King Corn producers and Yale graduates Ian Cheney, who's from Massachusetts, and Curtis Ellis, who's from Oregon, decided that their postcollegiate cross-country trip should include a stop in Iowa to plant an acre of corn.
Why not just eat and drink their way through diners and local bars in blissful ignorance? When you're graduating from college, you want to think that you know something about the world, says Ellis. "To realize that we knew nothing about the middle of our own country and about where the stuff that we're eating all the time comes from it seemed like something we ought to look into if we were going to keep eating this stuff."
Their movie, which comes out on DVD today, documents the guys learning how to plant corn and discovering that farm subsidies have made the crop cheap and corn by-products ubiquitous. They visit Earl Butz, the former Secretary of Agriculture who changed policy to favor overproduction of corn, and Michael Pollan makes an appearance to talk about the ramifications of such a market.
Ellis explained: "The subsidy system promotes corn production often beyond demand. The result of that is that there is a glut of corn on the market and the raw material for making all of these processed foods is incredibly cheap. The price of high-fructose corn syrup is infinitesimally small, because that corn costs so little and you can make a substance that is so sweet. So you can now have a 72-ounce soda that's a buck and you could never do that with cane sugar."
Though corn prices have risen since the two were working on their one-acre farm, Cheney said the whole system is a problem: "Cheap corn put in place a system that we're hooked on. People who raise cattle were lured in by the economic logic of feeding their cows cheap corn, and now they're dedicated to this system of raising their cattle on cheap corn. I read about one farmer in Idaho who is now feeding his cows tater tot scraps." Ellis couldnt help himself: "Its like the burger eating the French fries."
The movie's topic is perhaps even more relevant now that a food crisis is rippling across the globe.
We asked the producers a few questions before the film's premiere in October.
Have your diets changed since making King Corn?
Cheney: After visiting a confinement cattle feeding operation and then having stared at the footage for two years, it becomes pretty hard to disconnect that from your hamburger. And that is arguably what the hamburger industry thrives on no one knowing where their food comes from.
Ellis: It doesnt taste good anymore thats the worst part. Because you know what goes into a hamburger. It sucks because I used to really love hamburgers.
What eco accomplishment are you most proud of?
Ellis: Starting the recycling program in my elementary school.
Cheney: When I was in college, one of my best friends who edited the film, Jeff Miller, and I would dress up every April 15 in goofy tights and funny hats and bike around this dumpster on wheels saying hilarious things about encouraging people to recycle. And to this day I still have people tell me that when they have a can and they think about recycling it, they think about that day and laugh and enjoy recycling that much more. It was a simple message: nobody likes to be told what to do to clean up their act, but of you tell it to them in a roundabout and humorous way
Whats the one tradeoff youd rather not make no matter how good it is for the environment?
Cheney: Traveling to see wonderful parts of the world.
Ellis: My big family, my older siblings. It would be good for the environment to get rid of my five older siblings, but
Whats the one easy thing you do for the environment that you wish everyone else would do?
Cheney: I ask a lot of questions every day about where the food I eat comes from.
Ellis: Saying no to a bag when I have one item or less.
King Corn is available wherever DVDs are sold.
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