King Corn, a documentary about this country’s corn problem with a backyard style, is opening in theaters from DC to LA this month and next (but not Cleveland, as far as I can tell—are you listening Jon Forman?).  It’s an excellent and entertaining reminder of what Pollan describes in Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan’s work inspired the film and he’s interviewed as well): that we are walking, breathing corn.  The film makers (above) buy an acre in Iowa to get hands on experience of America’s most important crop.  And also its scariest.  We grow a single strain designed to thrive in close quarters (urban corn); it costs more money to grow than it’s worth and you can’t eat it.  There’s a funny moment of Ellis and Woolf tasting the stuff and they can’t, they spit it out—“It tastes like chalk,” they agree.  Unable to gain entry into a high fructose corn syrup factory, they  fabricate their own.  We’re growing mountains of food we can’t eat until we turn it into crap that makes us sick.  King Corn is in what a Times review calls the truth-seeking comic hero genre, and it’s a good, honest documentary, worth watching.  Perhaps the saddest part  of this situation for me is that the people who are thoughtlessly devouring this food that’s making us sick are not likely to have access to the movie or would even choose to see it if they did.


58 Wonderful responses to “King Corn”

  • Claudia

    And, worse, the big push towards using ethanol (produced from corn, rather than, say, hydrogen or even other biofuels) will not only drive up the price of this f_____ crappy corn which, in turn, will drive up the price of chicken and all other animals fed on this f______ crappy corn, but also cost as much to produce and transport as oil itself – AND create as much pollution in the process of shipping. Oh – and don’t get me started on the Farm Bill and the ramifications of big fat subsidies for ConAg and Monsanto and all the other Big Ags, and how this affects both the family farmers here as well as the poor in developing countries.

    The Omnivore’s Dilemma is STILL giving me nightmares, and I read it last year. We are, indeed, Giant Corn Monsters which kills me – because I really love corn. Or what WAS corn. That being said, I’ve GOT to see these guys manufacture their own high fructose corn syrup factory (!)

  • hollerhither

    Interesting, I am finally reading Ominvore’s Dilemma, and just last night read the McDonald’s “you are all walking corn” piece. Not to head into dangerous McLawsuit territory, but they actually inject a corn syrup/MSG combo into the chicken used on their (Caesar!) salads? Is it food, or is it crack?

    I assume I’m the last person around “here” to read the book, but glad to hear it’s inspired a movie. The more info out there about corn syrup/corn subsidies/genetically modified strains, the better — and you never know, film has the potential for reaching a broad audience or, at least, inspiring more discussion.

  • Art the Troll

    Never heard that we only grow a “single strain of corn” so I’d have to get an explanation on what Ruhlmann means by that. Seed corn, feed corn, bread corn, and bourbon corn all used to be different than the corn humans typically directly ate. I don’t know if each was considered a different “strain” or not, but they were grown at different times for different end-uses.

    But I agree that the whole ethanol thing is a freaking sham and that today’s super-market corn tastes like chalk and that Corn Syrup is fattening and disgusting.

  • Charlotte

    My grandmother grows corn and beans on our farm in Illinois — I remember how brutal those dried ears of corn were — they made great weapons when fighting with my brother and boy cousins, but you couldn’t even think of eating it. I also remember getting lost about ten rows into the field — very frightening. The good news is that at least when I was back a couple of years ago previously-unheard-of hippie farming practices like no-till have become mainstream and most of the farmers in her little town are doing whatever they can to reduce their inputs — not that the place isn’t still awash in Roundup and fertilizer, but it’s getting a little better.

  • Scott

    It really is too bad that the people who stand to benefit the most from a movie like King Corn simply won’t be aware of it’s existence. I don’t doubt that documentary film makers and writers feel like they are just preaching to the converted when it comes to work of this nature. At least there is a receptive audience for King Corn. Personally, I’m looking forward to the movie and I hope it’s showing at a theater that sells cola in 1 gallon cups.

  • Scott

    It really is too bad that the people who stand to benefit the most from a movie like King Corn simply won’t be aware of it’s existence. I don’t doubt that documentary film makers and writers feel like they are just preaching to the converted when it comes to work of this nature. At least there is a receptive audience for King Corn. Personally, I’m looking forward to the movie and I hope it’s showing at a theater that sells cola in 1 gallon cups.

  • Tags

    It’s really much worse than we think. I just saw a bottle of Rose’s Mojito Mix. (Yeah, of Rose’s Lime fame)

    You remember the mojito, right? With the sugar cane swizzle stick?

    Not for Rose’s. Its only sweetener is HFCS.

    There’s no reason to drink Coke anymore unless it’s Kosher.

    If a package says “premium” AND has HFCS in the ingredients list, put it back in its double-dealing ditch of deceit and walk away.

  • Frances

    HFCS is scary stuff. Nothing makes me more frustrated than the way it has wormed its way into the food supply. The single greatest thing that could be done to curb the obesity and type II diabetes epidemic in this country would be to BAN its use in food. It’s a freaking harmful substance FFS.

    Oh and it’s a perfect example of the marvels of food science – how to extract a harmful substance out of a harmless source. :/

  • Tags

    It wouldn’t even be so bad if there wasn’t such a concerted effort to dupe and deceive. “Happy Cows from California?” Rest assured, if there are contented cows in California, they sure ain’t the ones whose milk you’re drinking or whose cheese and ice cream you’re eating.

    When you see Paula Deen pitching for Smithfield, be confident that they took pains to shield her from the way their pigs are really raised. Not likely she’ll be flying over or driving by their factory farms.

    The words “hydrogenated” and “high fructose” are now placed as far down the ingredients list as they are able to bury them. They feel more comfortable listing chemicals in the flour ahead of these bogeyman words. Soon, they’ll start using even more adjectives between the start of the list and hydrodgy and HFCS.

    Even chocolate, with cocoa butter as a standard ingredient since Milton Hershey was in diapers, is under pressure from your Cargills, ConAgras, Nestles, and even Hershey to substitute other fats. They’re allowed to substitute fats now but have to label them accordingly. That’s not deceptive enough for them.

    Cargill, they have to get the Nobel chutzpah prize. As long as you follow the microwave instructions for their potpies, there’s no danger of getting salmonella. That’s okay, follow directions or not there’s no danger of getting any nutrition, either.

    And finally, look at http://www.skippy.com – finally somewhere you can find a nugget of truth in this mess. But it’s not what you think.

  • johnmark7

    Greatest country in the history of the world and you’re bitching about corn.

    More people lifted out of poverty because of the West, more people with healthy children and you’re bitching about corn.

    More people who will live longer than any time in history and you’re bitching about corn.

    Please take a jump in the closest lake and drown your damned self.

  • rockandroller

    I’ve been waiting for this movie to come out and am so excited to see it. I wish everyone in America had an opportunity. Alas, I’ll have to drive at least 2 or 3 hours if I want to see it in the theater. Maybe they can rush it to DVD and I can give it to people as Xmas gifts? 🙂

  • brandon_w

    Well people are living longer than any point during history, but people in the United States aren’t living the longest, in fact we 45th in the world in life expectancy. You can point out all the healthy children, or we could talk about all of the unhealthy children with juvenile diabetes, and the large percentage of children that are not just a bit chubby but obese, some even morbidly obese.

    If this is truly the greatest country on earth then it was brought to that level by people who did bitch, who did strive to make things better instead of just accepting what was put in front of them as good enough. We can be eating better, we can be healthier, this country can become better.

    johnmark7 you are nothing but an ignorant asshole. This isn’t bitching about corn, it’s bitching about massive corporations that are creating unhealthy products from corn and doing what they can to keep it covered up while they stick the product into everything they can.

  • Tags


    Ignorant ass will suffice. No point dragging his hole into his corn-fed cousin-consummatin’ red-state rant.

  • Claudia

    No need to fall out of love with your roasted corn chowder, Puta – I’ve got one (with home- smoked salmon and bacon) in the fridge myself. (Made from happy little ears of organic corn from a nice farmer on Long Island. Oh, and the roasted creamed corn from the same bag full of ears – you can still have your corn and eat it, too.)

  • Tags

    Not to mention that it’s not even the same corn we’re talking about, so no worries, mate. The corn they use to make corn syrup and feed livestock is inedible to you and I.

  • GG Mora

    It’s kinda funny that anyone would look to ethanol to get us out out of our oil-dependency bind, and now corn is being used to make biodegradable “plastics” to further wean us from our petroleum habit (although biodegradable “plastic” is better than the alternative)…Any idea how much petroleum-based fertilizer it takes to keep massive corn production happening, and how much petroleum-based fuel it takes to till, plant, and harvest those vast fields, and then to transport the corn to processing plants to turn it into ethanol, or “plastic”? Duh.

    The only upside is that as demand for corn to produce ethanol or “plastic” grows, HFCS will cease being a cheap-ass byproduct of government-subsidized agribusiness and then maybe food producers will stop putting into f***ing EVERYTHING.

  • the pauper

    I’m just curious how this is going to change the world. Look, corporations are smart about making money. It’s smart of Conagra to lobby for farm bill subsidies because they make money that way. You know what farmers would grow without subsidies? Not corn… something else that would make Michael Pollen sing. Tobacco baby! http://news.cincypost.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071001/NEWS01/710010348

    You know, they make corn to make feed for these animals that a lot of people eat. Sure, nearly everyone who reads this blog would say “those cows have no taste! those pigs are lame!” That’s fine, and I would mostly agree. Here’s the problem though… is Alice Water’s vision of Slow food movement scalable? There’s a great green market in new york city, and it can feed about half of Soho. Say we stop growing all this inedible corn, then what do we do?

    I constantly hear how we’re doing it wrong and how small farmers are doing it right. I never hear how small farmers can SCALE and FEED THE ENTIRE NATION. look, the nation might be getting fat, but everyone still has to eat, regardless of health repercussions.

    As for U.S. life expectancy, I went to http://geography.about.com/library/weekly/aa042000b.htm to look at World Life Expectancy, took the data and put it in Excel, sorted it. U.S. is 28. In terms of countries with western type diets (that means excluding Japan), Australia is up there at 79.8, we come in at 77.1 (data from 2000 so perhaps slightly off now). The dolt who said we’re 45 made it sound like our health care sucks. Hey, 2.7 yrs? Uh.. not that significant. FYI, #45 is S. Korea, coming in with 74.4 yrs.

  • Gina Edwards

    Have a friend who is a botanist – she thinks field corn is just pure evil. We banned high fructose corn syrup from our diets years ago.

    However, this stuff http://www.gladcorn.com is pretty good – the guy was trying to make a new form of ethanol and ended up making a snack instead.

  • the pauper

    Hi Brandon_w,

    Thank you for the URL. They have more recent facts on the CIA world fact book. One thing to note though, and this is something everyone should note… when we hear reports like, “Crime has gone up by 2% OMG!” well the real way to look at crime growth is, “How much did the population grow by in the same period? If population growth was 1%, then crime really only went up by 1%”

    In the same note, 45 sounds a lot worse than 28, but go back and look at the numbers. Australia at #8 had a LE longer by 2.7 years with yr 2000 data. With yr 2007 data, their LE is longer by 2.6 yrs.

    What does this tell us? Well, a lot.. for one perhaps other countries health care got better. Also, look at the countries ahead of us. You have Jersey. (not NEW Jersey, and how many of us knew there was a country called Jersey?????). Luxembourg. Malta. Virgin Islands. Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Guam. I think my point is clear. Those countries are so small. There’s 300 million people in the U.S. Comparisons of rankings with those super small countries that can easily upgrade their hospitals is just too difficult.

    Overall point, we’re living pretty long here in the U.S. Life expectancy is simply NOT an issue.

  • Tags

    Today, technology rises to meet the challenge. Is slow food scalable?

    We asked how we would be able to meet the mandated EPA standards in the 80s. Along came electronic fuel injection and better gas mileage and more horsepower.

    Don’t use today’s ideas to calculate tomorrow’s challenges. If a standard is set, the worst we can do is fail to meet it. If you don’t set a standard, stagnation fills the vacuum.

  • brandon_w


    You said what I was going to post, but said it better than I would have.

  • the pauper

    Hi Tags,

    Other thing to think about is law of unintended consequences. The thing we don’t like about corn subsidies and ConAgra is that they use lobbyists to get these subsidies so their corn crop is profitable. It’s corn that we don’t eat, and corn that’s basically used so the corn producers can make a product it can sell and make money. It’s not exactly a free market there. Sure, I’ll go with that small farms are scalable, (tell me about the progress in that direction), but you assume that when small farms scale, they become immune to the circumstances that have led ConAgra to seek subsidies that may reduce national heath at the expense of the bottom line. I fully expect technology to meet the challenge of feeding 300 million people, and I also fully expect greed as a human behavior that will survive until the extinction of the species.

    The other point for brandon was that his use of life expectancy to prove his point was ineffective. That is all.


    the life expectancy of a child with type 2 diabetes is the same whether you’re in Japan or the United States. I’m not here to argue whether diabetes suck, just that life expectancy is simply not a fact to use in this discussion.

  • t-scape

    “Perhaps the saddest part of this situation for me is that the people who are thoughtlessly devouring this food that’s making us sick are not likely to have access to the movie or would even choose to see it if they did.”

    I think that is very true, and can sometimes be a bit deflating. But on the upside, I think that the level of discourse regarding these matters is increasing. If we keep it up (and don’t just shut up because we’re “the greatest country in the history of the world” and should just be happy with the way things are, because we all know great countries are made by people who keep their mouths shut, ahem) this may enter the consciousness of people who right now may not be interested. If we keep the conversation informative and non-judgmental, more people can be reached, IMO.

  • Connor

    Keep in mind that roughly 55% of field corn grown in this country is used for animal feed. Exports, the second largest end use, account for about 19%, followed by ethanol at 14%. Only a small percentage of field corn (about 5%) is used to make HFCS. Corn starch, sweeteners, cereal, and beer and alcohol together constitute less than 8% of the market. (http://www.iowacorn.org/cornuse/cornuse_3.html)

    I won’t argue with anyone here about HFCS and how it’s contributed to our nation’s obesity problem, but it’s misleading to center arguments about field corn around HFCS without putting it into a context.

    Also, I’ve observed a disturbing trend, not only in food writing but among peers, that often the people who champion “small farmers” the loudest are the same ones who dismiss small farmers who grow commodity crops. There’s no denying the weight and influence of Big Agribusiness. But big business/large corporate giants (whatever you want to call them) and their control in the marketplace is certainly not limited to agriculture. There are thousands upon thousands of small farmers who base their livelihoods upon commodity crops — most often, a combination of field corn, soybeans, and wheat. Much of the economy of the Midwest is based around this type of agriculture — everything from farm implement businesses to small town banks. It’s important to point out that produce farmers should not and cannot be compared against commodity crop farmers. The scale of the farms is different, the inputs and costs are different, the markets are different. A commodity crop farmer may farm 1000 acres, compared to the 100 acre produce farm, but both are still “small” farmers, and each faces a staggering amount of risk and debt in order to produce important products. Each deserves our respect.

  • rockandroller

    “Keep in mind that roughly 55% of field corn grown in this country is used for animal feed.”

    This is part of the problem, connor. our animals aren’t supposed to be raised on a diet primarily consisting of corn, and we are consuming them as well. So even though your steak or chicken doesn’t have corn on the label, you are consuming corn when you eat it, as you eat what the animal ate. It’s not as simple as saying “corn” appears on only X percent of labels and so that’s all we consume.

  • Claudia

    And, again, the corn=animal=ethanol=pollution paradigm, if Pollan and King Corn haven’t convinced you already:





    This kind of corn, Frankencorn, just ain’t the way to go – not as food, not as a biofuel – and not as unseen HFCS in so many of our food and other products (including toothpaste, BTW).


  • Connor

    Rockandroller — of course we consume corn indirectly when we eat animals who are fed corn. I’m not here to place value judgments on the different ways field corn is used — clearly, people have strong opinions about corn-based animal feeds, ethanol, HFCS, etc. I just think it’s important to acknowledge that a small % of total corn production ends up in HFSC, which many people don’t realize.

  • Tags

    The percentage of available corn used to make HFCS is irrelevant.

    More relevant is the percentage of foods available to consumers without HFCS. Just like “100% Whole Grain” certified bread, HFCS-free food is almost impossible to find in neighborhood markets. They just can’t be bothered “wasting” shelf space. Small farmers trying to run sustainable farms are being forced out by Agribusinesses leveraging their lobbyists.

    Profit isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Vendors that don’t feel that way are rare.

  • raoul duke

    you bitch and whine about large farm pirates, altered food supplies, farm subsidies, but when small farmers like us try to sell to you you squeal like a stuck pig that the price is outrageous. Action talks bulls**t walks.

  • hollerhither

    raoul duke, I’m sure you go through a lot in your line of work, and your comments probably apply in many cases, but I’m willing to bet most people who read this blog do go above and beyond to support local farms. I can at least speak for myself on that one, anyway.

  • Claudia

    I have to back Holler, Raoul – at least the demographics of THIS blog tend to be “locavores”. And even those who can’t afford organic/artisinal produce or don’t have much access to it still are supportive of small farms.

  • GG Mora

    Hey, Raoul – I just today paid $4.79 for a dozen local eggs and $8/lb for 10 lbs. of local naturally-raised pork belly. THAT pig may have squealed some, but I didn’t.

  • Fat Boy

    Just becuase HFCS is bad for you doesn’t mean field corn is evil. Steel isn’t bad just because some people use it to make handguns.

    Of course you can’t tuck in your bib and tear into a cob of field corn, and I am not going to condone nominating these guys for an Academy Award for filming themselves doing something that every farmer in America knows is just plain stupid. They might as well have made a movie about why you can’t eat cement. But field corn is prolific for one simple reason — it’s in demand. It’s a flexible, useful input to hundreds and hundreds of other products, some laudable, some not, we can debate that.

    While we bicker over it, field corn is being made into a SUPPLEMENT for livestock feed, distilled into ethanol as a vital means to American energy independence, etc. etc.


    You get rid of corn and there aren’t enough acres of forage to raise our national supply of beef. Get rid of corn and a hundred other ethanol technologies that are more energy efficient than corn-based ones would never come about. Get rid of corn and America becomes a net agricultural importer — and our food security ends up tomorrow the way our energy security looks today.

    I’m no shill for corn, but sometimes people can be a little too self-righteous about their food, at the risk of losing sight of the practical task of feeding 300 million Americans in this country. We will never be able to do it with farmers markets, folks, much as I would like to see that happen. Shoot, 11 percent of Americans go hungry at some point in the year NOW — and that’s according to the USDA.

    Sorry, Ruhlman, for a post that’s longer than your original message, but something had to be done about this.

  • Tags

    Field corn is prolific for one simple reason —

    it’s subsidized by congress

    after they’re targeted by lobbyists

    for companies that profit from bullying stores into carrying their products to the exclusion of healthy food.

    Time to wake up and smell a fresh pot of coffee while you can still drink it with something other than corn syrup and hydrodgenated dust.

  • Greg Turner

    It sounds like an excellent movie, taking a very small, very real look at two guys’ efforts to grow corn and make corn syrup and using that approachable situation to shed light on a much larger picture. I agree it’s a tragedy people won’t get to see it. But more tragic than that is people’s inability to buy anything healthier.

    Inexpensive food falls into one of three categories: easy to make, hours to make, or required specialized knowledge. The people who won’t see King Corn probably don’t have the time or money necessary to eat healthier, whether they know about it or not.

  • Patrick

    We should be banning HFCS, not Foie Gras. While we’re at it, lets lower the import tariffs on cane sugar.

  • deliberately

    Hey Ruhlman — interesting the number of posts on this subject, the amount of passion among folks on both sides, don’t you think? Perhaps this is a line of discussion that warrants more time and attention for world-class foodies such as yourself, eh? (Don’t tell Bourdain — he’d probably want to eat the disgusting field corn just to rail against the Zeitgeist!)

    Keep it up, love the blog.

  • Joel

    Are you folks serious? Get pissed about our overweight society and you decide to blame it on corn?

    You know what, people have been living on carbohydrates for thousands of years and the only difference between then and now is we’ve become really good at growing the stuff, American portions are way to much and have you ever noticed the drive up windows at the fast food places?

    The answer is simple, get out of the f*cking car, and put down the f*cking fork long before you finish that biggie sized “value” meal.

  • Joel

    Hey Raoul, yeah I sometimes stop by the co-op and pick up a few things but frankly the cost is too far out of line for my budget. I know it’s expensive to grow, but I just can’t lay out $20.00 for a single chicken.

  • Tags

    Nobody’s blaming corn, they’re blaming greedy bullies who intimidate stores into carrying their cheap-ass garbageous cornhole-ready crap.

    WE aren’t getting good at growing it, THEY are getting good at putting farmers in the position where they are forced to sell their corn to bullies.

    Every year they have less jobs because they find technology to replace people. That would work out to the good, because replacing these bums with sustainable farming will create more jobs (and satisfied voters), giving politicians an incentive once they figure it out.

  • The Purple Afghani

    Haven’t read the _Omnivore’s Dilemma_, but it is certainly on the docket.

    I do know this about corn in the United States of America:

    Instead of properly sharing the nation’s surfeit of corn with the starving people in the failing states of Africa, the U.S. government choses to poison it’s own citizens with it’s excess corn by allowing the mass conversion of it into high fructose corn syrup.


    I’ll see “King Corn” if/when it’s playing in my town. Checking the local theaters now . . . .

  • Ted

    I don’t guess there was any commentary about how NAFTA has made corn extremely expensive in Mexico, thus causing more economic problems down there… making masa for tortillas to (I seem to recall) become 10 times more expensive.

    (I heard last weekend that the price of corn is extremely low this season since so much was planted for the ethanol “boom”.)

  • Sean

    Claudia– Hydrogen requires more energy to produce than what it will provide as a fuel; so it’s a dead-end.

    johnmark7– Apparently you have issues with thinking, right?

    Tags– There isn’t going to be another fuel injection system to meet our future energy problems; we’re going to need to learn to conserve, which will probably mean doing without cars altogether.

    Fat Boy– Don’t be so optimistic about future ethanol technologies; even if cellulosic ethanol production could be made to work, the whole process still requires massive amounts of energy, water and land to produce the stuff. There’s a chance we might be facing a worldwide grain shortage in the near future, which would test the bounds of morality if we’re producing corn as a fuel rather than a food when people start to starve. Additionally, to grow anything will require fertilizers (even switchgrass– you can’t simply continuously harvest a “crop” without putting something back in) which are made of natural gas, which is in full scale depletion on our continent. A dirty little secret is that more and more of our fertilizers are coming from the Middle East. So, it is perfectly insane to assume that we’ll be using ethanol in any meaningful capacity.

  • Claudia

    Well, then here’s loo0king at electric cars. Anything has to be better than what we’ve got right now.

  • Sean

    Claudia, there’s not enough spare capacity in the electric grid to provide the energy necessary to charge 200,000,000 cars. The future will likely be about using cars much less, and moving towards walkable communities, mass transit, etc.

  • Frances

    I thought this was kind of funny. I don’t know why, it’s kind of like, “How can this be done?” Answer, “Well, we ain’t figured that out yet. You got any idears?”

    “In the immediate future there is no “turn-key” small-scale solar-electrolyzer- fuelmaker system available for an individuals home, but recent news stories featured on the American Hydrogen website and others hint at such a future. As with most technologies, miniaturization of hydrogen refueling components, perhaps using nanotechnologies, will make such appliances practically affordable. Maybe someone reading this very article may take it upon himself or herself to invent such an integrated device and make it available to the public.”

    From http://www.clean-air.org/conversion_kit_response.htm

    I’m very conscientious about the environment and believe that hydrogen will be a viable option in the not-too-distant future. I mean, hydrogen – we have lots of that laying around and it burns even cleaner than natural gas.

    But I would also like to see sustainable, community-oriented towns with effective mass-transit systems. I would like to see people suddenly realising that they don’t need a car anymore.

  • Sean

    “hydrogen- we have lots of that laying around”

    No we don’t.

    Hydrogen will always, always, always require more energy to produce than it can ever provide as a “fuel.” Argue that point all you want, but the laws of thermodynamics never sleep.

    And to suggest that we can simply use solar to replace the 10 million barrels of gasoline we use each day in this country is absurd; I doubt even 1% of the households in the country could afford to replace their current electrical needs with solar, so the belief that we’ll power our cars with a few solar panels is lunacy.

    I’ve studied this issue in-depth, and have even spent time talking to some of the players. I used to be very naive and held the assumption that a techo-fix would come along “just in time” to save our bacon, but now I’m not so sure. And, if you’ve read the Hirsch report you’d realize that it’s probably already too late to expect an orderly transition to a non-oil based way of life…