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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post Beth, and a thought provoking NYT article...