United States of Corn

"From the corn syrup in your soda pop to the corn starch that makes your paper more printable -- corn is all around you!"

-- Iowa Corn Growers Association Web site

It also happens to be in your hair. That's what filmmakers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney find out when they have their hair analyzed for carbon isotopes at a University of Virginia lab. The results: Their hair is loaded with the stuff. This startling discovery sets the stage for a year-long corn-growing experiment in Iowa and the raison d'etre for their documentary, "King Corn."

Best friends at Yale (class of 2002), Cheney and Ellis -- along with Ellis's cousin, documentary filmmaker Aaron Woolf, who directs the film -- moved to Greene, Iowa in 2004 and chronicled their adventures of growing a leased acre of corn in the middle of the corn kingdom. (To wit: in 2005, Iowa farmers grew 2.2 billion bushels.)

With zero knowledge about industrial farming, the duo find a mentor in their landlord -- farmer Chuck Pyatt. They learn firsthand the nuts and bolts of growing commodity corn, which has nothing to do with taste and everything to do with yield, yield, yield. In fact, nearly all of the corn grown in Iowa is unfit for human consumption, including the acre of GMO-kernels grown by Cheney and Ellis. There's a memorable exchange between the guys and farmer Don Clikeman, who in response to their concern about how to harvest their crop says: "You should be. We're not growing quality; we're growing crap!"

But you, the viewer, are right there with the guys as they eat their field corn in disgust, as they apply for government subsidies and select herbicides, as they scratch their heads and try to make sense of how deep in corn we are. It is a touching crusade of curiosity, one that makes you laugh and well, shake in your boots.

The reason why corn carbon is showing up in our nation's hair is because corn is in practically everything we eat. Take a stroll through any big supermarket, like Cheney and Ellis do at the beginning of the film, and you'll notice how much of our jarred, bottled, boxed and canned food -- apple juice, soda, chips, cookies, ice cream, salad dressing -- is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS); it's no surprise that annual per capita consumption of HCFS has skyrocketed from less than one pound in 1970 to 60.9 pounds in 2003 (USDA statistics).

But the corn doesn't stop at sweetener. It's feeding cattle, pigs and chicken and some farmed fish. Using Iowa as an example, here's a peek at how a bushel of field corn gets morphed, according to the Iowa Corn Grower's Association: "Most of Iowa 's corn crop goes into animal feed. In livestock feeding, one bushel of corn converts to about 5.6 pounds of retail beef, 13 pounds of retail pork, 28 pounds of catfish, or 32 pounds of chicken."

So, as you can see, it's not all about the food y'all; it's all about the corn. In fact, 90.5 million acres of corn were planted this year, the highest amount of corn acreage in the United States since 1944, when 95.5 million acres of corn were planted. (Can anyone help me figure out how many ears of corn that is?)

The movie, which opened earlier this year at South by Southwest in Austin, Tex., opens in D.C. today at the E Street Cinema. The timing is impeccable, as the Senate prepares for markup of its version of the 2007 Farm Bill next week. (Earlier this week, Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer hosted a screening of the film to drum up some interest. )

Meanwhile Woolf, while promoting the movie, is busy opening a grocery store in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, with an emphasis on sustainable and local goodies. He is part owner of a Brooklyn restaurant called Lodge.

VIDEO | 'King Corn'

By Kim ODonnel |  October 19, 2007; 7:33 AM ET Food Politics
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To heck with how many ears, can someone please explain to me why we grew more corn in 1944 than we do now? I'm thinking it must have been related to the war effort.... I can't imagine that corn was used for more foodstuff at the time. It seems to go into just about everything (including animal feed) these days. I know when I grew up working farms on the Iowa border, just about every animal ate mostly corn.

Posted by: jchj | October 19, 2007 1:45 PM

The article says more acres were planted in 1944, not that more corn was grown; I imagine that the yield per acre planted has increased considerably since then and that we're using much more corn from the same acreage.

Posted by: e.s. | October 19, 2007 2:20 PM

There's nothing like the smell of a corn field in late summer just as the sun is going down. One of my favorite places to be, ever.

Posted by: Orange Line | October 19, 2007 2:43 PM

Here's another corn-related documentary (who knew it was a whole sub-genre):


"How do you illustrate the vision at the center of Milford Beeghly's career a man for whom hybrid corn represented the cause of a lifetime? Dancing ears of corn, snippets of old commercials, and visual meditations on the rich Midwest farmland that nurtured Beeghly's faith in the miracles of hybridization are among the creative ways chosen by the maker of the new film, "Hybrid, " to bring the laconic Beeghly's worldview to life...."

Posted by: Amanda | October 19, 2007 7:01 PM

I have heard figures that the average vegetarian eats about 1/20th of the food of the average non-vegetarian, when you take into account the feed for the animals needed to get just a small amount of meat. I would be interested to know if the documentary mentioned something to this effecct?

Posted by: Anonymous | October 21, 2007 9:50 AM

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