GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

FILM "King Corn"

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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. They moved to the heartland to learn where their food was coming from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, nitrogen fertilizers, powerful herbicides 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 raised troubling questions about how we eat and how we farm.

A "movie poster" image for King Corn: You Are What You Eat.
Credit: IMDb

KING CORN, a feature-length (83-minute) documentary directed by Curt’s cousin Aaron Woolf, records the year-long journey of the two friends. As an outreach tool, the film challenges audience members to think through the consequences of U.S. agricultural policies, our own eating habits and the intersections between the two.

The film is available to stream through the Penn State Libraries. Click here to access the link to stream the film through the PSU library server.

As this film takes you through the commodity chain of corn, think about how you would answer the following questions:

  • What role does the family farm play in America’s perception of itself? What does it mean for the U.S. that the family farm is giving way to industrial or factory farming? What could reverse that trend?
  • The film traces the consolidation of small family farms into large farming operations, with single farms planting a thousand or more acres. Who benefits from, or is hurt by, this consolidation of farms?
  • KING CORN presents two philosophies behind farm subsidies. In the 1930s, subsidies helped control the amount of corn produced each year, ensuring that overproduction would not drive down prices. Starting in the 1970s, subsidies encouraged farmers to produce as much as possible. According to the film, what are the pros and cons of each approach? Which approach makes the most sense to you
    and why?
  • Are you comfortable having your tax dollars support the farming practices and resulting food culture depicted in the film? Why or why not?
  • The filmmakers suggest that current farm practices and policies are not producing healthy food for American consumers. If that is the case, who is responsible to change the system? Consider the responsibility of the following: consumers, farmers, policy makers or legislators, food companies, food retailers and health professionals. What might individuals in each of these groups do to ensure a healthy, adequate, and dependable food supply?
  • If you could ask Curt or Ian a question, what would you ask and why? Did anything in this film surprise you? Disturb you? Inspire you? Do you think you will change anything about the way you eat?