Almost everything Americans eat contains corn: high fructose corn syrup, corn-fed meat, and corn-based processed foods. These are the staples of the modern diet. Ready for an adventure and alarmed by signs of their generation’s bulging waistlines, college friends Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis knew where to go to investigate. Eighty years ago, Ian and Curt’s great-grandfathers lived just a few miles apart, in the same rural county in northern Iowa. Now their great-grandsons are returning with a mission: they will plant an acre of corn, follow their harvest into the world, and attempt to understand what they — and all of us — are really made of.
Co-Producers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis became best friends at Yale. In college, Ian and Curt tried in various ways to reconnect students to their food, releasing sheep on the central campus, working to bring local foods into the dining halls, and taking incoming freshmen on orientation trips to organic farms. After graduation, Ian and Curt took a cross-country trip, and learned how little they really knew about the centerpiece of the American diet — corn. With Curt’s cousin, Aaron, on board as director, the team moved to Iowa and started farming and filming in 2004. This week’s interview is with Co-Producer, Curt Ellis.
Name: Curt Ellis
Birthday: December 15, 1979
Location: Portland, OR
Diet Detective: Hello Curt, thanks for taking time to participate in this interview. You co-created a very interesting film, which really hits home. What possessed you to make it?
Curt: A good question! I guess we thought making a movie about watching corn grow was a good challenge; the logical sequel is about watching paint dry. There was a good reason for it, though –– my best friend and I were graduating from college, and we realized that we knew absolutely nothing about the food we were eating every day. That just didn’t seem right.
Diet Detective: Would you mind giving our readers a brief description and purpose of the film “King Corn?
Curt: Sure. King Corn is a feature documentary that follows my best friend Ian Cheney and I as we move to Iowa, grow an acre of genetically-modified corn, and follow our 10,000 pound harvest as it becomes fast-food. The film was directed by my cousin, Aaron Woolf, and gives a real behind-the-scenes look at where the staples of our modern diet –– high fructose corn syrup and corn-fed meat –– come from on the farm. The DVD is on our website, www.kingcorn.net.
Diet Detective: Watching your documentary, I was surprised by the soaking of the soil with ammonia and the spraying the crops with pesticides. What was the most surprising thing you learned about the business of farming –– what wowed you?
Curt: The most amazing thing to us was how little physical work is involved in the modern farm. All told, I think we spent about two hours of physical labor over the course of the year to grow five tons of food! That’s enough corn to sweeten 57,000 cans of soda –– and we did it by driving an air-conditioned tractor over the field four times. A friend of ours sent Ian a pair of work gloves when we moved to Iowa, but they never came out of the package.
Diet Detective: In the movie both you and Ian eat a lot of fast food. Since learning about the industry, what has changed about your eating habits? What is a typical day of eating for you?
Curt: A lot has changed in the way we eat. When you see a 100,000-head cattle feedlot, and know those cows are getting sick standing shoulder to shoulder eating corn, it’s hard to order a corn-fed burger. We also went to New York and met a cab driver whose whole family was suffering from type II diabetes, after a lifetime of drinking soda. It made us re-think things a great deal. Now I buy grass-fed beef and shop at the farmer’s market, and I reserve corn syrup for ketchup, which I love too much to quit. Aaron has actually opened a natural foods store in Brooklyn since finishing the film; it’s called Urban Rustic.
Diet Detective: Should we really be that worried about the foods we eat? How serious is it on a scale of one to ten, one being not so serious and ten being very serious. And do we really need to be eating organic and locally grown everything? Is that even possible?
Curt: In an immediate sense, I think what we’re eating is relatively safe, but that’s only one way of judging our entire food system, which happens to be in crisis –– a ten on a one-to-ten scale. The CDC predicts that one in three current first-graders will develop type II diabetes at some point in their lifetime — that’s unheard of! From 1995-2005, we paid more than $50 billion in subsidies to promote corn production. Now we’re paying again, because half of all obesity-related medical costs are shouldered by publicly funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Since the 1970s, we’ve remade our food system around the fats of corn-fed beef and the sugars of high-fructose corn syrup, and it’s making us sick.
Diet Detective: In the film, you had your hair analyzed –– can you tell us about that? Did you ever have your hair analyzed again after changing your eating habits? If so, what were the results?
Curt: This was amazing. There’s a researcher at University of Virginia who burned samples of our hair, and traced the carbon in our bodies back to its original source. He’s tested hair samples from people like George Washington and Oetzi the Ice Man. It turned out that I was 53% corn, and Ian was 58% corn — and we only ate sweet corn twice a year! It was a real revelation to us to understand just how pervasive that one crop is in our diets.
Diet Detective: In the film, you show how everything Americans eat contains corn. Tell us a bit about corn and what you’ve learned.
Curt: Well, I’ll put it this way: Ian and I became friends in college through a daily pilgrimage we made together to the local donut shop. I called recently and found out what was in those donuts. Almost all the ingredients had come from corn! The citric acid, dextrose, yeast, maltodextrin, whey, mono- and diglycerides, cellulose, propylene glycol (what does propylene glycol look like?!), natural flavor, artificial flavor, and xanthan gum –– not to mention the high fructose corn syrup –– all originated as corn!
Diet Detective: What are your suggestions on eating? What should we eat and how should we eat based on what you’ve learned from the film?
Curt: It’s not that corn is bad, or that corn syrup is necessarily worse for you than sugar. The real problem with corn is that it puts the least healthy foods everywhere. It makes them super cheap, too. Between 1985 and 2000, for instance, the real dollar price of fruits and vegetables increased 38%. In the same period, the price of soda fell 23%. The only sure-fire way to eat well, I think, is to buy food from a farmer, and eat things that look like they did on the farm. Buy a carrot that looks like a carrot, not a corn cob that suddenly looks like a Pepsi.
Diet Detective: In the movie, you discover that your acre of corn is inedible. Does all industrial corn destine for process food taste that way?
Curt: When we first drove through Iowa, Ian and I thought all those fields were growing sweet corn. Boy, were we wrong! There’s 90 million acres of field corn grown in America every year, and it’s profoundly different from what we eat as corn on the cob. Field corn is meant to be dried, stored, processed, or fed to cattle. It becomes the glue in cardboard boxes, the fuel in your ethanol-powered car, or the syrup in your soda — it doesn’t taste very good fresh.
Diet Detective: Did you visit any other type farms or were you only focused on corn? If so, what surprised you about these other monoculture farms?
Curt: There are a lot of soybeans grown in Iowa, and those are much the same as corn. They’re subsidized by the government, and have been instrumental in our shift to confinement-raised meat and processed food. Like corn, soy is grown with lots of chemical fertilizer and genetic modification, and it doesn’t feel as much like a family farm as it used to.
Diet Detective: In the end, how much money did you and Ian make from your one acre of corn after all the government subsidies? Speaking with the farmers, do they feel that the current agricultural system needs an overall change? What needs to be done? How do the farmers survive?
Curt: In the end, we weren’t very good corn farmers. We lost money growing the corn (as the typical farmer in Iowa did that year), but we made money off the farm subsidies. We netted about eight bucks from our acre, but if we’d been better at playing the system, we could’ve made a lot more. If you’ve got a 2,000-acre farm, you can do pretty well; the government will give you a subsidy for growing corn ––whether or not the market demands it.
Diet Detective: What’s your favorite breakfast?
Curt: I like a good breakfast sandwich with tofu and spinach — gotta love those soybeans.
Diet Detective: Do you have time to exercise? What do you do?
Curt: I run, but my goal for the next year is to build more physical activity into my daily life. I’m also hoping to start farming again — the old-fashioned way.
Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthy ingredient? What’s the one thing you’d suggest people keep in their kitchen if they want to cook healthy meals?
Curt: I’ve become a real convert to grass-fed beef. If you haven’t tried it, you should. It’s much lower in saturated fat than the corn-fed stuff, and you feel better knowing that the cow had a healthy life.
Diet Detective: Who do you respect most, or who motivates you and why?
Curt: I have a profound respect for farmers. They’re in a tight spot these days, caught between a demanding economy and a runaway food system. When I meet people my age who are willing to take the risk and start a farm growing real food, I’m incredibly inspired.
Diet Detective: What’s your favorite junk food?
Curt: Donuts. Glazed donuts.
Diet Detective: What’s the most bodacious chance you’ve ever taken?
Curt: I’d say making this film. We took four years off from day jobs, racked up an absurd amount of credit card debt, and believed that Americans would go to theaters to see a movie about farm subsidies! I guess that’s not bodacious — that’s stupid. But it worked!
Diet Detective: What was your worst summer job?
Curt: Actually, I spent one summer after college –– when we were trying to get King Corn off the ground –– working on the set of fast-food commercials. I can’t think of a better way to see that something’s wrong in America’s kitchen.