The cost of abundance

King Corn movie posterTonight, Maggie and I were finally able to watch King Corn. We’ve been hearing good things about it for a while, so when we noticed that it was playing on PBS, we headed over to Maggie’s parents’ place last night to check it out. Unfortunately, the times listed were wrong, so we watched a really interesting Frontline on universal health care instead. Tivo rescued the situation and recorded it for us to watch tonight.

The documentary follows two Bostonians as they head to the small town in Iowa where (coincidentally) their grandfathers made a living based on corn. The one grandfather grew it and the other made tractors to plant it. The creators, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, borrow an acre of land from a local farmer and plant (what else?) corn. As they say on their website, “a story about one acre of Iowa corn quickly becomes a story about everything: soil, water, energy, history, genetic modification and, of course, food.” Focusing primarily on food, the two friends go from farm subsidy to planting to spraying to growing to harvesting to industry (and end with another little subsidy). Once industry gets a hold of corn, it uses it everywhere, from a rather unhealth feed for cattle to rather unhealthy food for people. There’s a great scene whereh Cheney and Ellis brew up some homemade high fructose corn syrup. Neither of them like it at all.

The great thing about the movie is that there are no villains. Even the much maligned Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture who told farmers to “get big or get out,” is given a fair viewing.

Overall, the story of US corn since the 1970s is one that’s familiar to any reader of The Monkey’s Paw. Butz’s goal was to make food cheap and he was incredibly successful. We now pay half as much on food (as a percentage of income) as did our parents or grandparents. Imagine paying twice as much for food as you are now! And that includes eating out.

The monkey’s paw comes in with the fulfillment of the ideal of a land of plenty. We pay a lot less for food because our food is almost entirely based on getting higher yields in return for increases in fat, pesticide use, antibiotic use, and reduction in nutrients. Corn nowadays has almost no nutritional value and yet it’s a cheap filler for everything.

Cheap corn affects all of our food supply. One of the scientists quoted said that a grass-fed T-bone steak has 1.3 grams of fat. A T-bone steak from corn-fed steer has almost 7 times as much at 9 grams!

So yeah, we’ve got cheap food which allows us to spend more on other things. Unfortunately, one of those things is our increasingly high health care now that our food isn’t as healthy.

Abundance is great, but not at the cost of our lives. This may be the first generation that doesn’t live longer than its parents.

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Luz: Girl of the Knowing | GreenCouple.com said,

    May 1, 2008 @ 11:13 pm

    […] message of each comic is obvious but, like King Corn, Luz manages not to seem preachy. Partly this is because things don’t always work out the way […]

  2. 2

    A subprime food crisis? | GreenCouple.com said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 4:20 am

    […] to the program, I was struck by how similar this all is to our food industry as described in King Corn. We start with a noble goal (cheap food/savings) and build a system to promote it (farm […]

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