Food Evolution shows how science can allay fears

A Review of the Documentary “Food Evolution”

Photo Courtesy of Robyn Flipse.  From left to right, Mark Lynas, Alison Van Eenennaam, Emma Naluyima, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

This review was first published in Monsanto L.E.A.D News & Notes

Before the start of the world premier screening of the documentary, Food Evolution, director Scott Hamilton Kennedy came on stage and asked the audience three questions:

                                  “How many of you know what a GMO is?”

                                  “How many of you avoid GMOs?”

                                  “How many fear GMOs will harm you?”

By my estimate, at least 25 percent of the approximately 300 people who filled the theater raised their hands and kept them up for all three questions. At the end of the film when the audience was asked again who believes GMOs will harm you, only two hands went up, hesitantly.

What happened in between speaks volumes about the 92 minutes we all spent together in the dark watching the controversy over genetically modified food unfold on the screen while listening to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson narrate the tale.

Food Evolution was presented as part of DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, which showcased over 250 films in three venues in New York City from November 10 – 17, 2016. The description of the film in the event brochure said, in part, “As society tackles the problem of feeding our expanding population safely and sustainably, a schism has arisen between scientists and consumers, motivated by fear and distrust.” Not exactly a block-buster in the making, but the theater was packed.

The film was funded by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) FutureFood 2050 program. Their vision is, “A world where science and innovation are universally accepted as essential to a safe, nutritious, and sustainable food supply for everyone.” To celebrate the IFT’s 75th anniversary, they wanted to tell the story about how we’re going to feed the 9 billion people expected worldwide by 2050.

The movie opened with footage from several town hall meetings in Hawaii where the issue of growing Rainbow Papaya was being debated. One after another, fearful citizens expressed their concerns about using transgenic seeds to combat the ringspot virus that had decimated the papaya crop on the islands. The responses from elected officials confirmed the fears of the farmers and local population that planting genetically engineered crops would be harmful to their health. It also confirmed how little they knew about the science. We were only five minutes into the film and I couldn’t help but think it was going to be a lop-sided affair. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Appearances by Dennis Gonsalves, Ph.D., the Hawaiian native and plant virologist who developed the Rainbow Papaya and Mark Lynas, the British journalist and environmental activist who went from being an organizer of the anti-GMO movement in Europe to a supporter of the technology provided the calm and rational rebuttals to the confusion fueling the controversy. Their remarks were bolstered by the objective and evidence-based interviews with Dr. Robert Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto and Alison Van Eenennaam, Ph.D., Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Extension Specialist at the University of California, Davis. A hat tip to common sense and levity was offered by the Science Guy, Bill Nye.

Those who oppose genetically modified organisms also had their say, from anti-GMO advocate Jeffrey Smith and anti-GMO attorney Andrew Kimbrell to environmental activist Vandana Shiva and food activist Marion Nestle. The levity on that side of the debate was injected by Food Babe, Vani Hari.

The true strength of Food Evolution was the way it confirmed everyone’s biases. It left no doubt that genetic engineering is hard to explain and we are uncomfortable with what we don’t understand. It aptly demonstrated that there are many types of truth and people rarely change their minds once they believe something. And it allowed science to play a central character in the story whether we liked and accepted it or not. Which begs the question, whose science was it?

Food Evolution tells the story of how we can have a safe and a sustainable food supply by helping us put aside divisive emotional and ideological differences. It shows us a truth we can all share. Having seen other less balanced documentaries on the subject of food production in the U.S., I was pleased to see the fair treatment given to this controversial topic. I encourage anyone working in the food-nutrition-agricultural space to see Food Evolution and recommend it to students, journalists and others who are seeking science-based answers about food.

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