Independent Lens: 'King Corn'

 Filmmakers Ian Cheney (left) and Curt Ellis.
Filmmakers Ian Cheney (left) and Curt Ellis. ( Sam Cullman -- ITVS)
Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney
Wednesday, April 16, 2008; 12:00 PM

Filmmakers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney were online Wednesday, April 16 at noon ET to discuss "King Corn," which follows a crop of corn from seed to your dinner plate and looks at the impact the grain has on U.S. diets and health.

"King Corn" aired Tuesday, April 15 at 10 p.m. on PBS's "Independent Lens."

The transcript follows.


San Francisco: Have you changed your eating habits since learning so much about corn?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: This seems like a good first question! The answer is very much so, yes. We don't drink soda anymore (though Curt had one when we were showing the film on Capitol Hill ... he was nervous and it seemed like a comforting idea). And we certainly can't look at a corn-fed hamburger the same way. We eat a lot of grass-fed beef now, and had our hair retested and are down to 30-something percent corn (from 52 percent and 58 percent!).


Timken, Kan.: Why didn't you show how the "canning" corn is produced? This is what is canned for human consumption, and is very sweet, very tender and a completely different product than what you showed in the film. In addition, there was no mention of the flavor and texture of grass-fed beef, and how the consistency varies across the landscape because of grass variations. Why not?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: To answer your first question, we didn't eat a whole lot of canned corn, so we didn't think it merited much discussion. We did eat a lot of burgers and drink a lot of soda, so that did. Sweet corn is a great food, and we enjoy it whenever we can get it fresh.

As for grass-fed beef, consistency varies, but that has a lot to do with the fact that our whole processing and shipping system isn't set up for grass-fed beef anymore. If you hang it right, store it right, butcher it right and serve it right, it tastes fantastic. Like beef used to taste. But it requires different treatment than corn-fed beef does, so if you just jam a grass-fed carcass into that system it won't necessarily be as good. For now, you should buy grass-fed beef from farmers who really know their stuff, and I think you'll love it. It's more flavorful, leaner, and is tender and delicious if you don't overcook it.


Harrisburg, Pa.: To what degree do energy costs matter in getting that corn produced and ultimately delivered to one's table?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: We were amazed by the amount of fossil fuel it took to grow our corn. From the anhydrous ammonia fertilizer (made by burning natural gas) to the tractors (diesel) to drying our corn so it could be stored (propane), the whole operation seemed much more extractive than we expected. When people talk about high food prices these days, they really have to look at the rising cost of petroleum as a big reason for the spike. And when you understand that, alternatives like local food production start to look far more appealing ... and competitive in the marketplace.


Alexandria, Va.: But most corn never makes it to your dinner plate, in the direct sense! Most corn is used as cheap feed on factory farms. Corn is primarily present as a human dietary component in the forms of our ever-increasing and completely lethal collective meat intake, and as a still-not-great sweetener. How much would corn production and consumption decrease if meat intake went down by just 15 percent?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: As developing nations like China start to eat more and more meat, there's a real question on the table about how much meat we can produce responsibly. In our own country, we think we'd be better off for eating a little less meat, and making sure it's of the highest quality.


Clifton, Va.: Who wants corn on the dinner plate? Its far better in a mason jar in liquid form. Nothing beats fine Virginia untaxed corn liquor!

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: We couldn't agree more.


Rockville, Md.: We never had much corn on our family farm in Texas (north of Lubbock a bit) but I always was impressed by the plant, and we had enough to eat and freeze. Why so much opposition now? When I see how much corn they grow in Maryland, it is amazing. They could feed a lot of the world. Are there ways to rotate crops and reduce insects and blight that are friendly to the environment?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: We're not against corn in any way -- but we do think some of the products corn becomes ... and the way corn is subsidized... deserves a close look now. We're in the middle of a serious obesity epidemic, and a centerpiece of our diet is processed corn.


Trinidad and Tobago: This was an excellent documentary. I was amazed by all that I saw. I appreciate all the work that went into making the film. The filmmakers made this into an intriguing, fun documentary to watch, one I definitely would (and already have) recommended others to see!

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: Thanks! More questions like that one, please!


Royal Oak, Mich.: I watched your film last night. I commend both of you on opening the public's eyes to what the mainstream agriculture of our country is. What is next for both of you?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: Thanks for asking. We're just releasing a film about Boston's first big Green Building condominium. The film is called "The Greening of Southie," and it'll air on the Sundance Channel on Earth Day (April 22). The Web site will be up today or tomorrow. Aaron, the director of King Corn, has started a grocery store in Brooklyn called Urban Rustic.


Arvada, Colo.: I knew a lot of this stuff, but the perspective you bring to it really tied together a lot of concerns I've had and put them all in one big picture. This was very well done, and I really appreciate how you handled the subject matter. I come from farming roots and found this perspective to be spot-on. I also am concerned: What became of the Pyatt family after they lost their farm? Thanks! People need to understand how utterly poisonous the majority of the foods we are encouraged to consume really are.

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: Thanks for asking about the Pyatts. Chuck had seven sons, and none of them wanted to become farmers. He told us one time that "the joy is gone out of farming." Chuck had the auction you saw at the end of the film, and moved north to the big city ... a small town about twice the size of Greene, and ten miles north. He calls often, and we go out to visit him when we can.


South Windsor, Conn.: Please speak to this issue: Are you aware that the whole "New Coke" and "Classic Coke" nonsense was strictly about removing the remaining percentage of sucrose from Coke and replacing it with 100 percent fructose? The new "Classic Coke" contains no sucrose at all.

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: We looked into it, but had a hard time finding journalistically reliable verification for that. I think it's very likely that that was true, though, and now you've got to get Mexican Coke or Kosher Coke to find the sugar-based stuff.


Monroe, Mich.: I stumbled upon your story on Toledo, Ohio's station, channel 30, after dropping my taxes in the mail. I was hooked. I had a classmate in college who developed a weird corn allergy and was always fascinated about the things she could not eat. She said she had lost weight once she removed corn from her diet and felt great. It had to be very difficult to eat this way. I once actually offered her some fresh-popped popcorn. -- My questions is. Has anyone done a study of people who are allergic to corn? What is the cure? What causes it? Or is it ignored? There are more people out there suffering.

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: There's a huge corn allergy community out there, and it's hard to imagine a more difficult challenge. A little Web hunting will put you in touch with them. Many folks we talked to couldn't go see King Corn in the theaters because it would put them too near the popcorn. Thanks for mentioning the taxes, by the way -- it seemed fitting to us that the film would air on the day people were paying for those government subsidies!


San Francisco: Were there any studies published about the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup when the government started subsidizing corn crops? Was the intention to help build up the food industry with longer-lasting preservatives and cheap sweeteners?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: We weren't looking for conspiracy theories, and didn't stumble into any along the way. It was probably just a reasonable mix of ingenuity and market demand that helped get high-fructose corn syrup off the ground. ... Japanese scientists developed a way of making the stuff affordably, and we had a lot of corn lying around that was unbelievably cheap.


Salem, Ill.: Ellis and Cheney -- excellent documentary and very well done! I was amazed and very saddened at all of the information you guys uncovered. You really opened my eyes and answered a lot of questions for me (including, why beef doesn't taste nearly as good as it did in the '60s). I am switching to 100 percent grass-fed, range-raised, organic, Kosher meats, and to 100 percent organic fruits and vegetables. No more processed and pretend "foods" for me. I am tired of being sick, tired and fat, and am en route to becoming healthy, energetic and lean.

America is genetically altering ourselves, our animals and our land to death -- all for the almighty dollar. The sad thing is that most people in the U.S. really don't have a clue why they are so sick -- and that our government actually is subsidizing the diseases that are killing us. You two ought to hook up with Doug Kaufmann, put your heads together and make another film -- "King Corn II." Thanks for a great film, guys!

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: Thanks for your nice note. It's really heartening to hear from people who have changed their diets after seeing the film. We felt we had to after seeing it happen live. But a sequel?! That sounds tiring!


Rockville, Md.: This strikes me as being on the same level as Sen. Kennedy being against "ugly windmills" and people who say McDonald's is killing us -- just propaganda.

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: There's no doubt personal choice has a big role in the obesity epidemic, but I think when we're subsidizing corn production with federal tax dollars ($51.3 billion from 1995-2005) that does merit a close look. If we changed the policies on these issues, we really could make a difference in our health. Similarly, for all the talk the presidential candidates are giving to the "health care crisis," we should remember that more than 50 percent of the health care costs related to obesity and diabetes have to be paid for by public programs like Medicare and Medicaid. If we want to fix the problem, we have to address the root cause.


Pittsburgh: The carbon in your hair comes from corn. That corn is rich in carbon. That carbon came from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Do you think expanding corn production ever could help stop global warming?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: Doubtful. Corn's an annual, so it doesn't sequester carbon the way a perennial prairie would. It takes a lot of carbon-based fuel to grow corn, too.


Trinidad and Tobago: I think it's fascinating that Ian and Curt attempted not eating corn for an entire month. While watching the documentary, similar thoughts were going through my mind. "Should I try to stop eating corn and see exactly how difficult it is? What changes would I have to make?" Living in Trinidad now in the 21st century could be very similar to living in the U.S., foodwise, depending on the choices you make. This documentary has brought to mind many issues, and I hope as many people as possible see this documentary!

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: It's not that you need to stop eating corn (it's healthy enough) but that none of us should be eating the amount of processed food that we do. For us, getting corn out of our diet for a month was a powerful way of learning just how hooked in we were to the industrial food system. There's a corn-free eating challenge you can join at the film's Web site.


Poison: Re: Corn-fed beef; did your film discuss the health issues involved in the beef itself? Beyond the hormones and antibiotics, factory-produced corn-feed beef has more saturated fat to go along with that bland taste.

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: We did. That's in the film -- the corn-based diet gets cows to put on more fat, and more saturated fat, than a grass-based diet. That's reason enough for people to convert to the grass-fed variety.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi. Saw your film at the D.C. Environmental Film Festival last year, and afterward you and a member of Congress talked about the farm bill. I was all riled up about our crazy system of subsidies and hoping we'd get a more sensible farm bill ... then the issue sort of slipped from my radar. So, could you give an update on what's been happening at the federal level in the past year or so? Thanks! Harvesting Cash: A Year-Long Washington Post Investigation Into Farm Subsidies

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: The Farm Bill is still in negotiations now! The House and Senate passed bills that were only marginally better than the previous legislation, and they're trying to work out their differences now and get the budget down a bit. It's an important time to write your legislators, because the things that are likely to be cut are important conservation programs and research for alternatives to the world of the corn kingdom. But the real project we have on our hands is getting a great farm bill through in the next round... five years from now. As Sen. Harkin (an Iowan and the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee) said (paraphrasing) "It's not just a farm bill, it's a food bill... and urban people want a stake in it." That's what will change this legislation, is people standing up to say they actually care.


Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: This seems like a blank question. But we'll add something anyway! For those of you who haven't had a chance to see the film, PBS is airing it this week, so check local listings or visit this Web site for show times. Additionally, DVDs, a trailer and more information are on our Web site.


Clifton, Va.: Corn is primary ingredient in the dog food produced by the big dog food companies. The problem is that a large percentage of dogs are allergic to corn, and the dogs don't process the corn. Herding breeds have corn allergy rates of about 50 percent. Sorry, grass-fed beef will have a discernable taste based on the type of grass the livestock or poultry was raised on.

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: You're right, and we've been amazed to learn just what an art form it is to raise great grass-fed beef or pastured poultry. Farmers spend an incredible amount of time and thought getting their pasture composition just right, and really can drive disease rates down and taste up by making sure the animals are on the right mix of grasses. Needless to say, we've been humbled by farmers again.


Tyler, Texas: Curt and Ian, what other major parts of the world have followed the U.S. model to date, if any?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: Well, if memory serves, China is now the second biggest corn grower in the world, and the biggest importer. Japan also is very big. Developing nations are looking to the U.S. model of industrialized food production to get cheap food to a newly-urbanized population (just last year the world's population balance tipped from rural to urban), and with that shift is coming a global spike in obesity and diabetes.


Chicago: From your documentary it appears that ethanol production really isn't a big part of where corn production goes. Is all the media attention on rising prices because of ethanol production off the mark?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: Ethanol has become a huge part of the equation, but only recently. When we shot our film, it wasn't nearly as important as it is today. Biofuels are definitely pushing up the cost of corn, but so is global demand, and so is the rising cost of gas ... which itself is a big part of growing corn on 1,000-acre farms. In any case, it seems like the ethanol hype may be short-lived, as it really requires a big government subsidy (and takes a big environmental toll) to make the stuff.


Bethesda, Md.: Does the rest of the world rely on corn-feed for its beef production? Is this unique to the U.S.?

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: It's not unique to the US, but it is a system we're exporting quickly around the world. Argentina and Brazil have had big grass-fed beef operations for a long time, but they're starting to grow corn there now, and feed it to cattle in feedlots. The picture is changing very fast, especially in places like China, and very soon the world may all be eating corn-fed beef instead of the grass-fed variety. But we think that would be a short-sighted mistake.


Anchorage, Alaska: Personal choice is a biggie -- as one of the farmers said, people want cheap food. Why not quit blaming corn and blame a lack of exercise, video games, laziness, etc. ... as you know, there are a variety of reasons for the increase in obesity. Other countries are much thinner than us -- did you look into high-fructose corn syrup use in European countries? I really enjoyed the show; growing up in rural Iowa gave me an appreciation for how hard farmers work.

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: There's no doubt personal responsibility could help fix the situation, but it hasn't yet. We've set up a food system that puts lower-income populations at a unique risk, by making the least-healthy foods artificially cheap. Between 1985 and 2000, for instance, the real dollar price of fruits and vegetables rose by 38 percent. Over the same period the price of soda fell by 23 percent. For people who don't have much of an economic choice to shop at health food markets and the like, our food system is brutal. So we do think policy has a role that's at least equal as personal choice. As for Europe, they don't consume much high-fructose corn syrup there, but that's quickly becoming a global product.


Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: Hey! Here's another chance to plug the DVD, which is available at our Web site. We're also doing school and community screenings through Bullfrog Films. The PBS broadcast is replaying in most markets over the next week, so tell your friends if you're able.


Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney: Okay! Looks like that's all the time we have for today. Thanks very much for your great questions, and please write in to PBS with your comments and ideas, too.

For the person who asked about corn growing overseas, there's a full list here. The graph shows pretty dramatically how corn-based the U.S. food and agriculture system is relative to the world. We have the cheapest food of anyone, but we have our share of health problems, too.

Thanks all for taking the time to chat.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company