Hazards of a Corn-Based Diet

When filmmakers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney, both 23, started making their documentary "King Corn" four years ago, they didn't know much about corn. But they knew they were eating way too much of it. Corn syrup sweetens everything from soda to cookies and ketchup. Americans consumed a staggering 62.6 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per person in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that doesn't count the corn we get indirectly when we eat corn-fed beef. To get a sense of how much corn they were ingesting personally, Ellis and Cheney had their hair analyzed and learned that the high carbon content found in their hair (over 50 percent) was coming from corn.

So with an initial $5,000 in hand from Ellis's 43-year-old cousin, filmmaker Aaron Woolf, the two decided to find out how all that corn was getting into their hair—and their bodies. The aim: to track that corn from kernel to market to our tables. The trail took them all over the country. They spoke with manufacturers, cattle farmers and a Brooklyn taxi driver with diabetes. A bemused Iowa farmer even agreed to let them use one acre of his land for one year to plant corn.

The film, to be released in select cities in November and December, is sympathetic to corn farmers who are dependent on the crop but raises more than a few controversial points about the industry. For example, the filmmakers contend that cattle consume 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States, to combat the high acidity of their corn-based diet. (The theory is that the acid erodes their stomachs, which are designed for grass.) At a minimum, Ellis and Cheney hope that the film will inspire Americans to pay more attention to the ongoing Farm Bill debate in Congress. This year health advocates are vigorously contesting subsidies going to corn producers. They say that making corn syrup cheaper keeps fattening soda and junk-food prices low, which only exacerbates the nation's obesity problem. NEWSWEEK's Sally Lynch caught up with Woolf and Ellis, who are on the road premiering "King Corn," and talked to them about their love-hate relationship with this all-American crop. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What inspired you to make this film?
Curt Ellis: I think people our age want some deeper connection to where their food comes from. I have a lot of friends who have a romanticized idea about what it is to be a farmer. Many want to become farmers themselves. And we had no idea what it actually is like to be a farmer today.

How does your style differ from, say, Michael Moore's style of documentary?
Aaron Woolf: Even though Michael Moore paved the way for [this kind of] documentary, and we are indebted to him and others, I wanted to tell a gentler story. This is about shared investment and blame … It was amazing to me that even the farmers didn't know where their corn was going. There is a level of disconnect. The farmers are not given a choice. They can only grow one type of crop because of the way the infrastructure is set up. I really think that farmers yearn for that connection to where their food goes, and on the flip-side Americans yearn to know where their food comes from.

You're promoting the film in Iowa. Isn't that a bit risky, since it could be seen as critical of the corn industry?
Woolf: I was nervous, because they are pretty thin-skinned about corn around here. But it has been so well received … I am so excited because I think one of the greatest roles of this documentary is that it fills the middle ground between policy, societal decisions and individual lives. The film shows the human element of farming and how policy directly affects the people.

Were the farmers welcoming during filming?
Woolf: There is suspicion in America toward filmmakers. But the farmers were quite open, especially because of the family connection. We had no idea that Curt [and Ian both] had past relatives who were Iowa farmers. I think that connection gave us an in with the farmers and a perspective that we wouldn't have had. I think also with the earnestness of the project and because we had no agenda, people were more open.

What surprised you most about the industry?
Woolf: It was no surprise that all of our food is made of the same thing [corn], from McDonald's to Pizza Hut, because it all tastes the same and is nutritionally empty. One of the sad ironies is that in the [regions] that grow our food, it is hard to find good, nutritional things to eat. The farmers are not eating what they are growing, right off the farm.

Ellis: Before we began the film, I imagined the farm to be something with a red barn with cows, a family operation. And it is actually something quite different. The challenge has little to do with hard physical work and digging in the dirt. Instead farmers are challenged by navigating the complexities of government subsidies and tracking grain prices on the Internet … Before we left [for Iowa], Ian received a pair of work gloves from a friend with a cheesy note saying how jealous he was that we were going to be working hard on a farm. What surprised him the most was that we didn't use them once.

What are you working on next?
Ellis: Ian and I have an ongoing passion about knowing what goes into making our food. For the next month [we] are taking the "King Corn Challenge"LINKhttp://www.kingcorn.net/ and eating nothing with corn in it. Only milk and meat from grass-fed cattle and nothing sweetened with corn. It is extremely hard. Corn is in everything. My next challenge is finding ingredients that don't contain corn to make a pecan pie for Thanksgiving.