‘Food Evolution’ movie could mark turning point in public GMO discussion

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Last year a Pew Research poll gauged public sentiment toward genetic engineering of food crops (familiarly, ‘GMO’). The results showed that while the public is consumed with fear and suspicion, scientists view the technology as safe and effective.

This divide may be due to the deep presence of non-scientific websites, books and films that abandon science to perpetuate a popular and profitable myth. Fear is their main vehicle. For anti-corporate reasons or simply to promote high-priced, lifestyle-based food products, there are many that create hyperbole and disparaging imagery around the science of genetic engineering. Many opposed to the technology are only experts at producing media targeted to tarnish the favorable applications of these helpful technologies.

Non-scientific media dominates the media. From alarmist pseudo-documentaries like Food Inc. and GMO OMG, to the scientifically painful inept fiction Consumed, media in this space are designed to shock and scare, knowingly at the expense of scientifically precise information. There have been few artistically-driven Hollywood efforts to speak up for the science, telling the evidence-based story to the majority of consumers that simply want to enjoy safe and affordable food produced sustainably.

But this trend is changing with a new series of scientific documentaries. The first film is Food Evolution, directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy. The documentary examines the issues by taking a close-and-personal look at several global agricultural situations, the personalities involved, the successes, and most painfully, the damaging consequences of our failure to deploy useful technology that can help those in need. Food Evolution conveys a scientific story with imagery, humanity and compassion that scientists never could alone. The film is narrated by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, adding his gravitas to this important topic.

The film centers on political and field situations in Hawaii, Uganda, and other locations throughout the world. The central players are the scientists that understand and share the benefits of these technologies. Scientists like Drs. Alison Van Eenennaam, Dennis Gonsalves, Pamela Ronald and Leena Tripathi, along with former anti-biotech activist and author Mark Lynas, carry the film as a vehicle that takes them through their discussions of the science and their interactions with the public and farmers.

But the film also provides enough rope to the charlatans that pollute a scientific discourse with manufactured fear. Prominent among them is Jeffery Smith, an author and film producer opposed to biotechnology. The film shows how he manipulates language, makes claims, and tweaks the emotions of concerned people to sell his science-challenged message. It exposes the for-profit misgivings of the ‘Food Babe’ Vani Hari, and the ideologically-charged anti-corporatism of other leaders in an anti-GMO movement that seeks to end the use of biotechnology- even if it hurts those in need. These are the most important aspects of the film because they expose how a cadre of non-experts is willing to bastardize science, and sacrifice progress and people for ideology and profit.

But the real stars of the show are a papaya, a banana, and the people that need them. Their story is shown with stunning imagery and emotion-evoking vignettes that encapsulate the frustrations we feel as scientists with solutions stalled by activist fear-mongering.

I’ve seen the film several times, and each time I’ve lost tears. As a scientist, it is painful to relive how safe and effective solutions that can change the lives of people and help our planet—but their use is restricted because of well-financed and coordinated misinformation and fear campaigns.

The beauty of Food Evolution is that it will benchmark a time when public sentiment was changing to support a pro-science message. For twenty years we have been told of horrors that never materialized. We have watched products intended to serve humanity languish in public laboratories because of affluent-nation fears. We have witnessed approval of scientifically-baseless legislation restrict choices for farmers. We’ve observed the internet’s profiteers tour the planet and reap personal wealth while lying to the public about science.

But even before the film has been presented in wide release, news of this film has prompted a typical and expected response from anti-biotech activists. They are shouting the tired claims that this is a Monsanto-financed propaganda flick and that nobody should trust it.

Watch for yourself and determine who is lying to you. Is it the politicians, celebrities and scaremongers, or the public, government and company scientists that have dedicated their lives to developing technology to solve problems for people and planet? This film answers that question in remarkable clarity.

Finally, high congratulations to Scott Hamilton Kennedy and his team. While the scientific community has extolled its virtues, it is unclear how the film community will embrace Food Evolution. However, ultimately the filmmakers can revel in the satisfaction that they told the truth at a time when those that stand up are punished for telling the truth. It is a brave, first-class effort that will age impeccably well, and perhaps punctuate the transition to a gentler time where science and reason rule over misinformation and fear.

Food Evolution opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 23rd.

A version of this article appeared at Huffington Post as “MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Food Evolution’” and has been republished here with permission from the authors and the original publisher. 

Kevin Folta is professor and chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Dr. Folta researches the functional genomics of small fruit crops, the plant transformation, the genetic basis of flavors, and studies at photomorphogenesis and flowering. He has also written many publications and edited books, most recently the 2011 Genetics, Genomics, and Breeding of Berries. Follow him on Twitter @kevinfolta

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Thanks Kevin.

  • Alokin

    Cheers. I really appreciate your voice on this issue,

  • 65Brix

    Thanks Kevin,
    Watching it at IFT next week in Vegas.
    Can’t wait!

  • Jim Pfrommer

    I worry not so much about the GMO per se, but the high glyphosphate residue levels on so much of it.
    RoundUp is very toxic to gut bacteria as well as soil bacteria.
    Until the residual glyphosphate problems can be addressed, I will stay away from eating GMOs!

    • Frédéric Fred

      Glyphosate has never been qualified scientifically as “very toxic” (whatever “very” means here). It has low toxicity and has never been a problem in food production after decades of widespread use. Its toxicity is so low that it is even used as crop dessicant to ease harvest, so if you eat grain-based food, GMO or not, you “eat” already glyphosate, along with thousands of other natural pesticides with doses thousands times higher.
      Its use is of course not restricted to GMOs, yet another misunderstanding from you.

      • Fred Milton Olsen

        More reasons not to eat commercially grown foods. I don’t think this crap is good for us so I’m designing a building complete with food production that doesn’t need any of those chemicals.

  • Wind Chapman

    I understand the film was anti “big agriculture” what ever that means. I make an active study of 18th century agriculture and can testify that method of agriculture couldn’t feed the people in New England in the late 18th century and it stands almost no chance of feeding a growing world today

  • agscienceliterate

    Thank you, Kevin!

  • I am

    “But the real stars of the show are a papaya, a banana, and the people that need them.”

    Right, because why would the film disclose the fact that the primary use of GM technology has been modifying corn and soy to withstand humongous amounts of herbicides that are considered to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization? That wouldn’t be beneficial to Big Food profit margins!

    “I’ve seen the film several times, and each time I’ve lost tears.”

    Aww.. such a heartwarming tale about drenching hundreds of millions of peoples’ food with a carcinogen… fills me with malevolent joy every time!

    =’)

    • Jason

      Speaking of propaganda… anyone who would describe the use of herbicide as “drenching” or “humongous amounts” clearly has an agenda they’re trying to drive.
      The maximum rate of glyphosate that can be applied in a year is 32 fl oz per acre. That’s less than a Big-Gulp poured over an entire acre of land. In other words, less than 0.001 fl oz per corn plant per year.

      So, please…. explain to me how that is being “drenched”.

      • I am

        Fair point, thank you for this information.

        Nonetheless, my exaggeration does not change the fact that glyphosate is present on popular food items in hundreds of parts per billion…

        https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.fooddemocracynow.org/images/FDN_Glyphosate_FoodTesting_Report_p2016.pdf

        …and that those same amounts have been shown to have endocrine-disrupting effects correlated with human breast cancer.

        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23756170

        • Eric Bjerregaard

          Nope, correlation isn’t causation and in vitro tests used to predict real life issues is called speculation.

          • I am

            Of course, correlation isn’t causation, but it isn’t meaningless either. I would hope you would advocate that long-term in vivo studies be performed in order to assure that there is not, in fact, a causal relationship between glyphosate and cancer. Anyone who is pro-science would wish for studies to be carried out repeatedly over an extended time period before a trustworthy conclusion is reached.

          • Eric Bjerregaard

            Not to worry, The conclusion has been reached. Not a carcinogen. No cancer clusters for applicators. Lots of studies done and IARC busted.

        • Jason

          Nonetheless, my exaggeration does not change the fact that glyphosate is present on popular food items in hundreds of parts per billion…

          Of course it’s present in food. Every product ever used to produce food is detectable at some level in the end product. Hundreds of parts per billion, while still an exaggeration, is many, many times below what could ever cause you harm. The amount of food you’d have to eat every day just to approach the No Observable Effect Limit is staggeringly large. You’d die from a ruptured stomach long before any glyphosate effects started showing up.

          …and that those same amounts have been shown to have endocrine-disrupting effects correlated with human breast cancer.

          That’s simply not true at all. You are providing a piece demonstrating in-vitro effects. We do not encounter glyphosate in-vitro (in a petri dish). We encounter it in in-vivo and because of that, it needs to be evaluated to determine it’s effect in a living system. Literally every safety assessment of glyphosate ever has concluded that it doesn’t exhibit endocrine disrupting properties. So, one in-vitro study purporting the opposite doesn’t really carry much weight against the overall body of evidence.

          As a side note… you might want to choose your sources a bit more wisely in the future. Any time your reference starts off with a picture of a baby with a bottle of weed killer photoshopped onto his high-chair tray, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re referencing something meant to push an agenda rather than report the facts. And a little bit of critical thinking should lead you to the conclusion that the “Detox Project” might have a pretty vested interest in making you believe that you need detoxed to begin with…. wouldn’t you think?

      • Fred Milton Olsen

        “The maximum rate of glyphosate that can be applied in a year is 32 fl oz per acre.”

        This is a meaningless statement. Scientifically it would be expressed in terms of weight and further in terms of solution mixed and used — not to mention the other added things in the mix.

        I just found industry sources saying you could use 2-3 times that much over the crop life….. along with other herbicides, pesticides, adjuvants, sticky-additives, etc. all mixed into a large amount of solution that according to directions and safety instructions you shouldn’t let it touch ANYTHING.

        Herbicide tanks for agriculture are 50 and 100 gallons.

        • Jason

          It’s not a meaningless statement. Granted, it’s greatly simplified for the purposes of this thread and people that are not familiar with herbicide application.
          His claim was that Roundup Ready food crops are drenched in glyphosate. So, I did a little math to illustrate how little is applied. The standard roundup product used in Roundup Ready crops is currently Roundup Weather Max which is 48.8% roundup by volume. The maximum in crop application is 64fl oz of product or (rounded up) 32 fl oz of glyphosate.
          As for how much over the crop life… for perennial crops like roundup ready alfalfa, that’s probably true. For crops like fruit trees where it’s used to control vegetation below… also likely higher. But those were irrelevant to the point we were discussing.
          Yes… herbicide tanks are large. Glyphosate is tank mixed in water. But that doesn’t change the total active ingredient you’re allowed to spray.