At the movies this week, during the previews before the excellent The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, I watched the trailer for a documentary about another king: King Corn. Naturally, I was intrigued by a film that would take on one of America’s most grossly subsidized crops. Indeed, the filmmakers seem to dwell on the huge subsidies that corn gets, but unfortunately miss a very, very big one. From the film’s website’s FAQ:
Why did you decide not to talk about ethanol in the film?
A story about one acre of Iowa corn quickly becomes a story about everything: soil, water, energy, history, genetic modification and, of course food. Focusing primarily on corn’s role in the food system allows a closer look at how all of us, as eaters, have a stake in what gets grown
Increasingly, of course, ethanol is changing the corn economy. With demand for alternative fuels on the rise, corn prices are higher than they have been in years, and the industry is responding: the number of ethanol plants is projected to quadruple, and this year farmers are planting 90 million acres in corn. Observers provide mixed forecasts for what this will mean for food prices, but one thing seems clear from our experience growing corn: it takes a lot of fossil fuel to grow corn, and there are likely more efficient ways of producing home-grown alternatives to foreign oil.
The effect of ethanol on food prices are hardly “mixed.” Food prices are already rising as a result of the increased demand for biofuels — mandated by government, of course. And it’s not just corn; significantly higher corn prices leads to more land being devoted to planting corn, which leaves less land available for other crops, prices for which also rise as a result of decreased supply. The consequences of steep food price rises are hardly inconsequential, especially for the poor, who spend a greater share of their income on food — remember the tortilla riots in Mexico?
Worse, a lot of the film’s website scolds people, in a condescending tone, to eat better, decrying the unhealthy cheap food choices that corn continues to foist upon a “fast food nation.”
Still, corn — indeed, all farm — subsidies are bad, bad, bad, and any attack on them is welcome (as Fran notes today, even The New York Times isn’t sold on ethanol). This may turn out to be a good film, and I look forward to seeing it, but any documentary on corn subsidies made today that doesn’t discuss ethanol is a glass half full at best.