Anecdotes of Research

Last week, The Public Square in Chicago, along with ITVS hosted a screening of King Corn, made by Aaron Woolfe, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis. They had invited me, along with the fabulous LaDonna Redmond, to make comments after the feature length video and then take questions on the issues raised.
(For what it’s worth, after the film there was barely half an hour left for comments and discussion. Do programmers think audiences simply cannot tolerate an event longer than 2 hours? What do you think?)

The Genre
The film is another example of a growing genre, the documentation of a self-initiated investigation that combines in varying proportions personal narrative and focused research, often anchored by a gesture or act that loosely qualifies as an experiment relevant to the motive question.

Viewers may recognize the strategy promoted largely (no pun intended) in the work of Michael Moore whose style is notoriously aggressive and often criticized for being emotionally manipulative. His 1989 pioneer example is “Roger and Me” in which he tries to get a meeting with CEO Roger Smith of General Motors to ask him why the world’s largest corporation is abandoning the people of Flint, Michigan. Morgan Spurlock’s “Supersize Me” (2004) is a precedent specifically regarding the question: what the hell are we eating and what is it doing to us?, taking the form of what turns out to be a health-endangering self-experiment. In books and articles, the food writer Michael Pollan (interviewed in King Corn) has used this structure beautifully, organizing his research with experiences initiated specifically for the purpose. So he has grown GMO potatoes in his vegetable garden, bought a calf as an investment and followed its life in the meat industry, traced the origins of variously typical American meals he has consumed, and procured a meal with the least commercial mediation possible (a contemporary hunter gatherer adventure). [See Playing God in the Garden, Power Steer, The Omnivore’s Dilemma]

What is being generated here is reflexive knowledge. It is framed by a subjectivity, that of a specific learner, who responds to what she learns with reflection and new questions. It is not framed by the conventions of objectivity that traditionally certify truths.

Our guides are generally nonspecialists whose interests, methods, and priorities are more or less visible; we can evaluate them according to our own values, accept or reject their premises and findings accordingly.

Though they undoubtedly operate from their own bias, ideally they have no professional involvement in the material, thus nothing to protect in the substance of what they discover. The heart of the research is guaranteed not so much by authority but by experience that we more or less witness. Anyone could attempt to reproduce it, including us.

King Korn
The basic structure of King Corn is thus: when we realized how much of our diet consisted of corn, we decided to go out to Iowa and grow an acre of corn ourselves, to find out what goes into this crop and how it gets into so many of our foods…

The two filmmakers who actually appear in the film, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, met as undergrads at Yale. Regardless of what a Yale degree may actually indicate about the bearer’s intelligence, these guys are smart enough not to act like people approaching an Ivy League research paper. I imagine they knew quite a lot about the food and agriculture world before starting this practical investigation, but they seem to make a point of putting it aside once the videotape rolls. The outcome is a credible record of an ignorant everyman’s education in contemporary agriculture.

Cheney and Ellis had discovered in the course of their friendship that they each had great grandfathers who lived and farmed in the same county in Iowa, neatly providing a setting for their Green Acres research drama (in fact, the anchoring locale is a town called Green). This gives the story a backdrop of destiny, if you like that sort of thing, and/ or a returning-to-roots narrative.

On the odyssey of the pilgrim researcher, many experts are consulted. In the set up they visit a lab where they have their hair analyzed to get the data version of the typical American eater. Yup, the hair speaks counter-intuitive truth to reason: a diet of soda and hamburgers and snack foods delivers what they suspected: the main ingredient in their hair is corn. Look in the bioinformatic mirror and you read what you eat/are.

One of the strengths of the film is their respect for the Iowa farmers they encounter. They don’t assume anything about their informants’ lives, opinions or class affiliation. They refrain from interpreting and judging what they learn, but the knowledge they acquire complicates the decisions they have to make. And despite their restraint, those complications are ethical ones.

Their strategy is to participate in the existing system. They try to keep it simple; for instance, Cheney and Ellis plant the bioengineered corn seed that everyone around them is planting (Liberty Link tradename, Bayer CropSciences), and they eschew taking on transgenic agriculture as an issue. The corn they grow is inedible before processing in a factory or by an animal’s body, and an increasing share of it is destined for fuel. The prices for a bushel of corn the year they are growing it (2005) are not reflective of current prices. 2005 yielded the largest corn harvest in U.S. history and granaries were already full with mountains of surplus sitting under tarps outside. For years, overproduction has kept the prices of the big commodities (corn, soy and wheat) low, lower than the cost of producing it. Farmers supplying these commodity chains would not survive if not for massive government subsidies (our tax money). The surplus of corn is what has driven the switch to cheap corn syrup as a ubiquitous ingredient in processed foods, and corn as a major ingredient of livestock diets. Sodas and other drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup are leading culprits in the diabetes epidemic, and corn-fed beef is the source of hamburgers containing mostly fat, as well as environmentally disastrous confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These and other social/environmental problems are fairly well explored in King Corn.

Corn Currency
Since the film was made we’ve witnessed an unprecedented rise in the price fetched by grain commodities, particularly corn, wheat, soy, and increasingly rice. Now we are also witnessing skyrocketing food prices worldwide; consequent riots about the decreasing accessibility of food have broken out in Egypt, India, Indonesia, Haiti, Morocco and other parts of Africa. Elsewhere there are long queues for bread or grain and many nations are curbing the export of staple grains. Of course the deep dependence of industrial agriculture on fossil fuels makes food vulnerable to rising oil prices. Other factors such as major droughts in Australia and China may implicate climate change. Another reason is that as affluence increases in developing nations like China and India, the demand for bread and for grain-fed meat is also rising. Worldwide, stocks of surplus grains are at an unprecedented low. And then there is the sudden demand for biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol. The reckless policy of U.S. government to subsidize this folly has thus far been unquestioned. Because farmers can get so much more for corn than they did in the past, they are planting even more corn, diminishing the acreage available for growing things that people actually eat.

Last week at the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council’s annual summit, I heard Jim Braun say a few interesting things about this rise in prices. Braun, a former farmer, and now a Springfield lobbyist with the Illinois Farmer-Consumer Coalition, took issue with currently popular attributions of rising food prices to farmers being paid more. According to him, the farmer’s average share of revenue from a box of corn flakes is $.05 cents. With wheat at $4.00 a bushel, farmers earn about $.01 from each loaf of bread. So farmers could get paid three times what they are getting now and the loaf would cost 3 cents more to the consumer. Reminds me of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of mostly immigrant tomato pickers in Immokalee County, Florida who spent years getting Yum Brands (parent of Taco Bell) to the table to discuss improvements to their condition. Getting an agreement for Yum to demand that tomato plantation owners pay workers one cent more per 32 pound bucket(!) was considered progress.

Where does the money go?

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