Tuesday, May 17, 2011

King Corn

I just watched King Corn, a 2007 documentary about the corn industry (we just got Netflix again after a long absence--I think we'll be watching a lot of food documentaries!).  It's thought provoking and enjoyable.  Two Boston-based film makers go to Iowa to spend a year growing an acre of corn and following its fate.  Like Michael Pollen (who was interviewed), it tells the tale of how since the 1970s we've been producing as much corn that can be grown and how it's bad for the farmers, the livestock who eat it, and us.  Ironically, the film interviews farmers and ranchers who agree that feeding corn to cattle is bad for the cattle but they find themselves stuck in a system where the economy drives them to do it.  One compelling statement referred to the fact that many Americans have never eaten a hamburger that wasn't corn fed.

Eating grass-fed beef, which is healthier for us, the animals, and the environment, tastes different.  I recall a conversation last summer with a rancher in Gunnison County, Colorado who said that American's don't have the taste for grass-fed beef and that's why ranchers growing healthy and nutritious grass-fed beef have to 'finish' their cattle on feedlots.

What's the problem?  Our food system has been remarkably efficient at producing inexpensive food.  Indeed, as one interviewee in the film noted, cheap food has allowed us to spend money on other things that have grown the economy.  Hard to argue with that.  Yet, we now suffer an unprecedented set of food-related maladies (like diabetes).  How can we ratchet back and pay more for food?  What would your life be like if you paid 5% more for food?  How about 10% more?

What to do?  Develop a taste for grass fed beef.  It's much more expensive, but many of us probably eat too much meat anyway.


  1. Dan, you should attend the Ancestral Health Symposium here at UCLA on August 5-6 (if you're back in town by then) and perhaps you'll be convinced that the statement "perhaps we're eating too much meat" is false. :)

    While you're watching documentaries on Netflix, check out Fat Head by Tom Naughton.

  2. Aaron, I would like to but I'll still be in the field then...

    From a welfare perspective, and a carbon footprint perspective, eating less meat is a good thing...and reducing meat consumption is a very easy way to use less carbon.

  3. You should read up on Joel Salatin and his polyface farm and the Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Kieth. They present quite a compelling case that sustainably raised beef and chickens is a lot more environmentally friendly than grain and soy based agriculture.