The Documentary King Corn
The Documentary ‘King Corn’ is an intersting and entertaining account that examines the impact of the corn industry on food production in America. The film follows Curtis Ellis and Ian Cheney, two recent university graduates who set out to study the overwhelming influence that industrial corn has on the varieties of foods that America consumes each year. The concept of the film is introduced when Curt and Ian have samples of their hair examined, and are surprised to find out that the large amounts of carbon found in the samples originates from ingesting corn products.
Many people including myself, would likely be shocked upon hearing this fact, based on the traditional concept of corn; being the small yellow vegatable enjoyed on occasion at most. Sharing this viewpoint, the boys become interested in finding out for themselves why it appears that they are eating so much corn; and hence the topic of the documentary. They decide the best plan of action is to travel to Greene, Iowa, and grow 1 achre of corn to establish how this plant is transformed into so many of the foods that we each. This critique aims to examine some of their findings and discuss the influence and credibility of their arguments.
In short, the issue the film addresses is the overwhelming reliance that the American food industry has on the growth and production of corn and its various bi-products. From first glance, many may inturpret this issue as not being a huge problem; after all, when I think of corn, I think of a vegetable. There are certainly other ingredients that would appear to be much more detremental to the health of consuming citizens. But as the film progresses, the viewer learns that the type of corn and it’s bi-products being considered, is far from the conventional concept.
While in Iowa, Curt and Ian learn from local farmers, professors and other stakeholders within the industry that the corn they are producing will be used for a variety of purposes, two of the main ones being feed for cattle, and high-fructose corn syrup. As their tiny achre grows, they set out to research the implications of using the corn based products for these purposes. Generally, the documentary took the position that current usage of these products in the food industry promotes a variety of health issues, which will be discussed further in this paper.
The corn industry has evolved significantly over the past several decades, not only due to technological advancement, but also the types of corn grown, and purposes that it will serve. The latter cause being fuelled exclusively by the changes in consumer demand, specifically referencing the food industry. This type of industry is largely driven by situations where there is high buyer power; that is, food companies produce the types of food that the consumer wants to eat, rather than what the company wants to produce.
As commonly known, several businesses especially in the fast food industry, do not operate on the basis of providing healthy options for consumers to enjoy. Rather, they aim to offer cheap food that consumers want to have. In my opinion, this concept outlines a large point being made by the film; the fact that consumer demand has driven the corn industry (and thus the food industry) to evolve over the past several years into its current state. The bottom line of this argument is that corn is being used in the massive quantities we know of for the very simple reason that is it cheap.
To illustrate this point, I will focus on the two main bi-prodcuts of corn that were examined during the film. First, high-fructose corn syrup is used as a sweetner for products ranging anywhere from soft drinks to pasta sauce. In reality, ingesting too much of this sweetner can be very hazourdous to someone’s health, and too much of the product can cause certains conditions such as obeisity and diabetes. This corn syrup has stolen a huge market share from conventional sugar over the last few decades, for no other reason aside from the fact that it is a cheaper alternative, and thus more appealing for businesses to use.
As Curt and Ian prove in the film, almost anything processed food imaginable contains at least some quantity of this high fructose syrup, a direct bi-product of corn. The other main product analyzed is the use of corn as animal feed, which is a large source of food for specifically chicken and cattle. These corn-fed animals are themselves processed and used to make the all-American favorite meals. It was starting to become clear to the boys, and the viewer of the film where all this corn was coming from, and offered a justification for the massive size of this industry.
During one the interviews, Curt and Ian spoke with a cattle rancher who owned a feed lot. He explained that the cows diet consisted of mainly corn because it was cheap to buy, and was successful in quickly supporting the cow into mature weight, available for slaughter. The farmer had one particularly interesting statement which captured a lot of the concept of the film, suggesting that if people wanted grass fed cows, he would raise grass fed cows. The reality is, grass fed cows are more expensive, a cost ulitmately borne by the consumer.
Although much leaner and healthier meat, grass fed cows are not raised as often as corn fed cows because it wouldn’t allow consumers to purchase their favorite fast food burgers at the same price. Even the corn farmers interviewed during the film suggested that they knew their corn was used to create unhealthy foods, but that had become the reality of the food industry. Being producers of a raw material, their livelihood relies on growing corn that the American economy demands. Throughout the film, there are several points of interest made to support the argument that corn products were used to process several health threatening products.
The filmakers chose to interview a variety of professionals, mostly university professors, which added to the credibility of of the argument being proposed. The opinion was fairly unanimous that the corn products in the United States are fuelling unhealthy diet choices, and resulting in some of the problems with obesity and other conditions that the country is dealing with. The film was successful in proving its point that the American food industry has evolved to become highly reliant on corn and it’s bi-products.
Furthermore, it was able to reliably convey the idea that the exessive consumption of these products had potentially serious health effects. Given these facts, the film is not designed to attack the corn industry, as if they are the reason for these harmful additives in the food being eaten. The onus is really on the consumer; as mentioned, the reason these unhealthy bi-products are being made is in response to the demands from American consumers, who want cheap and tasty meals. The unfortunate reality is that a large number of people fail to devote the right attention to what they are putting in their bodies.
The most surprising point in the film was definitely the scale at which the corn industry operates. It was interesting to use the boys “tiny” achre of corn as a reference point, whereas it was stated that it is not uncommon for one farmer in Iowa to manage one thousand achres of corn each harvest. The shere size of the industry reflects the huge amount of demand placed on the food industry in America every year. Personally, the lack of comparison to other countries was probably where the film lacked in reference.
It is fairly well known that the American population consumes more fast food then any other nation in the world, so it really comes as no surprise that the corn industry is as large as it is. I felt as though it would be interesting to compare the American reliance to corn and it’s bi-prodcuts to a country in Europe for example, where typically people eat healthier and less cheaply made, processed foods. Comparing another nation with the United States would suggest that American reliance on corn is not a necessity, but rather a consumer driven evolution in food choices.