Semi View/'King Corn' is propaganda -- and it's personal

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

I often hear people say "it's a small world." But I really don't think about it much until "that small world" comes right into my life -- and in this case my heart.

Almost seven years ago, two young men, graduates of Yale University, stopped by and spent the night at our farm.

One, Ian Cheney, we had never met before, but the other, Curt Ellis, we new fairly well -- hence the visit. We first met Curt near Portland, Ore., when he was 12 years old and gave a toast during the wedding celebration of his sister, Mary. She just happened to be marrying my younger brother, David.

Curt and Ian were traveling across the country on an "odyssey" of sorts, trying to learn more about American farming and America's food system. Curt's cousin, Aaron Woolf, is a documentary filmmaker and had agreed to do a movie on the subject. At that time they had no idea exactly what it might be about, but both of the city-raised men seemed very interested in agriculture. Curt had even spent some time working for an Amish farmer following his Yale graduation.

We didn't hear from them again directly until December 2006, when we received a DVD of "King Corn," the documentary the two had finally finished.

The film will be shown locally on April 15 on PBS' Independent Lens series.

Here is a synopsis from the film's press information:

"In King Corn, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America's most productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat -- and how we farm."

They start out the film by saying that they will not live as long as the generation before them -- because of corn. The film also states that corn -- specifically the 5 percent of America's corn made into high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) -- is the reason that diabetes and obesity in America have risen in the last 30 years.

They also focus on America's beef cattle that are fattened with corn. They imply it has been "too cheap" and "too available," because it has been subsidized. (Note: The film was finished before the current ethanol boom.)

So of course, imagine our surprise -- and hurt -- when we watched the film, which we felt was very negative to family farmers such as ourselves. I think my oldest son, still shell-shocked after watching, summed it up best.

"It's well done but ... it's so wrong."

So many of the basic facts are wrong and there are so many misstatements, including the premise of the movie itself. The film seems to ignore the fact that what we eat is a personal choice.

I, for one, have never seen a farmer or a corn plant force a Twinkie or a soda pop on unsuspecting victims.

The filmmakers also ignore the fact that obesity and diabetes has also risen dramatically in Europe, Mexico and Australia in the same time period and those countries do not have HFCS in most of their products (World Health Organization).

They also ignore that in the same time period, the number of working mothers has risen dramatically, making "home cooking," and in many cases "healthy eating" a thing of the past. Not surprisingly, fast food restaurants have sprung up "everywhere."

It also fails to mention that despite the fact that America's food is more affordable than any other country, we still have people in the U.S. who struggle to afford decent meals.

They started out to make an independent film, but as noted in many reviews, the film seems to follow University of California-Berkeley professor Michael Pollan (a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food"), and many of his speeches right down to the name of the film. Curt has said he was "an early advisor," and is also listed as a "contributor."

Ironically, the filmmakers also received a "generous" government subsidy to help pay for the project.

"King Corn" would be much easier to dismiss, if I didn't know, like or respect Curt, my sister-in-law, Mary and their family. But I do, and my family does as well.

So when (in the movie) Curt and Ian take a bite of field corn, (not sweet corn) well past "roasting ear" stage and into the dent stage, throw it back into the field and call it "crap, " it hurts -- a lot.

It hurts because we take pride in what we do. We are proud of the fact that Americans pay less than of their take-home pay for food than any other country. We don't think our food supply is "too cheap." We work hard to make that happen.

In the last six months, the film has been shown at various independent movie theaters across the United States.

We even went and saw the audience's reaction when Curt was showing King Corn in Columbia. (And yes, he already knows what we don't like about the film. I wrote him a five-page letter!)

Curt and Ian also were featured recently on ABC's "Good Morning America," and the National Corn Growers were denied a chance to appear on camera.

Reviews of "King Corn" have been very favorable -- it is a well-done film. However, after reading many of the reviews and web postings, I have found that some people seem to buy into the fact that corn is the "magic bullet" that caused our obesity problems. At no time does the film, or many of the posters, talk about personal responsibility.

The problem is that not only the film is full misstatements and incorrect information, but also reviewers (many in large newspapers) are perpetuating that with "their take" on the movie.

We even went and saw the audience's reaction when Curt was showing "King Corn" in Columbia.

It's like a snowball rolling down a hill; it just keeps picking up more and more snow and speed until one day there is an avalanche.

It's that avalanche that I fear: both of bad publicity and my real fear, an avalanche of "rash" actions. Some of the web posters have called for "banning" corn. At our viewing, one woman asked if farmers would stop raising corn because of the "ethics."

For example here are two of the reviews:

"A jauntily hip analysis of the path corn takes from Iowa cornfields to the ultimate ruination of agriculture and America's health." -- Toronto Eye Weekly

"King Corn pulls the husk off the scandal of modernized agriculture specifically the industrialized, subsidized, largely mythologized world of American farming." -- The Washington Post.

Scandal of modernized agriculture? Ultimate ruination of agriculture and America's health?

I do fear that if we, as producers, and small town residents, keep ignoring attacks and untruths, that movies like "King Corn" and people's perceptions of it, could be the "ruination" of modern agriculture -- and rural America. And then where will we be? Eating lead-laced cornflakes from China?

Despite what you may think of HFCS, or government subsidies for that matter, I think most here in Saline County would agree that we still have many "family farmers."

In our county we have seen few farms forced out of business in the last 25 years -- despite (former) low commodity prices. In fact, U.S. statistics show that in the same time period, we have lost fewer family farms than in the years preceding that.

And here in Saline County, a large number of young men and women (many of whom are college-educated) have come back to join their family's operations. Not to mention many who have "come back" to agriculture-related businesses.

That doesn't sound like the ruination of agriculture, does it?

In fact, those are all good signs for our community -- as most people agree that young people coming "back home" to make a living is a goal of small towns. And the more farmers, the more local businesses, etc. (Ever try to get a farmer out of town to shop? Good luck.)

So I hope farmers and Saline County citizens will watch "King Corn" when it airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, on KCPT (Channel 19) and KMOS (Channel 6).

I would like to be an ostrich and "stick my head in the sand" when it comes to this film, but unfortunately that leaves, well, a big part (and getting bigger) of my anatomy exposed, if you know what I mean. (Note: I know for a fact corn didn't make that "part" bigger.)

After watching, if you are a farmer, please let someone know what you think is wrong in the film -- someone who may not be as familiar with farming as you are.

And if you aren't a farmer, please don't let "King Corn" be the last word on agriculture in America and Saline County. It is much more than a 90-minute film. Talk to a farmer, take a tour and ask questions.

At my house, I guess I thought one night's stay, a corn-fed steak, home-grown food and good company would leave two young men with all they needed to know about today's family farm.

Obviously, it takes much more than that. After all, it has taken me over 20 years to understand the ins and outs and rights and wrongs of agriculture. I certainly didn't learn all that in my first acre, or in a 90-minute film. And I don't want others to think they can.

It's only through communication that we can understand each other better.

So, why does it bother me so much? I guess the real truth is I have an 8-year-old niece and two nephews, ages 6 and 1 1/2 years in Portland, Ore., and I don't want the last word to be that their aunt, uncle and cousins in Missouri grow "crap." After all, it said so -- in their uncle's film.

So, yes, it's personal.

On the Net:

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  • I am from Iowa, now living in Florida, and have only seen the trailer having missed the movie on PBS this week. I had to laugh at the attempt to eat raw (what looked like) seed corn on the cob though. I do not think the movie is as bad as you do. It can be used to get people ready to use even more corn for ethenol production. Long before the movie I have found creditable information showing grass fed beef is so much better for us than corn fed or finished beef and other valid arguments that support much (but not all) of what the movie seems to be saying. I would like to know where I can see the movie for myself.

    -- Posted by photo01 on Sat, Apr 19, 2008, at 7:12 AM
  • Let's not kill the messenger. There is a lot more right about the film than in the criticism written above. It is too bad that Marcia Gorrell has taken "King Corn" to a personal level. Let's look at the film from perspective of the 300 million American's that rely on the food system for survival. This would include the corn growers as well.

    I know a little bit about the "family farm". I grew up on a family farm in the midwest. Our farm consisted of 640 acres (pretty average size during the fifties). Our entire farm is now part of a 6000 acre farm, considered average for the present and is still called a "family farm. So the land that use to provide an income for ten families now provides income for one family.

    I do not recall any part of the film that was critical of the farmer for growing corn. It was critical of the farm subsidy system of the American Government that promotes the overproduction of corn. In this they are not alone. Go to:

    re: "only 5% of corn is made into HFCS".

    Five per cent of 12 billion bushels (production 2004) is 600 million bushels of corn to make HFCS, or 2 bushels/person. From 1960 to 1990, HFCS consumption grew 1000%!!!

    re:The film seems to ignore the fact that what we eat is a personal choice. I for one, have never seen a farmer or a corn plant force a Twinkie or a soda pop on unsuspecting victims.

    Try to find a food that does NOT have HFCS. Go here,

    re: personal choice.

    We should be able to make INFORMED personal choices. That is why we need film's like "King Corn" and journalists like Michael Pollan. As well as the hundreds and hundreds of articles on the internet about HFCS and the farm subsidy program.

    re: It's that avalanche that I fear.

    Now you may get a chance to experience what third world sugar cane dependent countries went through. Their economies were devastated by HFCS because it is 20% cheaper than sugar (because of the billions of dollars we tax payers give to the corn industry).

    re: It hurts a lot that people think we grow crap.

    Ms. Gorrell, it's crap. The farmers in the film said it's crap.

    There is a HUGE difference between HFCS and sugar. I personally have a complete personal ban on any food item that contains HFCS. I used to think Gatorade was healthy until I read the label.

    Anybody who wants to find out more about the topic of corn and the corn industry can go to Google and search HFCS, or "farm subsidy". The food industry is not about food, it's about money.

    -- Posted by farmall on Sun, Apr 20, 2008, at 10:32 PM
  • Dear Farmall and Photo01,

    Please note I have responded to your comments on my blog, which you can see on our homepage:

    Thank you very much for taking the time to comment.


    Marcia Gorrell

    -- Posted by Marcia Gorrell on Mon, Apr 21, 2008, at 2:56 PM
  • Dear Jody,

    It is public record and it is certainly not something I, personally, am ashamed of. However, I believe you posted it as an intimidation factor or to embarrass me. Do you not feel your point is strong enough without discrediting me? Apparently not. Trust me, as a journalist my integrity is intact. My views on King Corn are just that, my views, and they stand. If you want to talk about the movie, King Corn, I'll be glad to do that, but that is apparently not your intent.

    Jody, in your fourth post, you have tipped your hand and let me know you are from the Environmental Working Group. Apparently your group would like to see "organic vegetables" subsidized. Fine, why don't you come up with a working plan instead of spending your time trying to attack innocent hard working farmers, who provide food and fuel for the "average" American.

    Your website is full of innuendos saying that subsidy payments are going to doctors, lawyers, millionaires and not farmers. I know almost all of the people listed in my county and have seen them in the fields working at all hours to raise food and fuel. As for my family, my husband is a 7th generation American farmer. We are family farmers, the real thing. Do you know anything about the costs it takes to farm? Do you know anything about the risks involved? If it is as lucrative -- and easy, as you seem to make it seem, why are so few farmers left? Why do young men and women leave the farm -- and rural communities in large numbers? Do you not want family farmers? Who would you suggest grow food for the average American? Corporate America? China? Some other country? That has certainly worked well in the oil industry, hasn't it?

    While we are on the subject, I also wonder why the EWG feels the need to include loans farmers receive for their crops and then post that information as income. They do not include the fact that those loans are paid back, with interest. I guess it makes "your figures" look better. You also don't bother to point out to those who don't understand, that the conservation reserve payments are actually used to improve soil conservation and the environment. Wouldn't that be a good thing to the "Environmental" working group?

    You and the EWG also fail to mention that because of subsidies, Americans pay less than 10 percent of their income on food - less than any other country in the world. That is the whole reason behind subsidies. Although, I'm sure there are abuses, it is actually a program that has worked. Look at people hurting now as prices have risen in America's grocery stores. And that is with the lowest food prices in the world. Apparently you have enough money to buy food, but millions of Americas don't. Maybe you should think about that before you choose to personally attack one family farmer you don't even know.

    I, too, have found some information on the Environmental Working Group that perhaps people would like to see.



    -- Posted by Marcia Gorrell on Thu, May 1, 2008, at 10:05 PM

    I am compelled to write and comment on the recent documentary, King Corn, because of the many misleading statements made in it.

    First, the hair test that Dr Macko uses to estimate the percentage of corn in the diet, while useful for what it was intended, gives somewhat misleading results in this application. First, a little background on this test.

    This test depends on the fact that in nature, some elements, such as carbon, have different forms with different weights, due to having differing numbers of neutrons in their nucleus, and thus slightly variable weights. These differing weights of the same elements are called isotopes (from the Greek isos =equal+ topos=place). Thus in the case of carbon, we have the normal isotope C12 with 6 protons and six neutrons for an atomic weight of 12, and we have isotope C13 with 6 protons and 7 neutrons for an atomic weight of 13. In nature there is a mixture of these two isotopes, and plants take up and use both isotopes from the CO2 in the air to use in building plant tissue, and we have both isotopes in our body used interchangeably in our tissues and chemical reactions.

    The test Dr. Macko is using to differentiate corn from other plant materials in the diets of humans and livestock utilizes the fact that a class of plants, called C4 plants, which includes corn, preferentially take up a different proportion of these two isotopes of carbon to make their tissues than do the class of C3 plants, which comprise the vast majority of other plants including forages.. These ratios of isotopes of carbon continue on in the food chain, and their proportions can be measured in the hair to determine which proportions of plants have been consumed, either C3 or C4 (assumed in the film to be corn).

    What this film does not disclose however, is that livestock consume a number of other C4 plants in their rations other than corn. Sorghum is also a C4 plant. It is grown extensively throughout the West in dryer states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and parts of Colorado. In areas where it is grown it is used almost exclusively for livestock feeding. Thus, the above test would be incapable of differentiating an atom of carbon as coming from livestock fed corn or sorghum.

    This same rationale would also apply to millet, which is also a C4 plant used for livestock feeding, grown in the northern central states, chiefly the Dakotas and Nebraska.

    When we turn to plant foods directly consumed by humans, we also find a problem with the test used. Sugar cane is also a C4 plant, and thus the sugar derived from it would be indistinguishable from corn in whatever form consumed as far as the hair test described.

    These factors thus makes this test somewhat unreliable as a measure of exactly how much corn is in our diet, either directly or in the diets of the livestock we consume.

    Next, I want to turn to their description of cattle feeding, and their reporting of its effects. It is somewhat disappointing that the makers of this film did not avail themselves of the opportunity to educate themselves as to the facts regarding the cattle feeding industry when they had a good opportunity to do so. First, as to their claim that feeding corn causes death within 120 days. Curiously, their reference for this appears to be a random passer-by they met during filming. The reality is quite different.

    Traditionally feeders take in either grass fed calves at 450 to 600 pounds, or grass fed yearlings (1 year old animals) at 550 to 800 pounds, and finish them out with a mixture of grains, protein supplements, roughage, and vitamin/mineral supplements to a slaughter weight of 1100 to 1400 pounds. Cattle are usually fed an average of 177 days if started on feed as yearlings, and 237 days if started as calves, according to John D. Lawrence, extension livestock economist, with the article available at

    The grain or energy component of the ration is balanced with whatever grain happens to be available and most cost effective locally. In the Mid-west that would be corn. In other parts of the western US, sorghum, millet or barley would be the energy component of choice, and in the eastern US soft wheat would often be the feed of choice.

    Dairy cows are also fed a high concentrate ration required for high milk production. They are feed high rates of grain over many milking cycles with obviously no early death, as a high value dairy cow obviously would not be fed such high grain diets if it would lead to early death.

    The acidosis referred to in the movie certainly can become a problem. It is caused by an overgrowth of lactic acid producing microorganisms in the rumen when high-carbohydrate foods are introduced too rapidly and abruptly. It is easily controlled or prevented by introducing high-concentrate feeds gradually over a period of time, a common practice used in all feeding and dairy production situations.

    The idea that grain feeding is somehow unnatural is intimated at extensively in the movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cattle and other livestock have been given high-concentrate feed over historical times. Even so called "Grass Fed" beef is almost always given a brief finishing feeding period with a higher concentrate finishing feed. If all US livestock were to be exclusively pasture raised, as they obviously can not and will not be, due to the many many millions of additional acres required, meat would be many multiples of times more expensive, and meat would obviously be a specialty, seasonal food, as there obviously would not be any pastures available during the winter months.

    There are actually some benefits to a more highly grass fed animal. It has a lower fat content, and there is some evidence that it contains more omega-3 fatty acids. These are actually only slight advantages, as the fat content of beef can be minimized by eating actual cuts of meat with close trimming. Eating most of one's beef in the form of hamburger is not a good practice, as quite a high content of the fat is not trimmed off and gets into the hamburger. Meat is actually best viewed as not a good primary source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are more efficiently obtained in the diet through oils and supplementation. Grass fed beef will continue to be a boutique item demanded by a specialty clientele. It is a good product, and some even prefer its unique flavor.

    Now let us turn to the corn plant itself, which in the film is strangely attacked and demonized. One of the most reprehensible parts of the film was the interview with the Harvard professor, who repeatedly made statements to the effect that corn is a non-food, is nutritionally empty, and has been deliberately bred to be so. This is quite misleading. This Harvard professor should know quite well (or maybe he doesn't ?!) that corn, along with all plants domesticated by humanity over many millennia have been extensively selected for different varieties used for different purposes.

    In the case of corn, our North American native grain, it consists of a number of varieties hand selected both during prehistoric times and by many generations of traditional farmers. We currently have 4 major types; sweet corn, used for eating fresh and canning, flour corn, used for milling into corn meal for human consumption, the well known popcorn, and dent corn, also know as field or feed corn.

    Field corn has been selected specifically to produce the energy source or carbohydrate portion of animal feeds. Field corn typically contains 9% protein, 5% oil, with the remainder being carbohydrates. The latest USDA figures for 05-06 total corn utilization indicates 54% being used for animal feed, 20% being exported, 14% being used for ethanol, 5% being used for High Fructose Corn syrup, and 7% being used in various other human food products.

    Corn is one of the handful of staple grains producing the main food source for human beings. These grain staples, including corn, wheat, rice, barley and sorghum, produce collectively 90% of the calories required by human beings worldwide. World civilization as we know it could not exist without these staple grains. To say that carbohydrates, by far the greatest requirement in the human and animal diet and which are used for energy production, are "empty" calories is certainly a misstatement. There are no "empty" calories or "bad" foods. There are only good and bad diets. To expect that one food would have all the components of a healthy diet is naive. This is the reason all responsible nutritionists continually speak of eating a variety of foods.

    As for the cheap trick of trying to eat a mature cob of field corn, and saying it is a "non food" simply because it is not palatable and requires processing, the less said the better. Simply take note that not one of the other staple grain crops that support 90 % of human nutrition, wheat, rough rice, barley, sorghum etc, would be edible in their raw state either.

    Now let us address the issue of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Here I quite agree with the main thrust of their argument. There is all kinds of good scientific evidence that a diet with a large percentage of HFCS has some deleterious effects, diabetes and obesity being among them. Fortunately, it is actually quite easy to keep the majority of HFCS out of one's diet. The majority is to be found in two products, soda type drinks, and fruit juices with additional sweetener added. The former really has no redeeming qualities, and should be eliminated from the diet, and the latter has many and increasing alternative choices on the shelf that either have no sugar added, or have natural sweeteners, this obviously in response to consumer demand. There are other snack type foods with HFCS in them, but also many without. There usually are many choices. Obviously for those who are purists about absolutely no HFCS of any amount, this may take care.

    To those with corn allergies, I can only say I feel the greatest sympathy. I do hope you find good choices among all the many other food choices available.

    I also want to comment on the lumping together of corn consumption in all its forms as being equally bad. No doubt HFCS is not good nutrition, but to conflate that form of corn consumption, with consumption as meat products or other corn products is unconscionable. There is not a shred of evidence that livestock fed corn as a feed carry the negative effects of HFCS. Just ask the residents of Mexico, where corn is actually a staple, whether corn is a part of a healthy diet. We in the US of course use wheat mainly as our staple source, either as bread or pasta.

    Finally, let me just briefly comment on the statements that the farm program has some conspiratorial part in encouraging corn overproduction. First, the farm program has always tried to balance its provisions to be commodity neutral, that is, it endeavors to try to have farmers make planting decisions based on marketplace signals and good agronomic practices, rather than program provisions. It is not always perfect in this regard, but that is its aim.

    The idea that farmers will plant corn, or any other crop simply because of a relatively small government payment is woefully out of date. The farm price of corn used in the movie was well under $2.00 This has not been the case for quite some time. The last I checked, the price of corn was over $6.00. I can assure you that farmers today do not make their main planting decisions at this point based upon a declining program payment.

    In summary, to think that farmers here or in other countries will stop planting corn is quite unrealistic. We have the lowest grain supplies worldwide today since the last days of World War II. We will be planting more corn going forward, or at least we will try.

    Finally, I want to say I am neither involved in corn production nor cattle feeding. I am a concerned person in traditional agriculture that tries to correct unfounded ideas whenever I can. I salute these young college people for their idealism, and their concern for the HFCS issue. I can only say that their credibility on this issue would not have been damaged quite so badly if they had stuck to the facts.

    -- Posted by Richo on Fri, May 2, 2008, at 5:47 PM
  • Thank you Richo for your review. You bring up some great topics. I really appreciate it. My sister calls HCFS "the devil", but would never turn down a cornfed steak!!


    -- Posted by Marcia Gorrell on Sat, May 3, 2008, at 1:28 PM
  • 75% of us corn is genetically modified perhaps thats why it is called crap.

    -- Posted by chazk834 on Fri, Jun 6, 2008, at 12:25 PM
  • I am a small rancher from Washington state. I come from a long line of farming and ranching people. We never stayed in on place long enough to get big and multigenerational nor do I know much about a lot of the farm subsidies. However, our little place would be in a world of hurt without the EQIP costshare program from the NRCS and I am told this is funded through the farm bill. We are a certified naturally grown operation and all our animals are raised on natural graze from weaning to butcher. Many of my neighbors have the same practices as we do here at Walking Water Ranch. Not necessarily for politics or ethics, but because it is simply cheaper for us to put our animals out to graze than to feed them in a lot.

    My husband really liked the King Corn documentary and I liked a lot of their points. Though we both felt it was a very one sided and had a narrow vision. There was a lot left unsaid. It was like another news article we heard about recently where a woman was disturbed that her bird feeders were unnaturally creating a bird population that would otherwise have migrated or would never have been there at all. One day she noticed a large preditory bird preying on the small birds and she was pleased to see that nature fixed the problem and behold the loop is closed. She seemed oblivious to the now unnatural food source for a greater population of preditory birds and what impact that might have. The complexity of the web is often more elaborate and far reaching than our attempts at annalysis can comprehend.

    I would like to see a follow up where the issues of lifestyle and food choices are more thoroughly explored. Yes, it is dificult to find food in the grocery store that does not contain corn syrup and that bothers me. Yes, fixing food from natural fresh food is more expensive and time consuming. However, a little effort and creativity goes a long way toward improving the American diet. Not to mention putting away the tv, game boy and computer.

    -- Posted by walkh2o on Sat, Jun 14, 2008, at 12:21 AM
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