“The poorest quality crap the world has ever seen. We’re growing it today.”
2007. Unrated. Now out on DVD, also free streaming on Netflix. Directed by Aaron Woolf. Featuring Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis.
The United States has the cheapest and most secure food supply in the world, and a large reason for that is the industrialization of agriculture and technological developments in both farming equipment and in the actual crop (genetic engineering, for example) that has led to record-breaking crop yields across the board. It takes far less time and labor from fewer people to produce enough food for the country, and freeing up people to specialize in other areas has been a major driving force behind the technological advances our country has made over the past 30 years.
King Corn traces this back to the policies of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who in 1974 stopped the practice of artificially lowering the supply by paying farmers not to grow crops, and instead implemented a program of subsidizing production. Because of how easy it is to grow and ideal weather conditions in Middle America, corn became the crop of choice for many farmers looking to maximize production.
The framing device is a bit cheesy, as best friends Ian Cheney (a Chase Utley look-alike) and Curtis Ellis decide to move from New York to a small town in Iowa where their great-grandparents coincidentally both lived and raise an acre of corn. A good entire harvest back at the turn of the century was 40 bushels, and now just on one acre, the two expect somewhere around 200 bushels. What’s even more remarkable is how little effort they put in, with only a couple of steps and a lot of waiting around.
While they wait, they explain how and why corn has become the dominant crop in the country and how the surplus of cheap crops have led to its ubiquity in our culture. They visit experts in many different fields and try to answer whether the pendulum has swung too far towards production and away from quality. In trying to follow where their acre of corn will eventually end up, they track the consequences and effects of corn’s dominance in our food supply.
Director Aaron Woolf does a great job, and there are some really beautiful shots and strong cinematography all-around. The movie flows well and never loses interest. Both leads are bland, but fairly likable and do a good job of distilling fairly complicated issues down to the basics.
The framing device is very gimmicky, but the issues they end up tackling are pretty interesting — from the effects of corn-fed beef, to how corn syrup has led to the diabetes explosion. One major omission is the lack of ethanol discussion, but in their defense, it wasn’t as big an issue in 2004 as it is now, or at least I don’t remember it being one. Nevertheless, it would have been a welcome addition.
Overall King Corn is worth seeing — it’s light, entertaining fare and piqued my interest in a topic I did not know a lot about before viewing. It’s certainly not a definitive work on the subject but as a primer, it does the job.