Further evidence that everything is bad for you is offered by “King Corn,” which reveals how the U.S. farming staple is much more present in our diet — and having much more of an effect on our ever-expanding national waistline — than consumers realize. No doubt inspired to some degree by “Super Size Me,” this equally engaging, slightly better-crafted docu deftly balances humor and insight. It’s currently playing short theatrical runs around the country, with broadcast on PBS’ “Independent Lens” skedded for April.
Positioning themselves, a la Morgan Spurlock, as the stars and subjects (though to less physically self-destructive ends) of an experiment they’ve devised, former college buds Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis are genial East Coasters who find themselves deep in the Corn Belt. They’ve chosen Greene, Iowa, pop. 1015, as their site because wholly by coincidence, both have ancestors who were farmers there a century or so ago.
Their mission is simple, on the surface: to plant one acre of corn on a local farmer’s much larger property, then follow it through the year to harvesting and beyond. The point is less simple: They’ve heard their young generation might be the first American one with a shorter lifespan than the one before it, for largely nutrition-based reasons. They’ve also had their hair follicles lab-analyzed, revealing that they are (of course) carbon-based beings — and that, like most Americans now, carbon is pretty much corn-based. They are what we eat.
Trouble is, the vast majority of corn grown since production/demand shift in the 1970s isn’t the edible “on the cob” kind, but “commercial corn,” grown from genetically modified seeds that result in gargantuan yield. As various experts inform our guides, it’s largely turned into ethanol, livestock feed and artificial sweeteners.
Where once animals destined to become meat lived on grass, now they are fattened up on corn feed and kept largely immobile — a combo that inevitably leads to health deterioration, so livestock must be slaughtered earlier. It also results in hamburger meat that one academic describes as “not really meat, but fat disguised as meat.”
Meanwhile, artificial sweeteners, which became a growth industry several decades back because they were cheaper than actual sugar, are a stealth element in America’s bad dietary habits. The principal one, high-fructose corn syrup, is a nutritionally valueless substance that turns up in everything from soda to fruit juices, bread and tomato sauce, and has a direct effect on obesity, diabetes and other woes.As they hover over their lone acre, getting some laughs from their city-boy cluelessness about farming matters, the protags also learn about myriad connected issues — for one, the government’s enormous subsidies, without which the industry wouldn’t be profitable.
Numerous other arresting factoids are delivered by helmer Aaron Woolf and collaborators in a package that’s as agreeable as it is informative. Subjects’ low-key antics, their affectionate regard for the small-town milieu, some delightful stop-motion animation and an excellent rootsy soundtrack by the WoWz all make “King Corn” go down easy, even if you might regard your burger, fries and Coke with suspicion afterward.
Handsome lensing and Jeffrey K. Miller’s sharp editing are also worthy of note.