Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Me So Corny - By Annie Bell (Blue Egg)

King Corn producers and Yale graduates Ian Cheney, who’s from Massachusetts, and Curtis Ellis, who’s from Oregon, decided that their post-collegiate cross-country trip should include a stop in Iowa to plant an acre of corn. Why not just eat and drink their way through diners and local bars in blissful ignorance? “When you’re graduating from college, you want to think that you know something about the world,” says Ellis. “To realize that we knew nothing about the middle of our own country and about where the stuff that we’re eating all the time comes from—it seemed like something we ought to look into if we were going to keep eating this stuff.”

Their movie, which is in select theaters now, documents the guys learning how to plant corn and discovering that farm subsidies have made the crop cheap and corn by-products ubiquitous. They visit Earl Butz, the former Secretary of Agriculture who changed policy to favor overproduction of corn, and Michael Pollan makes an appearance to talk about the ramifications of such a market.

Ellis explains, “The subsidy system promotes corn production often beyond demand. The result of that is that there is a glut of corn on the market and the raw material for making all of these processed foods is incredibly cheap. The price of high fructose corn syrup is infinitesimally small, because that corn costs so little and you can make a substance that is so sweet. So you can now have a 72-ounce soda that’s a buck—and you could never do that with cane sugar.”

Though corn prices have risen since the two were working on their one-acre farm, Cheney says the whole system is a problem: “Cheap corn put in place a system that we’re hooked on. People who raise cattle were lured in by the economic logic of feeding their cows cheap corn, and now they’re dedicated to this system of raising their cattle on cheap corn. I read about one farmer in Idaho who is now feeding his cows tater tot scraps.” Ellis can’t help himself: “It’s like the burger eating the French Fries.”

They answered some starch-free questions for Blue Egg.

Have your diets changed since making King Corn?Cheney:

After visiting a confinement cattle feeding operation and then having stared at the footage for two years, it becomes pretty hard to disconnect that from your hamburger. And that is arguably what the hamburger industry thrives on—no one knowing where their food comes from. Ellis: It doesn’t taste good anymore—that’s the worst part. Because you know what goes into a hamburger. It sucks because I used to really love hamburgers.

When I read about the movie, I assumed you were going to get nasty with big agriculture. But you didn’t.Ellis:

I think it’s easy to imagine things as simpler as they are. When we got to Iowa and actually spent a year growing corn, we learned the system we have in place is complicated and we didn’t have all the answers. Pointing fingers didn’t make sense. The big grain companies are responsible because they process all of this cheap corn into sugars that down the line make people sick. But we’re the people down the line and we’re responsible for buying this stuff. The Congress is intimately responsible because they’re the ones passing the Farm Bill. It just didn’t feel fair of us to come in and point fingers when we were there to learn. Cheney: It might have been an easier story to point out that big grain companies make huge profits from cheap corn while selling people nutritionally useless food. But the more intriguing story is that the mechanism that allows this system to happen is this boring legislation called the Farm Bill, which we all pay for. And that’s a story that’s more surprising and maybe even more important because we can complain about big grain companies, but we can actually change something like the Farm Bill.

What eco accomplishment are you most proud of?Ellis:

Starting the recycling program in my elementary school. Cheney: When I was in college, one of my best friends who edited the film, Jeff Miller and I would dress up every April 15 in goofy tights and funny hats and bike around this dumpster on wheels saying hilarious things about encouraging people to recycle. And to this day I still have people tell me that when they have a can and they think about recycling it, they think about that day and laugh and enjoy recycling that much more. It was a simple message: nobody likes to be told what to do to clean up their act, but of you tell it to them in a roundabout and humorous way…

What eco sin are you most proud of?Ellis:

I drove a 40-year old Volvo across the country last summer and burned 20 quarts of oil in the process.Cheney: Sending our corn off to become burgers and sodas. Not spending a year growing healthful food.

What’s the one tradeoff you’d rather not make no matter how good it is for the environment? Cheney:

Traveling to see wonderful parts of the world. Ellis: My big family, my older siblings. It would be good for the environment to get rid of my five older siblings, but…

If it would get you where you needed to go, would you prefer to walk, bike, or bus?Ellis: Walk.Cheney:

Bike. Bicycles are awesome.Whom would you choose to be your carpool buddy and why?Ellis: Ian. We’ve been carpool buddies for a long time now.Cheney: Oh yes. We have learned how to be in cars together for a really long time.

What’s the one easy thing you do for the environment that you wish everyone else would do?Cheney:

I ask a lot of questions every day about where the food I eat comes from. Ellis: Saying “no” to a bag when I have one item or less.Any books, articles, or websites you would recommend?Cheney: The Environmental Working Group is an important resource. I like this great book by Richard Manning called Against the Grain. Ellis: Yeah that is the book that started it all but nobody has read it. [I would add] Wes Jackson’s Altars of Unhewn Stone and Becoming Native to This Place. Cheney: The Land Institute is awesome—a revolutionary way of thinking about the middle of our country.

No comments: