Prophecy of the Corn

Forty years ago, Stephen King published his short story, “Children of the Corn.”  I hate the film versions, but I truly love this story and I love teaching this story out of our old beat-up copies of Nightshift.  A few years ago, as I was preparing the materials to teach it, I was also into heavy revisions of my book, Ditching the Drive-Thru.  I had a sudden realization that Stephen King was some kind of prophet because due to our current food system, we all had become Children of the Corn.

Part of why I love to teach this story is that it is very tightly written, as we say in the Creative Writing arena.  That means that each moment of the story is directly connected to something else.  For example, when the story opens, Burt, the protagonist, is turning the volume on the radio way up so he doesn’t have to listen to his wife.  It is a small gesture that characterizes him, but also is a metaphor for what is wrong in their marriage – they don’t/won’t listen to one another, and foreshadows the antagonistic stubbornness that is his undoing.

Another thing I really like about the story is how King is able to set the mood.  If you have never driven through miles and miles of corn, you might not think this is creepy.  But growing up in Southern New Jersey where there were plenty of farms growing some really fine sweet corn, miles and miles of it, I got that creepiness.  Especially at night, when the headlights of my car showed nothing but two lanes of blacktop walled on either side by tall shadowy corn.

About a year ago, I started running again.  I have this hate-hate-oh-OK-maybe-not-hate relationship with running.  I always dread it before I start, but once I get going, I don’t quite hate it, and when I get home I am glad I did it, but then I am feeling old and sore the next day and wonder what the hell is wrong with me that I keep doing this.  I live in a fairly rural area and almost every route I take goes past a farm field.  This year, there is corn planted in quite a few of them.  I run along one of these fields for over a mile.  And as I was running last week, I was looking into the rows, into the shadows, and a thought occurred to me: there were no weeds.  And I had to stop because I made myself laugh so hard.  You see, that’s a line from the story.  Burt is running through the corn, away from the crazy corn-children, and he realizes there are no bugs and no weeds.

No Weeds

This was a field of GMO corn, that was sprayed with an herbicide that kills everything except the corn.  Considering that weeds can be the bane of a farmer’s existence, this concept of using a corn seed that grows a plant that can resist an herbicide seems pretty great.  But when I consider that genetic modification means the insertion of a novel gene into an organism, I have to wonder how that gene, that would never naturally occur in that cell, might affect me if I ingest it.  Proponents of genetic modification tend to liken it to hybridization.  In hybrids, someone crosses two varieties of the same species and comes up with something new.  Yes, a scientist or farmer or dog breeder may have created the hybrid, but the outcome is something that could have naturally occurred.  Genetic modification takes genes from one species (E.Coli, for example) and inserts it into the cells of another species (corn, for example).  There is no way to hybridize corn with E. Coli through cross-pollination.  It is akin to trying to hybridize a dog with corn – they do not even belong to the same taxonomilogical  kingdoms.  This bio-tech has raised a number of concerns, namely, the production of new allergens, increased toxicity, decreased nutrition, and antibiotic resistance (Bernstein et al., 2003).

And while Congress passed a GMO labeling bill last year, it does not require the package explicitly say that the food contains GMO ingredients.  They are allowed to use a QR code.  Really?  Are people still using QR codes?  I thought that fad came and went already.  If GMO’s are safe, if this isn’t a big deal, then why are food processors so hesitant to label? Because it is about marketing and perception and making money.  Consumers might hesitate to buy something because of the negative publicity surrounding GMO’s.  No CEO would support something that would hurt sales.  You think, “But it wasn’t CEO’s, it was Congress.”  Follow money trails, who has had shifted from the private sector to the public sector, in what capacity and from which company, and see the patterns and connections.  This link to a short video explains it rather succinctly.  And as we blindly consume our GMO food because we aren’t scanning QR codes on all of our food purchases, another phrase from the story comes to mind: “Sight unseen. Sight unseen. Sight unseen.”

Corn — It’s What Dinner ate

In the Post-Earl Butz world of farm subsidies, corn became something for farmers to grow and be able to make ends meet.  And if the farmers were growing it, there had to be a market for it, and so the processed food industry was off and running.  While farmers benefit a little from corn being subsidized, the food processors benefit more because these subsidies keep the price of corn artificially low.  The low price of corn keeps the price of the end-result processed food down, whether that food is soda (HFCS) or beef (it’s the feed), or a taco dinner kit.  Something else unseen: the hidden cost of that cheap food which is the foundation of the current food system on our collective health.

If we look at changes in the food system since the publication of the story, we see more and more processed food.  Not just fast food, but things in boxes.  When I was little, I remember going to the grocery store with my mom and seeing boxed meal kits.  We drank Tang (good enough for astronauts, good enough for us); we ate TV dinners (what a TREAT! – until my mom started recycling the foil trays and putting leftovers in them); we got Kentucky Fried Chicken (this was pre-KFC – it came from Gino’s, a burger joint that was started by a guy on the Baltimore Colts.  So that lets you know how long ago that was.).  These kinds of conveniences became more and more popular because let’s face it, who wants to do more work than they have to?  Corn became integral to the processed food industry, as more and more things were made of corn – from binders to sweeteners to the plastic that the food was wrapped in.

And slowly, without many of us even realizing what was going on, our food culture became more and more dependent on corn.  He Who Walks Behind the Rows (the Corn Deity from King’s story) is a menacing dark force, behind the corn, controlling the growing, the harvesting, the processing, the consumers.  In the film King Corn, two college friends, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, visit Dr. Steve Macko and learn about the amount of corn in our diets.  It is almost impossible to avoid corn.

There have been dozens of studies and hundreds of articles making a connection between current obesity levels and American consumption of high fructose corn syrup (which can be listed as fructose, fructose syrup, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, or isoglucose, among others).  OK, connections are not causation, but many people begin to lose weight when they stop consuming high fructose corn syrup.  According to the National Institutes of Health, obesity and overweight together are the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States.  Killer corn?

Main Conflict

As the story reaches the climax, Burt finds himself being guided up the rows by the corn itself, being directed to his final conflict with the hulking and red-eyed He Who Walks Behind the Rows.  We all have our demons to confront – one of mine is a particular chip that rhymes with Mojito.  We, as a culture, are heavily influenced by food trends and fads perpetuated by corporate interests.  Many of the studies conducted at universities are funded by parent companies of food corporations and if researchers want to remain at a given school, they need to come up with the results that support the financing body.  Twenty years ago, everyone was on the non-fat trend.  Now there is a swing back to “good fats” and why our bodies need them.  The vaunted Framinghan Study has now been meta-analyzed a dozen times over and been debunked.

The story resolves with Burt dead, presumably killed by He Who Walks Behind the Rows, just like the preacher and the Police Chief a decade before, removing any authority that might challenge his ideology.  Our food system is becoming more and more centralized.  Fewer and fewer producers and manufacturers of food should be considered a national crisis!  As Henry Kissinger said, “He who controls the food, controls the people.” And he was correct.  And it isn’t just about having enough to eat – our current food system even controls who gets to eat what food.  The Children of the Corn gather around Isaac, who speaks for the Corn God, listening to how they will be punished for not doing what they should have done by having their lives shortened, as we are also being punished for blindly following food trends.  There is a lot of discussion about millennials having a lifespan shorter than that of their parents, and if it is as long or longer, the chances of elder years being spent in poor health are very high.

“Around [America] the corn rustled and whispered secretly.  It was well pleased.”