May 1, 2008, Bridgeport News

Filmmaker critical of corn’s role in U.S.

By Brad Durrell

One of the producers of a documentary film on the influential role of corn in the American diet thinks people have the power to change their eating habits.

“It really is up to us to decide what we put in our mouths,” said Ian Cheney, a Yale University graduate who helped produce and co-starred in the film “King Corn” with his college friend, Curt Ellis.

The 80-minute film recently was shown at Housatonic Community College, where Cheney also answered audience questions and discussed what it was like to make the movie.

“King Corn” follows Cheney and Ellis as they decide to plant an acre of corn in a small town in Iowa, where both their great-grandfathers once had lived. It highlights how the government heavily subsidies the crop and how corn now shows up in most convenience foods, such as soda, snack chips and — through what cattle are fed — McDonald’s hamburgers.

In fact, the two decide to look into the corn industry after a scientific test reveals they both have a lot of corn in their bodies.
The film implies the mass production of high fructose corn syrup — a sweetener often used instead of sugar — beginning in the 1970s may be a major factor in the country’s growing obesity rate, leading to the potential for shorter life spans.

Little of the corn grown in this country actually gets eaten as corn, despite all the nostalgia about rural farm stands and eating corn on the cob at picnics. Most is “commodity” corn — inedible unless processed, and used for cattle feed or turned into the syrup sweetener or ethanol, an alternative fuel.

Most cattle now eat lots of corn products and are confined to feeding lots, instead of eating grass and living in fields, so they get fat quicker and can be slaughtered sooner.

Grow more, get paid more

Corn is the most subsidized crop in the United States, and family farmers are being replaced by mega-operations that want those subsidies. This approach has led to cheap, but less nutritious, food on the American table.

The U.S. corn crop has increased drastically in recent decades because of modern equipment, fertilizers and the subsidies.
The producers conclude the current system rewards the overproduction of corn, creating an ever-expanding market for its uses.
“The more corn you grow, the more money you get,” states the film.

Loretha Dobbins of Bridgeport, who watched “King Corn,” said she found the film informative and troublesome.
“I liked that he provided information to the community on what we could do to change our lives,” Dobbins said of Cheney.
She also was impressed he took the time to answer student inquiries.

David Koch, a Housatonic history instructor, said before the screening that the two Yale students “became very interested in how our food goes from farm to our table.”

Cheney had studied forest management at Yale but decided to go another direction upon graduation. “We just followed, pretty relentlessly, the story that interested us,” he said, explaining how the film got made.

“King Corn” took four years to finish and cost about $500,000.

Cheney now is making a film about the construction of an environmentally friendly building in South Boston, where he lives.

Changing the system

Cheney said Americans have power as consumers, and he urged them to tell food stores they want healthier options. “As citizens, we can change the food system infrastructure,” he said.

He said people can eat locally grown organic foods, although he admitted that isn’t always easy. “We like eating cheap, sweet products because it’s everywhere, and it tastes kind of good,” Cheney said. “It’s what is available.”

He also suggested people could grow more of their own food, in back yards, community garden plots and even on rooftops.
The farm bill should be altered to eliminate corn subsidies, according to Cheney. “It does make me a little peeved to pay for essentially nutrition-less crops,” he said.

In fact, he said processed food isn’t as inexpensive as believed because of high energy and transportation costs. “We also end up paying for that cheap food through our health-care system,” he said.

Making the film has changed his eating habits, Cheney said. He now drinks less soda, tries to avoid fast-food establishments and won’t eat mass-produced meats.

He said how cattle, chickens and other meat-producing animals are raised “kind of turns your stomach” because they spend their lives in a cage or other confined area. “Many of us have grown up never tasting a real chicken,” said Cheney, referring to poultry not raised in large indoor facilities.

Cheney warned powerful interests want to keep the generous farm subsidies, even though they conflict with other government efforts to improve people’s health. “We don’t pay attention to the farm bill, but it affects what food we have at the corner store,” he said.