The Price of Corn

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Aaron Wolff, the director and producer of two documentaries about the consequences of corn being America's most subsidized crop, stopped by the Lake Placid Film Forum this past weekend for a Q&A and a screening of his films King Corn (2006) and its follow-up, Big River (2009).

The original film follows Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis (Wolff's cousin), best friends and recent Yale graduates, as they grow an acre of corn in Iowa to learn more about where their food comes from. They embarked on the project after reading that their generation could be the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents,' due to diet. The companion documentary examines the environmental impact of farming corn.

Wolff said he's troubled by those "Sweet Surprise" commercials, paid for by the Corn Refiners Association, that try to convince the public that high fructose corn syrup has gotten a bad rap. "You know what they say" about HFCS, says a disapproving woman to a mother serving punch at a kids' party. She is flummoxed when the other mother replies, "Like what?" Wolff said of the commercials, "the message is, kind of, if you don't have an answer," you shouldn't be asking questions.

The problem, Wolff said, is not so much that HFCS is worse for you than refined sugar, but that it is so ubiquitous in the American diet that it is contributing to rising obesity. It's not just in sodas and candy but, because it has preservative and browning properties, it's also in spaghetti sauce, breads, cereals and countless other processed foods. On top of that, most of the country's livestock is fed corn on feed lots before it makes its way into a Big Mac, and let's not forget how many foods are fried in corn oil. In one surprising scene in King Corn, a scientist tests a hair sample from the boys and explains that, like most Americans, they are made primarily of corn carbon because of the food they eat. Even if, as the woman in the commercial says, HFCS is "made from corn, doesn't have artificial ingredients and, like sugar, is fine in moderation," we aren't using it in moderation.

The crazy thing, the documentary explains, is that the government promotes this state of affairs by heavily subsidizing the planting of corn—none of it meant to be eaten unprocessed—to the exclusion of other, healthier food crops. Cheap corn leads to cheap (and often unhealthy) food, which is part of the reason obesity and diabetes are such a problem in low-income communities. Wolff pointed out that Americans spend a smaller percentage of their incomes on food than most other countries—which sounds good, until you consider the health consequences."Why are we subsidizing sweeteners?" he said. "Why are we subsidizing fast food?"

In addition to the human health issues addressed in King Corn, high-yield corn production isn't so great for the planet, which is the subject of Big River. In this half-hour companion documentary, Cheney and Ellis return to Iowa to trace the impact their acre of corn had on the environment. Among the biggest problems: industrial farmers in the Midwest use ammonia fertilizer. Some of this makes its way into the water supply, enough so that water in the corn belt must have the nitrate filtered out to be drinkable. More unfiltered water makes its way down the Mississippi River and, eventually, to the Gulf of Mexico, where it promotes algae growth. Too much algae leads to a dearth of oxygen below, causing "dead zones" where no marine animals can survive. Since long before the massive BP oil spill, the livelihoods of gulf fisherman have been threatened by the consequences of faraway farm practices.

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