Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Age of Plenty - Review of documentary film "King Corn"

Tonight I watched Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis' first feature documentary, King Corn, which records their year spent in Greene, Iowa, growing one acre of corn. This turned out to be a thorough investigation not only of modern industrial corn farming, but also industrial beef feed lots, American agriculture subsidies, the high-fructose corn syrup industry, and the health crises caused by our national diet (specifically obesity and diabetes). The filmmakers do a nice job of tying together all these various causes and effects. As one of the experts interviewed for the film put it, "the subsidy system that rewards the overproduction of cheap corn makes the raw material available for an overweight society. We subsidize the happy meals but we don’t subsidize the healthy ones."

Cheap food was the goal of agriculture policies put in place in 1973 by Secretary of Agriculture Earl L. Butz, who today sees his program as an unqualified success. He refers to "the age of plenty" (today's world) in which food costs us about half of what it did in the first half of the century.

Cheney and Ellis' film was inspired by Michael Pollan's work, and Pollan himself appears in the film being interviewed about corn and beef. I was pleased to see him, as I am also a huge fan of Michael Pollan. A few years back Pollan undertook the same sort of agricultural experiment represented in King Corn by purchasing a steer and following it from feed lot to dining table; his experience is described in the essay "Power Steer," New York Times, March 31, 2002. That essay made an enormous impression on me. I was already a vegetarian (moreso than I am today, in fact), but Pollan revealed in that article that more than half of the antibiotics consumed in this country are fed to cattle, and why (a fact also explained in King Corn). Pollan also revealed the connection between high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and obesity, and it makes sense: cattle are fed corn to fatten them up more quickly, so it makes sense that this insidious sweetener can't be good for us humans. I have tried to avoid HFCS since reading that article in 2002.

Pollan is the author of a number of books on food, including The Botany of Desire (2002), The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), and In Defense of Food (2008). He has also been a contributing writer for the New York Times since at least 1998; for a sample of his work see "When a Crop Become King," New York Times, July 19, 2002; "Our National Eating Disorder," New York Times, October 17, 2004; "The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," NYT March 26, 2006; "Mass Natural," NYT June 4, 2006; "The Vegetable-Industrial Complex," NYT October 15, 2006; and "Unhappy Meals," NYT January 28, 2007. Or search the New York Times website under his name and you will come up with dozens more essays and articles.

I didn't intend to write a post about Michael Pollan, but rather Cheney & Ellis's film King Corn. However, the debt that the latter owes to the former is phenomenal. Nonetheless, they interview a large number of "experts" on various subjects, all of whom contribute significantly to our deeper understanding of these complex issues. Following are some of the ideas and facts that emerge in the film:

  • “America’s favorite meat is ground beef, hamburger meat. Hamburger meat is really not meat, but it’s rather fat disguised as meat. It contains 65 percent of its calories by energy as fat.” - Loren Cordain, University of California. (A grain-fed steak contains 9 grams of saturated fat compared with 1.3 grams in grass-fed beef.)
  • If you were born in the last 30 years in America, chances are you’ve only ever tasted corn-fed beef.
  • In the last 30 years, America’s consumption of table sugar has fallen, but our overall consumption of sweeteners has gone up more than 30 percent, largely because of a dramatic increase in our consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Drinking one soda per day almost doubled the risk of developing Type II diabetes compared with drinking it only occasionally or not at all.
  • The agriculture our great-grandparents had helped build is now growing fast food.
  • “It [the corn in Iowa] has been selected for high productivity. This means a high-value starch production. Well you never get something for nothing in the world of biophysics, and what you give up in the bargain is nutritional value.” -- Ricardo Salvador, Iowa State University
  • “Most of what we’ve done in agricultural so-called improvements and in food processing have actually degraded our food supply from a nutritional standpoint.” -- Walter Willet, Harvard University

Friday, August 15, 2008

Dinosaur World, Cave City, Kentucky

Cave City, Kentucky, about 90 miles south of Louisville, exists primarily to support the tourist industry surrounding Mammoth Cave National Park, home to the longest cave system in the world. It’s not the huge tourist trap one might expect, unlike, say, Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri (a.k.a. “the redneck riviera”). And the one major tourist attraction we visited turned out to be a lucky find for the three-year-old crowd: Dinosaur World.

Funnily enough, my son independently came up with the idea that he wanted to visit a “dinosaur land” two months ago, and it was by sheer luck that we found one, having already planned a family reunion in Mammoth Cave. Dinosaur world boasts of 100 life-size, paleontologically correct dinosaur replicas, and it turned out to be educational but also fun. These prehistoric beasts are arranged among a beautiful forested parkland, which is pleasant enough in itself. Each species of dinosaurs – represented by two or more specimens – is accompanied by a paragraph or so of information about the animals’ diet (carnivore or herbivore), its social structure (living in groups or not), and its geographic extent. There were also some non-dinosaur species, such as pterodactyls, and even some woolly mammoths (which lived much later than dinosaurs and were contemporary with early humans).

Some of the dinosaurs were arranged in family groups – mother and father with two babies – in anthropomorphized, gender-specific roles. At one vista point in the park you can see a very large life-size diorama with half a dozen dinosaur species; the triceratops adults are arranged in a circle to protect their young from the threatening T. Rex, while brachiosaurs off in the distance tower above the trees.

My husband reminded me that the first such dinosaur park in modern history was built for the Crystal Palace after it was re-erected in Sydenham in 1854 as a permanent exhibition space. Outside the building, a display of life-size models of the "Extinct Animals" or "Antediluvian Creatures" were exhibited on islands arranged within a lake. England’s contribution to dinosaur park history is not surprising since early dinosaur discoveries were made in England. (Last summer we made a pilgrimage to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, England, home of Mary Anning, the first female dinosaur hunter.)

The Dinosaur World in Cave City is a little pricey, but if you are travelling with a child who’s into dinosaurs it’s well worth the price. In addition to the life-size dinosaurs there’s a dinosaur movie, the obligatory playground, a large sandbox with “dinosaur bones” to be excavated, and even a “fossil dig” in which kids can unearth several dozen fossils and get to keep their favorites. These are real fossils – my son found tiny ammonites, shark teeth, crinoid stems, sea urchins, brachiopods, and other specimen types.

Dinosaur World provides the perfect antidote to the infamous Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which seeks to refute all scientific evidence for Darwinian evolution, and argues that the earth is no more than a few thousand years old. As a Kentucky native I am frankly embarrassed that my state gave rise to such a ludicrous institution. Happily, Dinosaur World was full of young Southerners who took no issue with the idea that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago and that their existence can be proven by scientific evidence. That’s an institution worth supporting.