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Filmmaker discusses impact of corn on the American diet

A single acre of corn can have a far-reaching effect on people’s health.

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Ian Cheney’s 2007 documentary “King Corn” highlights the prevalence of corn in the American diet and the adverse consequences of consuming the product. “King Corn” was shown at a screening Monday in the Levine Science Research Center’s Love Auditorium as part of Duke University’s second annual Food Week. The event was sponsored by Farmhand—a Nicholas School of the Environment initiative that supports local farms in the Triangle area—to promote awareness about how a corn-based diet has contributed to the current obesity epidemic.

“A large part of our nation’s food system is fueled by corn products... consequently having many negative impacts on the health and welfare of many Americans,” Sarah Parsons, a second-year graduate student at the Nicholas School and co-president of Farmhand, wrote in an email Sunday.

The film, a 2008 Peabody Award winner—often called the most selective prize in electronic media—follows Cheney and his friend, Curt Ellis, as they grow an acre of corn in Greene, Iowa, to observe how the produce enters the food system. They question the industrialized farming process and its social ramifications.

The film focuses primarily on how corn agriculture has affected the way Americans eat and, consequently, the effect corn has on people’s health. “King Corn” claims that—for the first time in U.S. history—the life expectancy of the current generation may be less than that of the generation before it because of the primarily corn-based American diet.

Farmhand selected the movie because it deals with important health issues, Parsons said.

“People who grew up the way we did are basically made of corn,” Cheney says in the film.

After the screening, Cheney answered questions from the audience about his work—from the filming and editing process to the genesis of the idea for the project. Cheney said he had always been curious about the origins of food but was unable to learn much about the subject in his university studies.

“I started out being disturbed about what we were eating but knowing nothing about it,” he said. “Food is the tip of the iceberg of what we don’t know about what we consume.”

Senior Lauren Bledsoe, who saw the film as part of a biology class, said she enjoyed the movie and the ideas it presented about corn’s role in the American food system.

“High-fructose corn syrup, I’m sure, was in everything I ate today and everything I buy at the grocery store,” she said. “[The movie] definitely makes you think about the way you eat.”

Abigail Furnish, a first-year student at the Nicholas School and a member of Farmhand, said she appreciated the way the film presented the information.

“Sometimes [movies] go in all different directions—compared to some other movies I’ve seen about food, it was very well-organized and specific to the topic,” Furnish said.

After the question-and-answer session, Parsons said she believed the event successfully informed students and faculty about this issue.

“It went really well,” she said. “I think [“King Corn”] helped spread the message, which is what we always want to do.”


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