Documentary champions science in GMO fight

In this post-truth era it has never been easier to pick and choose the information that will confirm your own bias.

But societies need to find common ground if we are to solve the most-pressing problems of our time, like feeding the population without destroying the planet.

Science is key to advancing the narrative. That is the message of the documentary Food Evolution, directed by Scott Kennedy and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Last Wednesday (20 September), after a public screening to an audience of about a hundred in Canberra, I participated in a panel discussion along with Rob Furbank, an expert in plant photosynthesis at Australian National University; Tony Mahar, CEO of the National Farmers’ Federation; Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research; and the director himself, Scott Kennedy, via video link. The moderator was Adrienne Francis at ABC News, Canberra.

Kennedy has participated in many such panel discussions since the movie’s release in June.

It is inspiring to see a movie maker attempt to break through the silos of peoples’ preconceived truths. In the final question of the evening, Kennedy was asked how he rated the success of the movie. “The fact that you’re here,” he answered.

I encourage everyone to see the movie.

Kennedy is an award-winning documentarian with a penchant for underdog stories, to which he brings a nuanced, analytic sensibility. For instance, his first feature film OT: Our Town (2002) documented Hispanic and African American teenagers at a tough school in Compton, California staging a play for the first time in 20 years – an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, set in New England in the early 20th century and where all the characters are white. His 2008 film The Garden looked at the rise and fall of a South Los Angeles community garden.

This time around, ironically, the underdog is GM technology.

Food Evolution was funded by the Institute of Food Technologists, an organisation whose members draw from both the organic and conventional food industries. The initial brief was to “promote a more science-based conversation about food”.

Kennedy decided the pointy end of all this was genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

“We had become more and more intrigued by the ever-present and ever-polarising debate around GMOs,” he explained during the panel discussion. “It was at this point that we pivoted the story to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of genetic engineering.”

He accepted the brief, he said, only on the condition his team had “complete creative control and final cut”.

What the movie makes crystal clear is that when it comes to GMOs there is a hard-boiled set of “facts” that some people hold to fervently: GMOs are not safe; they disadvantage small farmers because they can’t resow the seeds; and it is a technology of control by multinational corporations like Monsanto.

But, consider for a moment, what if these “facts” are wrong? Perhaps they came from a trusted source like Greenpeace. But is Greenpeace really the best authority to go to on the matter?

In 2016 more than 100 Nobel Prize winners signed a letter asking Greenpeace to stop its campaign that had “misrepresented the risks, benefits and impacts” of GM crops. “There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption,” the letter said.

Contrary to the articles of faith, after two decades of testing, food safety regulators around the world have found GM crops to be as safe as any other food; small farmers have benefited from GMOs; and it’s not just Monsanto technology. Researchers in public institutions everywhere have been involved in developing GM crops to more nimbly address the eternal problems of agriculture: pests, nutrition and climate.

GM crops are not the answer to every one of agriculture’s problems. All farmers face different problems. They need a suite of tools to choose from to farm sustainably and make a living while doing so. For subsistence cocoa growers in Sulawesi, for example, that choice is organic farming. Worldwide many farmers are taking advantage of the skyrocketing market for organic food – worth $47 billion in the US alone – to switch to organic methods. But the vast majority of cotton grown in Australia is GM, a move that has reduced pesticide use by 90% in the past decade.

The credo of the anti-GMO movement is to take the GM choice away from farmers entirely, not to give it any breathing space whatsoever. Not for golden rice designed to save children from blindness; not for GM bananas that might help subsistence farmers in Uganda battle banana wilt rot; not for GM cotton that spares farmers in India and China from using hazardous pesticides, not for peanuts that are allergen-free; not for anything that might be developed to help any farmer or consumer, ever.

What gives the anti-GMO movement the right to be judge and jury over what technology farmers may access?

The movement against genetic modification has been highly successful. In a stunning victory of ideology over science, GMOS have been outlawed in Hawaii and more than half the countries in the European Union. The European position has contributed to many African countries shunning GMOs.

Take a look at the movie and see the result. Today it is a dirt-poor subsistence farmer in Uganda looking with despair at the GM bananas that survive in a fenced-off experimental compound, while her field and her livelihood perish.
Who will it be tomorrow?

Before the movie began, the hundred or so members of the audience were asked to indicate their view on GMOs by holding up either red (against), green (for) or yellow (undecided) cards. After the screening, the vote was repeated. I think the sea of cards was greener.

But as Kennedy writes in his notes to the movie, he has no problem with anyone disagreeing with the film’s conclusions: “That’s how science works. Show us your data and let the experts and scientists debate the issues in all their glorious nuance. And as we take in the scientific process at work, let’s do our best to put aside bias so we can have more productive conversations and make the most informed decisions we can. That’s all we can ask of each other and ourselves.”

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