I heard about this documentary a while ago and just got around to watching it. (You can watch it on Hulu.) It follows two friends’ search to figure out why and how corn become such a giant part of our food system, such a common ingredient in foods at grocery stores. It’s hard to believe how ubiquitous corn is. In this movie, Michael Pollan tells us to consider a McDonald’s happy meal. What corn could there be in a burger, soda and fries? Surprisingly, there is almost a 100% chance that the beef was fed on a diet that consisted mainly of corn. The soda’s main ingredient and source of sweetness is high fructose corn syrup. The fries have probably been deep fried in corn oil. This is all the product of a massive increase in corn production over the last 30 years, after the government started promoting a “get big or get out” philosophy with commodity crops like corn. Across the country, people are planting more acres of corn, and producing more corn per acre. This corn isn’t even edible to humans before it’s processed into corn oil or high fructose corn syrup. We’re producing more corn than we know what to do with, so it ends up in giant granaries, its supply disproportional to demand. The government has to buy the corn from farmers and subsidize it to keep them in business. Farmers are motivated to increase their yield per acre, increasing supply and feeding this wasteful, costly cycle.
To investigate this phenomenon, friends Ian and Curtis buy an acre of farmland in Greene, Iowa. They grow their own corn crop, taking part in the process from planting to harvesting. On top of learning firsthand through farming, they talk to scientists, politicians, and local farmers. They try to trace their corn’s path to the supermarket. It proves impossible because they lose track of their individual harvest as soon as it is poured into the grain elevator, lost in a sea of Greene corn. In the end though, they learn about the system so that it becomes easy to predict the corn’s journey. It will go from farm to grain elevator through processors to become animal feed or high fructose corn syrup or corn oil. Ian and Curtis learn just how ridiculous this journey is. The system sacrifices the health of American citizens, cattle, and the environment in its pursuit of economic stability. It’s not cheap in environmental costs nor is it sustainable. It’s hard to imagine how we could change a system with so much momentum and so many people behind it.
We want to counter this “get big or get out” philosophy. We need to give our support to farms that are built on sustainability, part of a more balanced system. Knowing that corn is in so many processed foods makes me want to eat fresh, whole foods even more. And as important as personal choice is, I think that this issue ultimately requires change within the government to be solved. The government is the force perpetuating the system, so the government must be the force to stop it. The more people that know about the issue, the more who will want to fight it and get things done. Our job is just to support what we think is right and spread the word until the controversy becomes so big that the government can’t ignore it.