Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney are the creators of the 2007 documentary King Corn, which follows the pair as they move to Iowa to grow one acre of corn and follow its path through the food supply. What they find while doing so is nothing like they expected. They are not growing sweet corn but a tasteless crop that will become high fructose corn syrup, sweetening a variety of products from soft drinks to spaghetti sauce. The movie, which premiered in New York City and is making its way across the country, has been called as relevant as Super Size Me by The Austin Chronicle and descriptive enough to make you distrustful of everything on your plate by The Boston Globe. Find out what the films creators think of the current quick-service industry and what it will take to improve it.
What did you learn while filming King Corn?
Ellis: We found out that our corn was going to become not sweet corn on the cob but in fact fast food, essentially corn-fed beef for hamburgers and high fructose corn syrup soda. In the course of the year of making our film and seeing where our crop was going to go, we came to question the agricultural system thats in place right now as it affects our food.
Was that surprising?
Cheney: I think we were impressed by how prevalent HFCS has become in the last 30 or 40 yearshow quickly its risen to supremacy in the sweetener market and just how many of our foods are sweet where they might not have been before. Theres HFCS in breads and hamburger buns and that was an indication to us that our relentless pursuit of producing as much corn as possible might be creating a food system that is sweeter than it might otherwise be.
Are you trying to spark change or just presenting the issue?
Ellis: We want to see change. The film called to our attention that there were some fundamental problems with the way we eat in America. Its not that HFCS itself is the problem or that corn is somehow bad, but it is symbolic of a system that is very problematic. To me the fact that the cheapest foods in our culture are the ones that are least healthy for us is deeply problematic.
Is the solution going to come from consumer pressure or the industry itself?
Cheney: I think the solution needs to come from everyone. We spend a lot of time in this country trying to always figure out where lies the blame, but I think it really lies with all of us. Or at least the solution lies with all of usthe consumers, the fast-food industry, and also with the government subsidies system. I think that consumers are demanding more and more healthful foods and foods that come from smaller, more local, more sustainable operations. And the fast-food industry, because it occupies such a powerful position in our food landscape, has a real opportunity to make more healthful food available to people and in doing so really do great things for the industry because of how many of us eat at fast-food restaurants as we travel around the country.
Money plays a big part in all of this. Can you explain the economics of todays corn industry?
Ellis: We have a subsidy system that rewards the production of a handful of commodities; corn is chief among them. By rewarding production for the last 40 years, weve guaranteed there would be a stable cheap supply of corn on the market. That has been a huge boon to the fast-food industry and the processed food industry because cheap corn means a stable, cheap supply of corn syrup and a stable, cheap supply of cheap meat. But the kind of foods that weve made cheap under the subsidy system are corn-based foods, processed foods. So in a sense weve decided to subsidize HFCS and partially hydrogenated soybean oil and we give no subsidies to fresh fruits and vegetables.