In 2004, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis were best friends and new graduates from Yale who were concerned about the American obesity epidemic, and embarrassed by how little they knew about what they were eating. Inspired by the coincidental discovery that their great grandparents came from the same small county in rural Iowa, they moved to the heartland to learn where their food was coming from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, nitrogen fertilizers, and government subsidies, they rented an acre of land and grew a bumper crop of corn. But as they tried to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they found raises troubling questions about how we eat and how we farm.
Corn is the United States’ most-planted, most-processed, most-subsidized crop. More than 80 million acres of the heartland are planted in corn each year and delivered to our tables. There is legislative logic to the flood of cheap corn-based foods. In 2005, federal subsidies spent $9.4 billion in taxpayer money to promote corn production. For Iowa farmers over the last half-century, these payments have often meant the difference between profit and loss on a given acre. With the Farm Bill promoting production beyond market demand, the raw materials for an obesity epidemic were readily at hand, and America’s food manufacturers designed and marketed fast and processed foods from that abundant supply of cheap corn.
Since King Corn’s release in 2007, ethanol, global demand and speculation in commodity markets have driven the price of corn to significantly higher levels than were reflected in the film. Though corn is now less affordable than it once was, the infrastructure investment that American food manufacturers made in building a corn-fed food system has slowed any transition away from corn-based ingredients, and the crop’s fast- and processed foods remain staples in the national diet. Over the past three decades, consumption of high fructose corn syrup has increased 1,000 percent. Between 1970 and 2007, the number of acres planted in corn in the U.S. increased by 39 percent. In 2007, 92.9 million acres of farmland were devoted to growing corn. In contrast, only 2 million acres of vegetables were planted. Simultaneously, high fructose corn syrup has become the nation’s #1 sweetener, and the percentage of Americans who are categorized as overweight or obese has increased from 47.7 to 66 percent in the same time period.