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Food Evolution documentary looks at science, money, and fake news around GMOs

Food Evolution aims to take a look at the science underlying the heated rhetoric of the GMO debate. Filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy, narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson and on-camera experts walk through the major claims and key players. While the documentary tries to communicate the science, it also realizes that the GMO debate isn’t just about the science. It’s about financial interests, fear, and fake news.

Follow the money

The financial interests in GMOs, and GM foods in particular, are enormous. We’re talking about the food supply of billions of people and some of the biggest brand names in the world. On the GMO side sits one of the most hated brands in the world, Monsanto. Food Evolution talks about their history producing harmful pesticides like DDT and the infamous herbicide Agent Orange. Crowds of people rally against the company and at one point even singing “Monsanto is the devil” in a church choir style.

When the documentary looks beyond the United States, we see countries dealing with the fear of GMOs against the real threat of crop shortages. In Uganda, farmers watch as fields of banana trees are lost to the “Ebola of the banana” called banana wilt. We meet the scientist who has to explain how the new GM banana gets its banana wilt resistance from sweet pepper genes and how the government has to act to let the technology move forward. Then one of the farmers has to explain to her that others “think your work is against humanity”. This is the result of anti-GMO messaging being pushed across the globe.

There’s big money to be made from both sides of the GMO debate. Obviously companies like Monsanto have been derided for their profits while selling GM crops. but Food Evolution also gets into the financial incentives of the anti-GMO side. Companies like Whole Foods and Chipotle can build their brand as a healthy and all natural by demonizing the GMO products. Millions are spent on ad campaigns to make things sound healthier, even if there are no studies to back it up. Making GMO foods sound scary gives an advantage to the products with the no GMO sticker on them and more profits to places like Whole Foods.

Fear still wins a lot of arguments

The biggest tool that anti-GMO activists use is fear. Genetically modifying sounds like something from a poorly written supervillain. Inserting more uncertainty into the discussion helps bolster the argument for sticking with traditional agriculture. While scientists want to see multiple studies supporting a claim, activists interviewed in the film were more than willing to stake claims based on one study even if it’s later refuted. The argument goes that any chance that the study is right puts a risk on us. One speaker even instill the fear in parents of giving their children diseases by having fed them GMO or non-organic foods. No parent wants to feel that there’s any chance they may have given their child cancer.

Environmental activist Mark Lynas knows from experience that fear is a more effective tool than facts. He used to be an anti-GMO activist and is still active in raising awareness about threats from climate change. Upon researching the science he found the anti-GMO position on shaky ground and the climate change position with the scientific consensus. However, his tools for convincing people and motivating change remained largely the same.

“It’s much easier to scare people that it is to reassure them” ~Mark Lynas in Food Evolution

Arguments based on fear can sound convincing regardless of how sound the underlying facts are. Food Evolution pokes holes in many anti-GMO arguments but does find partial truths in some of their arguments. The trick is to take partial truths and uncertainty and dress them up as science. On the consumer end, it’s difficult to discern the validity of sources and scientific claims.

GMO science has its own fake news problem

Fake news knows more than most that fear is one of our most motivating factors. Fear sells because it drives ratings on TV and clicks online. Like fake news in other areas, the stories are driven by viral content regardless of its accuracy.

In the GMO debate there’s a narrative that genetically engineering crops brings threats that are totally non-existent in traditional breeding and farming. As anti-GMO activist Zen Honyecutt puts it, “Organic food is the way God made it”. These scenes with Honeycutt and other activists aren’t flattering when juxtaposed with the scientific evidence that humans have been changing crops since the dawn of agriculture. That doesn’t mean they’re not effective in clickbait headlines.

Some information can avoid being completely false while still being misleading. A major chunk of the film is devoted to the back and forth over the use of the herbicide glyphosate, commonly called Roundup. Plants engineered to be resistant to glyphosate–Roundup Ready crops–have lead to the increased use of  glyphosate since it now only kills weeds without harming the crop. This has lead to the increase in glyphosate in our food supply and environment. However, it’s significantly less toxic than the pesticide DDT or other herbicides. In fact, by some standards it’s rated less toxic than caffeine. The argument over GMOs and glyphosate usage hinges on what our alternative is. Are we willing or able to drastically reduce yields without an herbicide? Or do we go back to the more toxic versions? We rarely get to these questions as it’s much harder to settle a common understanding of the facts.

So what do we do now?

The film acknowledges that science and facts aren’t enough to change people’s minds. There are no clear answers here on how to convince the skeptical public. The scene at an Intelligence Squared debate in which the GMO side wins shows that it may be possible to convince an audience of people with open minds, but it certainly doesn’t show you how to change the mind of those who have already dug in with a position. It might however give you some science-based answers to your GMO questions.

Food Evolution’s distribution is now being handled by Abramorama with a planned New York release of June 23 and select cities after that. See the trailer and more movie info at www.foodevolutionmovie.com.

 

 

 

Discussion
  1. Thanks for the review! I’m looking forward to seeing this movie.
    There are a few grammatical issues in the article; the worst is the phrase “less toxic than DDT or other herbicides,” which appears to call DDT a herbicide. It’s an insecticide.

  2. Hi Aaron, what’s your source for the claim that glyphosate is “less toxic than caffeine”? Bold claim.

  3. Here’s a handy chart. https://geneticliteracyproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/toxicity-table4.png

    To be clear though, it’s all a matter of dose.

    Caffeine is safe at low doses 2-3mg/kg of caffeine to human is about what wakes you up and >170 mg/kg can be acutely toxic.(https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredientspackaginglabeling/gras/scogs/ucm256650.htm)

    For glyphosate, a “reference dose (RfD), or estimate of daily exposure that would not
    cause adverse effects throughout a lifetime, of 2 mg/kg/day has been proposed”. (https://www3.epa.gov/pesticides/chem_search/reg_actions/reregistration/fs_PC-417300_1-Sep-93.pdf).

    Finally, to get a better breakdown than what I can give of what those numbers mean in comparison you should check out https://fafdl.org/blog/2017/04/13/glyphosate-vs-caffeine-acute-and-chronic-toxicity-assessments-explained/

  4. You’re talking about two different things, though, Emily. Toxicity is about the relative amounts that are likely to kill you. Carcinogenicity is about whether a substance is likely to cause cancer, which, while troublesome, is a whole lot less troublesome than instant death.

    And even then, carcinogenicity is highly dependent upon concentration. For example, the human body manufactures formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic in higher concentrations. IARC, which you cite, only determines the risk that a chemical _could_ be carcinogenic, not the concentration at which it _would_ be carcinogenic.

  5. I don’t have time now to refute every misinformed point in this movie and its review, but here’s a start.

    The reasoning that people oppose genetically engineered agriculture is because they are anti-science, fear new technologies, or are easily persuaded by sensationalized headlines can only be stated by people who are unfamiliar with what is actually happening in agriculture. Or because their research is limited to studies released to the public, conducted in-house by the transnational biotech corporations whose profit is billions of dollars every year from selling GE seeds. The fact is, GMO technology has failed.

    1. Increased yields was biotech corporations’ major promise of GMO technology. However, the National Academies of Science and Engineering’s 20-year review of GMO agriculture found that no crop yield increases can be attributed to genetic engineering — and half of that panel was biased in favor of biotech.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/27/business/national-academies-biotechnology-conflicts.html?_r=1

    2. Herbicide tolerance trait caused INCREASED use of herbicide — not decreased it, as promised by biotech corporations. This has begotten widespread “superweeds.” A 2012 Penn State School of Agriculture study by weed ecology professor Dr. David Mortensen found that about 75% of all GMO-farmed land was “infested” with herbicide-resistant “superweeds.” A recent Univ of Illinois study found that nearly 82% of all fields in Missouri are now infested. Why do you think that Monsanto partnered with Dow/Dupont to engineer seeds that tolerate glyphosate and the more toxic 2,4,D (sold as “Enlist Duo”)? Hint: it wasn’t to have a corporate love fest; it was because weeds became tolerant of RoundUp.
    https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/62/1/75/295845/Navigating-a-Critical-Juncture-for-Sustainable
    https://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/pnsp/usage/maps/show_map.php?year=2012&map=GLYPHOSATE&hilo=L (set to 2014, the most current data shown, and scroll to see graph of pesticide use by crop)
    http://bulletin.ipm.illinois.edu/?p=3821

    3. And according to Dr. John Tooker of Penn State Entomology, the Bt-expressing trait has bred insects resistant to Bt in 12 states (data 2014 or earlier). This then fostered neonicotinoid pretreatment of GMO seeds, causing “skyrocketing” pesticide use and environmental toxicity — even though the EPA reported that there is “little or no overall benefit” to agriculture by using them. Further, neonicotinoids are identified as a posing a “substantial risk” to bee populations (hive and wild) and pesticide manufacturers’ own tests found serious harm to honeybees.
    http://news.psu.edu/story/351027/2015/04/02/research/rapid-increase-neonicotinoid-insecticides-driven-seed-treatments
    https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/benefits-neonicotinoid-seed-treatments-soybean-production
    http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press-releases/3874/latest-studies-show-alarming-new-impacts-of-common-insecticide-on-bees
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/22/pesticide-manufacturers-own-tests-reveal-serious-harm-to-honeybees

    4. There are many other concerns about GMO agriculture and its accompanying pesticides besides the safety of humans or livestock consuming their products. I do not have time to go into depth now, but other concerns include pollution of soil and water; impact on organic agriculture; and corporate patenting of seeds (even though they add only one or two new traits, they patent the entire seed); much higher seed prices; and severe legal constraints on farming practices.

    5. Comparing, as this article and apparently the movie do, the profits of transnational biotech corporations such as Monsanto/Bayer, Dow/Dupont, Syngenta/ChemChina, or BASF to the income of even a large company such as Whole Foods is laughable and a clear sign of bias. In only the first 6 months of 2015, these corporations spent over $200 million on lobbying in Washington DC to defeat GMO labeling. And that’s the amount they disclosed. Untold more is spent freely on “public relations” campaigns, such as this movie. We know for certain that they paid some academics to be PR shills for them. Similarly, statements that imply that traditional hybrid breeding, as humans have done for eons, is equivalent to genetic engineering merely shows ignorance about farming practices.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/us/food-industry-enlisted-academics-in-gmo-lobbying-war-emails-show.html

    6. Many professional university-based authentic bonafide geneticists and bioscientists have publicly stated that there is no basis for assuming stating that GMO and regular seeds are “substantially equivalent” as biotech corporations claim. In addition, stating that “gene-editing” methods are less prone to unintended genetic mutations than “old” biotech methods is also false.
    http://www.gmwatch.org/en/news/latest-news/17378

    CONCLUSION: Any agriculture production method based upon monoculture, corporate patents of seeds (or livestock), plus massive external inputs — be they chemicals or government subsidies — is based upon wishful thinking and hubris, not science.

    I call upon the filmmakers to disclose who funded their project, and where they sought their research to substantiate their statements. I would not be surprised to find that this film is part of the FDA’s $3 million campaign to “educate” the public about the safety of GMOs i.e., to use public funds to bolster the already bloated profits of a handful of transnational biotech corporations who appear to have the US government in the palm of their collective hands.
    http://www.foodsafetymagazine.com/news/fda-to-spend-3m-educating-consumers-on-safety-of-gmos/

  6. IARC based their findings from studies of people who have been chronically exposed to low levels of glyphosate. Several studies have found chronic low-level exposure to glyphosate doubles the risk of some sub-types of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. See this peer-reviewed meta-analysis: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24762670

    But yes, what Aaron is referring to is LD50, or how quickly a person would die from consuming it those substances en masse. A misleading comparison without context, I feel.

  7. Just came across this document of emails among planners of this movie, acquired by U.S. Right To Know via the Freedom of Information Act. Clearly shows the filmmakers’ bias is pro-GMO and anti-regulation; in fact, the emails show that Monsanto (even the CEO) were involved in developing the film’s content. When a transnational corporation that profits in the billions each year from selling products that are the topic of the film, is key to developing the film’s scope, it is clear that the film definitely does not present an impartial, or complete, discussion of the issues surrounding genetically engineered food.

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