Essay On King Corn

King Corn raises disturbing questions about America’s top crop

New film highlights problems with America’s corn-based food supply

There’s an old adage that the best way to communicate a message is to show someone a problem rather than tell them about it. An excellent example is King Corn, a new documentary about the negative impacts of America’s corn-based food supply. Instead of preaching to the audience about the problems, the filmmakers simply show them in an almost understated, yet more powerful way.

The film’s premise is simple: two college friends, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, want to know how our food is produced. They discover that corn constitutes a major part of the average American diet, so they decide to grow an acre of corn in Iowa and track where the corn goes. The things they discover along the way that aren’t so appetizing: inhumane confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), heavy use of a corn sweetener that may be linked to obesity and diabetes, and vanishing family farms, among others.

King Corn is produced by Cheney, Ellis, and filmmaker Aaron Wolf who also directs.

Understated approach
There are good examples of the show versus tell approach. Ellis puts his hand into a hole in the stomach of a live cow to demonstrate the negative health impacts of feeding corn to animals. A Brooklyn taxi driver describes how he weighed 300 pounds from drinking soft drinks containing high fructose corn syrup. An auction is held to sell off the farm and possessions of the Iowa farmer who befriends Cheney and Ellis and allows them to grow an acre of corn on his farmland.

The film follows Cheney and Ellis over an 18-month period starting in January 2004. They write to Charles Pyatt, a farmer in Greene, Iowa (population 1015), asking if they can plant an acre of corn on his farm. The two travel to Iowa and meet with Pyatt to plan their corn acre.

The film shows the month-to-month progress of Cheney and Ellis’s corn acre, from spring planting through fall harvest. The two did all the work with help from local farmers, driving tractors, spraying anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, planting seeds, spraying herbicides, and harvesting and delivering the corn to the local grain elevator.

Sympathetic to Iowa farm culture
A film about corn made by East Coast filmmakers could have easily been condescending toward Iowans, but King Corn is respectful and sympathetic to Iowa’s farmers and the challenges they face.

There are interviews with farmers and family members who express concerns about modern industrial agriculture. Rich Johnson, a farmer who runs several large farms in the area, says, “Farms are getting bigger and have to be a good size or you get squeezed out.”

The film is a coming home of sorts for both Cheney and Ellis. By an interesting coincidence, both have ancestors in Greene. Their great grandfathers, Claire Eugene Cheney and Melvin Ellis, grew up in the area and worked in agriculture. “It’s a coincidence that we became friends and that our ancestors came from this tiny Iowa town,” says Ellis.

The film provides an interesting history of how corn became king in American agriculture. It shows how US Agricultural Secretary Earl Butz under Richard Nixon changed US farm policy to one based on increased production, planting corn “fence row to fence row.”

Cheney and Ellis visit cattle ranchers and large feedlots in Colorado where cattle are raised on a corn-based diet and confined in small pens. They travel to Brooklyn and meet Trey Mendez, a taxi driver, who describes his problems with obesity and diabetes from drinking too many soft drinks. They meet university experts in grain and cattle production, such as Loren Cordain at the University of Colorado who says that a steak from a corn-fed cow contains 9 grams of saturated fat compared to the 1.5 grams from a steak of a grass-fed cow. Finally, they meet an elderly Earl Butz who remains convinced that his policy shift in the 1970s was for the best.

The film adds humor to lighten a heavy topic. After being denied access to corn refining plants that make high fructose corn syrup, the two decide to make it themselves in a kitchen. “It tastes great,” says Cheney, spitting the homemade syrup out. They both sample an ear of corn from their acre. “It’s disgusting,” says Ellis.

Raises questions
We learn along with Cheney and Ellis about the problems with America’s corn-based agriculture. “We live in a time when abundance brings too much,” says Cheney.

Ellis says, “Agriculture is growing fast food.”

The film leaves the audience to question America’s annual, massive corn harvest, which reached 92 million acres in 2007. Why are we growing so much corn? Why is it so heavily subsidized by the government? Why are we producing so much high fructose corn syrup if it increases the risk of obesity and diabetes? Why are we feeding cows and other animals corn if it makes them ill and produces less than healthy meat products for humans?

By shedding light on the questionable practices of America’s corn-based food and feed supply, King Corn could help become a catalyst for positive changes in US agriculture.

For more information about King Corn, visit

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report March 2008.


All right, folks, were going to start today by breaking the rule about eating in class. Id like you to take all of your snacks, drinks, gum, mints, and any other food in your backpacks and pile it up on your desk. If you dont have any food with you today, borrow something from a neighbor. Start reading through the ingredients and looking for corn. How much corn do you think we have in the room today? Any guesses?

I have the good fortune of planning my 9th-grade global studies curriculum with my colleague Julie ONeill. We decided to start class with this food from your backpack activity as an introduction to the documentary film King Corn. Recent advertising campaigns against high-fructose corn syrup have helped to make some students more aware of how pervasively that ingredient is used in processed foods, but we were hoping to show just how creative industrial food producers have been at incorporating Americas largest crop into the snack food that students eat every day.

We projected a list of commonly included ingredients that are likely to be made from corn (including such unlikely suspects as caramel, dextrose, sorbitol, food starch, and xanthan gum), and then asked students to guess what percentage of their foods were made of corn. Although the accuracy of their estimates was questionable (ranging from zero to 90 percent), the exercise gave students a way to immediately connect to the film, which opens with the two filmmakers undergoing isotopic hair analysis to see how much corn they are made of. When Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney are told by Stephen Macko, University of Virginia professor of environmental science, that more than 50 percent of the carbon atoms in their bodies are composed of corn, our students seemed to share the shock that Ellis and Cheney display in the film.

Our goals in showing the film extended beyond raising awareness about the foods that our students eat. Our food curriculum focuses on choice: the extent to which we do or dont have true choices about the food we eat, and what that means for people and the environment. In part, we want to confront the narrative of the all-powerful consumer that looms so large in American culture: the idea that we are all in control of our diets, health, and happiness through the decisions we make in the marketplace. Without stripping power and agency from students, we want to show that most of us dont have as much choice as we perceive about the food that we eat. This is especially important when we talk with students about solutions to the social and environmental problems we discuss over the course of our food unittheir natural first reaction is often to focus on making better individual food choices.

In fact, for the last six years, Ive created units on the politics of food for almost every social studies class Ive taughtfrom world history to economicsand Ive started each unit by asking students to think and write about this question of choice. In the discussions that follow, weve bounced from the inevitable critiques of school food to differing perspectives on how families shop, cook, and eat at home.

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