The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
In the year 2000, the average American consumed 73 pounds of corn syrup. King Corn, which, depending on where you live, is coming to a theater near you sometime this fall, is the story of two guys who decided to find out what would happen if they moved to Iowa, grew an acre of corn, and traced its path through the giant metabolic engine that is the American food system. Unsurprisingly, the plot resembles the path that Michael Pollan traced in his seminal doorstop The Omnivore's Dilemma, with two important differences: 1. King Corn is a movie, so it's relatively short and accessible 2. King Corn is surprisingly funny I don't know if this film is going to get as wide a distribution as Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, but it certainly deserves to. In fact, this is probably one of those movies that should be required viewing in just about every classroom in America. Spoiler alert: Here's what you'll learn from King Corn. (All this data comes straight from the movie, so take it with a grain of salt; I haven't had time to fact-check it.) * Those amber waves of grain (or corn) you see rushing past your window on roadtrips? You wouldn't want to eat that corn. The overwhelming majority of corn grown in this country is so foul to the human palate that one scene in King Corn has our protagonists taking bites of the fruits of their labor and then spitting them out in disgust. That's because modern feed corn has been bred for two things, and delectability isn't one of them: to tolerate being planted very close to its neighbors (to increase yield) and to produce as much starch as possible (to increase yield). * Most of that corn goes to one of two places -- the vast corn-syrup factories that produce the one sweetener that can be found in just about every junk food (and even non junk food) item in the grocery store, or to feed cattle. Feeding corn to cattle makes them fat and sick, by the way, but also delicious, since it raises the saturated fact content of their flesh. * If you were to pluck one of your hairs and analyze the origins of its carbon, most of it came from corn. That's right -- you're mostly corn! That's because all the chicken and beef you've ever eaten (or almost all of it) was corn-fed. And those snacks and sodas? All corn syrup. Even the fries we eat are up to 50% corn by caloric content if they are fried in corn oil. * Yield per acre for corn farming is 4-5 times what it was before the introduction of artificial fertilizer. This is part of the reason that Americans now spend only on average 16% of their take-home pay on food. Thanks corn! (But boo to your making us obese!) Here's something I'll add that I stole from Michael Pollan, which doesn't really get addressed in King Corn: all that artificial fertilizer is basically the product of fossil fuels. So, more or less, if we're made out of corn, and our food system is dependent on corn, and corn is dependent on fossil fuels, then, in a manner of speaking, we're all petroleum by-products. Last weekend I spent some time on an actual farm, and I asked the farmer, who was typical in that he had a giant farm that hardly resembled the family farms of yore, where his fertilizer came from. Russia, he said. Because in Russia, they use natural gas to produce fertilizer -- whereas in the U.S., we use it to produce energy, on account of it burning cleaner than coal. Now you know where your Big Mac ultimately came from -- the Precambrian, by way of St. Petersburg.