to 59, obesity has risen to a stunning 41%. In 2015, 9.4% of American adults were diabetic, and another 84.1 million were considered pre-diabetic. Our scientific knowledge of the hazards of sugar in all its forms has grown by leaps and bounds, and so has our national sweetener consumption. So, uh, let’s keep talking about this.

With that in mind, I watched King Corn unfold. It is a sweet low-key film and doesn’t hammer you with a message. It just shows you things. Things like Earl Butz laying out the paradigm change to “more food, cheaper food!” Things like anhydrous ammonia being injected into the soil, and herbicides being rained onto the soil in 90 foot swaths, all to grow more corn. Things like genuine and literal mountains of corn being shoveled into confinement animal feeding operations and sweetener factories. Things like current farmers admitting that they won’t eat their own product, and the owner of a confinement cattle feeding operation saying “if the American consumer wanted grass-fed beef, then we could and would produce it.” Things like Dr. Walter Willet of Harvard, one of the greatest nutritional researchers in the world, explaining what all this means in terms of American health. Things like small American farmers going under as their neighbors consolidate to produce more and more and yet more corn. And, tragically, things like a delivery driver talking to one of the protagonists about the ultrasweet grape soda that he drank constantly when he was growing up, and about his father‘s eventual death of diabetes. “They amputated his toes first,” the driver says, “then his foot, then his leg below the knee, then above the knee. When they started cutting on his other leg, he gave up. He died.” The driver went on to say that he himself had lost a huge amount of weight just by giving up soda. I’m a doctor and this scene made me want to cry. Currently the national cost of diabetes in the US is calculated to be a stunning 105 billion per year, a figure that becomes even more remarkable when you learn that it does not include the cost of workdays lost. The cost in human suffering and loss of lifespan and healthspan is beyond calculation.

If you wonder what any of this has to do with an urban gardening and home food production blog, I would say that it’s the backbone of what I’m talking about here all the time. It simply is not possible to grow or make at home anything that is as unhealthy as most of what is sold to you in stores and restaurants. I seldom venture into large grocery stores these days, but when I do, what I see is aisle after aisle of things that are not really food. Don’t eat this stuff.  Bushels of money are being made out of messing up your health. Grow something, cook it, and eat it, or buy it directly from the person who grew it.  Take an interest in the health of the soil right around your own house. Take to heart the interview clips in King Corn that show Michael Pollan sitting and talking to the interviewer with his home garden in the background, Tuscan kale prominent.  Plant one little plot of kale, cook it six or seven different ways, and see what you like.  Use the fall and winter to start planning a small garden for spring. Find three recipes for leafy greens that you really enjoy, and make them often. Serve them to your family and friends.  This is not just a fun and loving but a subversive act.   Almost everything in our corporate food culture is designed to get you to eat things that are not good for you. There are corporations that exist to make a mint at the cost of your health,  and then other corporations that make further fortunes by making pharmaceuticals to treat your food induced health conditions and allow you to continue eating swill, but you are smart and wily and you are going to begin fighting back.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Watched this one years ago, and still vividly remember many scenes from it. As growers of certified organic agricultural product, we were also intrigued by the economic deficiency the government perpetuates in certain crops. If you remember when they added up the costs and income for their corn crop, they were in a deficit until they got government subsidy! We don’t get that kind of subsidy, and wouldn’t accept it if we could. We believe in free market. This point was very helpful to us in understanding why prices varied so much between quality levels of produce. What was your take on that?

    Reply

    • Posted by wooddogs3 on October 20, 2017 at 9:52 am

      I was rather horrified by that scene and didn’t quite know what to say. I am well aware that the farm subsidy program originally existed to ensure a steady food supply and protect farmers from market and weather fluctuations that could put them out of business, but it has become something so destructive to American health (by subsidizing the production of those foods which are worst for us and making them cheap) that only a complete return to its original mission could help. I admire your family’s stance immensely, and feel good for everyone who can buy good organic food from you.
      Personally, I would be thrilled if some of my taxes went to subsidies for growing healthy food and getting it to lower-income people affordably. A nice subsidy to help large farms convert to low-till or no-till methods would save millions of bushels of our topsoil. A subsidy for beef finished on range, with no corn, would help ranchers maintain their grasslands which are an excellent place to sequester carbon and keep it in the soil. And a subsidy for growing organic vegetables and donating them to schools, nursing homes, shelters, etc. would help our most vulnerable citizens. But when agricultural subsidies are used to increase our national diabetes rate and feed patients to Big Pharma, I am not on board, and that is exactly what is happening.

      Reply

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