Last week I’ve been invited to the preview showing of Oscar-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s Food Evolution, which has been released in US and will come soon to Europe’s theaters. It is a scientific and courageous film that goes deep into the complexities of a fierce debate to unravel the truth and help us — as the filmmaker promises — “make the right decisions about food”… This worldwide tour will take you from Hawaii to Uganda via New York and Iowa and in addition boasts a voiceover from the suave tones of the famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. As fast paced as a police thriller, Food Evolution examines “the case against GMO” to see what is going on behind the scenes and why it continues to arouse public mistrust. When we watch Food Evolution, we understand that an army of protesters is rising against the agri-food industry, and that creates a wealth of stories to be told.
Hawaii without GMO, but not without papaya
From the first scenes we’re right in the thick of it: at a press conference, Margaret Wille, a member of the Hawaii County Council announces that this day is historic because she has just passed a law to make Hawaii a GMO-free zone. We then witness the debates that took place in the council before the bill was passed. The “pro” and the “anti” camps confront each other. For example, Jeffrey Smith, the global star of the anti-GMO cause, takes part via video conference. This friendly man asks to be called Jeff, not “Doctor”, and with good reason: we learn a little later that he has no scientific qualifications, but actually started his career as a swing dancer. Yet he seems serious when he tells the council that genetically modified papaya (Rainbow Papaya) can leave an organism susceptible to many diseases, including the AIDS virus. In the pro camp, Michael Shintaku, a plant pathology specialist at the University of Hawaii observes that many of these testimonies are emotional and that there is no danger from GMOs…
We are nevertheless treated by another witness to a quote from Gilles Eric Séralini’s rat tumour study, which has been removed from publication, and then a political activist who talks about the fact that the problem comes from the multinationals… and finally, Professor Dennis Gonsalves, co-inventor of the Rainbow Papaya who testifies in person. After this day of hearings, the law imposing a total ban on GMOs on the island was passed, but we learn later in the film that it was later amended, and that genetically modified papaya will be tolerated, as farmers have made it clear to Margaret Wille that the cultivation of this crop had serious implications for the island. In the meantime, an educational segment shows us the scientific method of Dr. Gonsalves’s research work and why he had the idea of genetically vaccinating Papaya against the Ringspot virus. It is understood that genetic engineering was used because there was no alternative way of preserving papaya crops against this disease. Genetic engineering thus allowed the re-introduction to the island of a crop which was under threat of vanishing altogether due to infection.
It’s not clear how convincing he is.
Scott Hamilton Kennedy follows up with a series of stories of typical achievements in genetic engineering and shows the ins and outs of an increasingly surreal debate in which the worst arguments put forward by experts with dubious credentials contradict facts that have been proven over and over by academics with CVs as long as your arm. This plunges us into the exciting world of science versus opinion. Never black and white, the film tries to make everyone’s voice and motivations heard: scientists express their emotions and vice versa, “non-scientists” argue by airing their reasoning. The question then is whether the doubters can be persuaded. But that’s the heart of the subject… as the film illustrates in the case of Marc Lynas, an ecological activist, who made a complete U-turn and started defending GMOs when he realised that they played a vital role in safeguarding the amount of agricultural land available.
As historian of this topic, which I covered extensively in the early years of the century, and have subsequently taken a step back from, I had mixed feelings at the end of this screening. First of all, we heard excellent news: thirty years after they were first cultivated, GMOs have still not caused a single death. On the other hand, the bad news is that GMO technology is still subject to as much, if not more, criticism. Its global critics seem to be a little more numerous every day (NB in the 2000s there were few opponents in the US, unlike now). But how can we explain the doubt that still remains in the mind of consumers?
Pro-GMO scientists can talk all they like about “scientific rationality” because until they can succeed in persuading consumers, they will be whistling in the wind, especially since we have entered an era of post-truth where that very rationality has been unseated. Who can be persuaded? Undoubtedly the public concerned. It is not difficult to convince farmers, who are the primary users of the technology: in the film we see African organic banana growers listening to researchers working on a virus-resistant genetically modified banana; it is more difficult on the other hand to convince the end consumers, who are seduced by arguments related to their direct benefit and will be more difficult to convince with arguments about indirect benefits such as “this technology will allow us to feed humanity” or “it will produce food resistant to water stress”. And as the fear has not completely disappeared and these three letters continue to sow terror in many minds, meanwhile, the most virulent opponents are at leisure to format minds and deepen beliefs: to symbolise an invisible risk, all they have to do is dress up.
Out come their Halloween costumes and off they parade dressed as Jack The Reaper brandishing anti-junk food placards. A little subterfuge that Scott Hamilton Kennedy perfectly understood and caught on film. We can’t be sure that Food Evolution will be able to dispel all your doubts if you have any… But one thing is certain, you will be grateful to the author of this film for not bringing out yet another horror film scenario… Far from being just one more remake of a doom-mongering movie worthy of rotten tomatoes (organic or GMO, up to you), this film arrives like a UFO in the post-truth world. And that’s a perfect reason to go and see it, to get an idea!
This post is also available in: FR (FR)