Corn-fed beef raised in the Midwest. This was proudly printed on the menu for a pretty nice restaurant I was having dinner at the other day. The claim puzzled me. I suppose to the uninformed, this evokes a lovely picture of happy cows eating healthy vegetables. And a few weeks ago, I might have thought the same. But that was before I watched “King Corn.”
The fact that I went to see “Sex and the City” on opening weekend probably tells you a little bit about my taste in movies. When it comes to entertainment, I generally like it nice and fluffy.
Sometimes though, my husband will talk me into watching something meaningful and—gasp!—educational. That’s how I found myself on a recent Thursday night watching a documentary we got from Netflix about corn. That’s right, corn.
Now, I am not writing about this because it was a wildly entertaining movie. If this were a movie review, I’d have to give it the proverbial thumbs down. The first 45 minutes or so of “King Corn” were pretty boring, to tell the truth. The only reason we didn’t turn it off was because we were having so much fun making fun of it. Basically, it starts out with two friends who plant an acre of corn in Iowa. It isn’t until they start figuring out where the more than 80 million acres of corn grown in the United States goes that it gets interesting.
Full disclosure: I eat meat, all kinds. And as a meat eater, I tend not to think too much about where that meat comes from. I always buy my eggs from free-range chickens, and try to buy chicken and beef with claims of humane treatment to the animals before they are slaughtered. (And yes, I do realize the irony of that statement.) But I can honestly say that I never thought about the whole concept of grass-fed beef and why it’s better. Until “King Corn.”
Turns out, there are two things to be done with the overproduction of corn in our society: The first is high-fructose corn syrup, which I hope everyone knows is bad for us, and the second is cattle feed. So what’s wrong with that? Picture 100,000 cows standing shoulder-to-shoulder, not allowed to roam free because it will slow down the fattening process. This is Iowa corn at work, transformed into millions of pounds of fat-streaked, cheap beef. There was one particularly gruesome scene in the documentary that shows in disgusting detail what eating all that corn and not being allowed to move does to the poor cows. Basically, the cows would explode and die if they were not slaughtered in a timely manner.
So yeah, I haven’t eaten beef since. Had a nice turkey burger the other day. (And please don’t tell me there’s a documentary on the mistreatment of turkeys—my heart couldn’t take it.) I expect I will have beef again, but only if I know that the cows were grass-fed. Bottom line is, so much corn isn’t good for the cows and it’s not good for us.
The reason for all this corn is our nation’s farm policy. “King Corn” was made in 2007, just as Congress was set to debate the Farm Bill, a once-in-seven-years opportunity to change what our tax dollars subsidize and how we eat. Unfortunately, it didn’t make a difference. But watching this movie changed my mind about beef, that’s for sure.
And there was something one of the ranchers said that just stuck with me. He said grass-fed beef is more expensive and harder to raise, but if people wanted it, they would make it available. While I agree that reform on a much larger scale is necessary, I believe that individual choices as consumers can make a difference. So if you don’t want your cows corn fed, refuse to buy them that way. That’s what I intend to do.
Saving the Earth, one burger at a time.