King Corn Is the Only Food Film You Need

This classic about the triumph and tragedy of our modern food system is the antidote to overheated docs like What the Health and GMO OMG.
  • Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the duo behind the 2008 PBS documentary, King Corn. (Photo: Mosaic Features).
    Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the duo behind the 2008 PBS documentary, King Corn. (Photo: Mosaic Features).
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    King Corn
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    I have more than my share of conversations these days about eating. They usually begin when the other person finds out I’ve sworn off all animal foods. (Old joke: How can you tell the vegan in the room? Answer: Oh don’t worry, he’ll tell you.) The first question I’m asked is where do I get my protein from. The second question is what I thought of ... followed by the name of one of the popular shock movies about food that they watched on Netflix.

    Ah, foodie shock. Upton Sinclair once said that his 1905 novel The Jungle, which described the goings-on inside Chicago’s slaughterhouses in nauseating detail, was “aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit its stomach.” In trying to call attention to the plight of the working men who risked their lives inside those packing plants, Sinclair inadvertently tipped readers to the risks they were taking every time they visited the butcher.

    Ever since then, health activists have been taking dead aim at the public’s stomach. My local newspaper won a Pulitzer in the 1990s for reporting on shoddy USDA inspection practices that were literally making people sick. Later, Eric Schlosser’s eye-opening book Fast Food Nation took the conversation outside the American kitchen and into America’s kitchen: McDonald’s, KFC, and all the other places we meet to eat our meat.

    Then came YouTube, where millions watched graphic hidden-camera videos from animal-rights groups, documenting the horrific conditions inside chicken farms and feedlots. And now we have Netflix and the other producers of dramatically-scored documentaries that highlight not only the conditions in factory farms but the health risks of GMO grains, the impact of meat consumption on global warming, and much more. 

    I’m of two minds on these programs. On the one hand, their creators have something vitally important to say about one of the most urgent issues of our time. Simply put, we are what we eat, and by almost all statistical measures we humans are less healthy than we were a generation ago. And so is our planet. Of all the possible causes for that, our Western, meat-and-dairy-filled diet is the one we seem to talk about the least. So I think: Good on these folks for raising the issue.

    But that thought is almost immediately counteracted by another one: Stop scaring people! Seriously, I feel like we’ve reached a point in video culture where everyone is dropping F-bombs and warning of Armageddon and, like the car alarms in Calvin Trillin’s neighborhood, people have begun tuning it all out.

    The widely-watched Netflix doc What the Health suggests that serving eggs to your children is the equivalent of serving them fried cigarettes. Another film, GMO OMG, put an actor in a hazmat suit to dramatize the perils of walking through a modern cornfield. (A walkie-talkie would be more useful, in case he got lost.)

    The problem with such attention-grabbing claims is that they can be easily challenged, which renders the whole film suspicious to those same evidence-based viewers the filmmakers are presumably trying to reach. Extremism in the pursuit of virtue is, in this case, a vice. There’s no point in “starting a debate” on veganism if half of that debate is spent arguing over a scene that any YouTuber can poke holes in, to say nothing of real journalists.

    So in today’s edition of The Overlooked, I’m taking a fresh look at a classic PBS documentary that used its indoor voice to warn the public about the problems with our food system and the Western diet that created it (or vice versa).

    King Corn is about two guys who spend a year in Iowa raising corn. It’s the film version of slow food, with a highly satisfying payoff if you watch it all the way through. 

    It’s also a solid piece of embedded journalism. Though new facts have been reported since King Corn aired in 2008, it remains the best documentary I’ve seen about the agricultural system that’s responsible for almost everything in your fridge and your cupboards ... and your gut … and your hair.

    Which brings us to the opening scene of King Corn. Ian and Curt, friends in their 20s, are visiting a university lab to have their hair tested. They’re told it’s the best way to measure what they’re made of, and the lab delivers a simple, unambiguous result: They are made from corn. Not the sweet corn you buy in stores, a university scientist tells them, but a single variety of industrial corn “that goes into the food we use ubiquitously.”

    Professor Steve Macko shares the results of Ian and Curt's hair tests in this image from <i>King Corn</i>.

    Even in 2008 this was common knowledge. Meat, juices, pop, cookies, crackers, bread ... if they come from the supermarket, they come from corn. But where does the corn come from? Well, Iowa, of course. So Curt and Ian decide to move there and grow ... one acre of corn, on land they rent from a bemused farmer. When they put their crop in — or rather, when a neighbor’s planter puts it in — the job takes all of 18 minutes.

    While waiting several months for the harvest, Ian and Curt visit feedlots, try their hand at brewing high-fructose corn syrup, and eat a lot of cheeseburgers. They drive around Floyd County (where they both have ancestral ties) and learn the history of modern agriculture through the locals who’ve lived it. 

    Michael Pollan pops up now and then, which is odd since he’s in California, but who else talks about food the way he does? Corn “is kind of an urban creature,” Pollan says, that “lives in these cities of corn.” Indeed, Ian and Curt’s little tract of land houses 31,000 kernels, or twice the amount that would have been planted here a generation ago, which in turn was twice as dense a field of corn as was possible in the generation before that.

    Pollan predicts that the filmmakers will be hauling about 10,000 pounds of corn to market. “Five tons of food from one acre of land!” he says, genuine admiration in his voice. “An amazing amount of food!”

    There’s a wonderful meditative quality to the film — big wide shots introducing the months of the year, celebrations of small town life and the farming lifestyle, the trancelike state one can easily fall into watching amber (or green) waves of grain. 

    But there are signs that things aren’t quite right. Fourth-generation farmers admitting they grow “crap,” fifth-generation farmers struggling to make ends meet despite a bevy of government subsidies, small towns getting smaller even as their mountains of grain get bigger and bigger.

    With an assist from his uncle Bruce, Ian Cheney inspects his summer crop in this image from <i>King Corn</i>.

    Some of King Corn is out of date, as when ethanol and grass-fed beef are discussed as environmentally friendly alternatives to using corn for food. In other ways it’s ahead of its time. Curt and Ian are unsettled to learn their acre is being planted with a new kind of seed called LibertyLink that will resist the showers of herbicide dumped on it throughout the summer. LibertyLink is, of course, the precursor to the Roundup-Ready seed that will soon conquer the heartland and has now resulted in thousands of lawsuits against its manufacturer Monsanto. 

    In its closing minutes, King Corn asks some hard questions about what kind of food system we are bequeathing our children. The reason this film holds up so well, as opposed to Food Inc., Bowling for Columbine and most other docs of the Bush era, is that the three principals (Curt Ellis, Ian Cheney, and director Aaron Woolf) have told a timeless story, as intimated in the film’s title. King Corn is American agriculture as Shakespearean tragedy: so much abundance, so many triumphs, and in the end, poignant questions about inheritance and whether any of it amounted to a hill of soybeans.  

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: PBS, King Corn, Documentaries