I saw a great movie the other night: King Corn. The documentary is about two recent college graduates from Boston who decide to go on a cross-country road trip: Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis. They stop at a University medical center and end up getting a hair test to see what they are made up of biologically. The scientist tells them that they are 70% corn. What? They say they haven’t eaten corn in years! The scientist tells them that most foods are made up of corn (i.e. high fructose corn syrup).
The two friends decide to move to Iowa, raise an acre of corn, and see where the acre of corn ends up. They want to find how the corn ends up in American’s hair. The story they uncover is telling. While American farmers can raise infinitesimally more corn (180 bushels per acre of corn today vs. 60 bushels of corn 50+ years ago), farmers can’t support themselves off of their farms anymore. “We are producing more than we have ever farmed, but it is all crap!” says one farmer. In another scene, the two young men try to eat the corn they are raising and say it tastes like sawdust.
In one of the final scenes, they interview the politician that set the farm subsidy policy that keeps the whole production train going. It made sense in his day: set policy to encourage farmers to produce more and bring down the cost of food. Today American’s spend about 16% of their income on food whereas in the 70’s Americans spent about 30% or more of their income on food. We keep cranking out the food but the quality has fallen over the years. Food is most often mass-produced without any interest for taste or quality.
Is farming the only thing like this? I can’t help but think about how advertising and marketing encourage Americans to consumer more. But are the products we consume really providing a better experience? What really made the movie enjoyable was the tone. Unlike a Michael Moore movie that hits you over the head, the writers/jkectors were subtle in their approach and listened to everyone thoughtfully.