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King Corn

A new movie critical of farm subsidies debuted last month in Oklahoma City. Called King Corn, it's the work of two young film makers who try to tie farm subsidies to our nation's current obesity crisis.
King Corn


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King Corn

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Show 0815: King Corn

Air date: April 13, 2008



Rob:  A new movie critical of farm subsidies debuted last month in Oklahoma City.  Called, KING CORN, it’s the work of two young filmmakers who try to tie farm subsidies to our nation’s current obesity crisis.

Rob:  When two city kids graduated from Yale University, they decided to move home, down home on the farm.

I’m moving from Boston to Iowa.  Yeah, I’m going to grow an acre of corn and see what happens with it.

Rob:  And make a movie out of it.  Producers Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis explore corn production and the government subsidies that go to support it.

Farmer:  I’ll guarantee you, if you go out and just raise an acre of corn, without any government payments, you’re going to lose money.



Rob:  Which has created an interesting dynamic in farm country.

If you are standing in a field in Iowa, there’s an immense amount of food being grown, none of it edible.  The commodity corn, nobody can eat; it must be processed before we can eat it.  It’s a raw material; it’s a feedstock for all these other processes.  And, the irony is that, an Iowa farmer can no longer feed himself.

Rob:  In their movie KING CORN, the filmmakers attempt to link price supports paid to farmers growing corn, to America’s growing waist line.

Farmer:  Food and beverage manufacturers were looking for a lower cost sugar substitute.  By the late 80s, we had fully taken over half of the sweetening market in the United States.

Rob:  Much of the Midwest corn crop goes into making high fructose corn syrup, an ingredient found in, well, most everything.

Every single item I saw in this aisle contains corn syrup.

It’s all a part of a complex, innovative system that makes these foods available to us, in such a variety of choices, for such low prices.

Rob:  But is it good for us?

Yeah, it’s disgusting.  It tastes like chalk.

Rob:  After the showing of KING CORN at Oklahoma City’s Museum of Art, a panel of dieticians, economists, and others, agreed the movie raises some interesting questions.

There’s not clearly the cause and effect of high fructose corn syrup with obesity.  It’s the choices that we make.

Rob:  Economist Jonathon Willner sat on the panel and says he believes the real issue goes beyond just food ingredients to the entire structure of our nation’s food industry.

Jonathon Willner:  There are quite a few farmers who argue against subsidies, because they are quite certain that absent subsidies, they can actually be more efficient growing what people want.

Rob:  Do you believe the agriculture markets, do you believe that they are overly subsidized?

Willner:  Oh absolutely.  We’ve got so many distortions going on there, as the movie tonight demonstrated.  There are all sorts of negative consequences associated with these subsidies; we’re not even growing food directly anymore.

Rob:  But not everyone agrees.  Terry Dietrich is vice president of American Farmers and Ranchers.  A group that lobbies for agriculture, and he say’s while food production in the U S is not perfect, it is the best in the world.

Terry Dietrich:  Because of what those provide, we experience in the United States today, the most abundant, the cheapest food anywhere in the world.  We spend less of our spendable income on food in the United States than anywhere in the world, by many percentage points in most cases.  It’s the healthiest.  It’s produced under the safest conditions.  So, we have a lot of things going for us in this country.

Rob:  Because of where we are with technology; we don’t need the people to run the farms; do we risk having this great vast desert in the middle of the United States, with no one living there?

Willner:  That could be, but I don’t see what the problem with that is.  There’s no, I don’t see any compelling reason for humans to inhabit any particular environment.  There’re no humans in Antarctica, other than the ones on the research stations.  And we don’t seem to see that as a devastating loss.

Rob:  In fact, Willner sees no difference in importing food than importing car parts; a point Dietrich could not disagree with more.

Dietrich:  When we look at farm subsidies, which have gotten to be a dirty word in a lot of people’s minds and a lot of households today, people fail to realize that because of the incentives that are provided by our food security program.

Rob:  We have one of the most stable food supplies in the entire world that Dietrich believes is vital to our country’s national security.  What happens if our food increases five, six, seven times?

Willner:  Yeah, I suppose it could happen.  In which case there would be riots in the streets and bread line; and maybe, just maybe, that sort of possibility will influence the way we conduct foreign policy.

Dietrich:  American agriculture has never let this country down; they’re not going to let it down today.

Rob:  The USDA reports that farmers intend to plant eight percent fewer acres of corn this year than last, a move that could push corn prices to record highs as the demand for corn, both for food and fuel, continues to increase.  Now to judge for yourself about the issues raised in the movie, KING CORN, the documentary will air this week on PBS, as part of its independent lens series.