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Food Evolution: What’s the Story on GMOs?

While at the IFT conference, I was able to attend a viewing of Food Evolution. The best part of viewing the movie at the IFT, other than it not costing anything extra, was that the directors and two of the main actors were available for a question and answer session afterwards. Now, the vision for this movie was created with the thought of how to sustainably feed the growing population in 2050. However, that topic was too broad to be covered in a 90 minute movie. So the authors decided to tackle the subject of genetically modified (GM) crops. 

Food Evolution: The Movie

Hawaii and GMOs

We start with the fight to ban GMOs on Hawaii. The reasons given for wanting to restrict GMOs are a worry about the safety of eating GM foods, fear of Monsanto, and a push to ignore science. The Hawaii County Council held a session where they received expert testimonies to help provide the "truth" about GMOs. Those for GMO agriculture lost this battle, but then the councilwoman, Margaret Wille, who brought forth the anti-GMO bill changed her position. One thought that came up was that we can be either GMO friendly, or organic. Not both. But if we became only organic globally, we would have to cut down the rainforest in order to feed everybody.

Because of the backlash from the prohibition of Rainbow Papaya, a GM crop, Margaret Wille changed her position, calling to grandfather the papaya in, making it exempt from the ban. Ms. Wille stated that she didn't want to lose her job, so she allowed the rainbow papaya to be grandfathered in. She also stated that she just wanted to get a bill passed, suggesting that she didn't really care about its contents. And in the end, the state of Hawaii repealed Hawaii's ban of GMOs.

The computer scientist

The computer scientist who spoke provided evidence in the form of numbers. She provides a figure which shows a strong correlation between the incidence of diabetes, autism, and other diseases with the use of GMOs. And she intimates that solely because she found the numbers and they correlate, there is causation without any extra investigation. This brings me to my first point: numbers can lie and correlation does not always mean causation. This sentence is one of the first things we learn in science classes. Without further investigation, a statement like that cannot be validated and if we are going to call that true, why would we ignore the correlation between autism and organic food sales. This is autism organic foodan even tighter correlation than that between GMO use and autism incidence. NOTE: I am not saying that autism is linked to organic food consumption. I am simply using this figure to prove that correlation is not causation. And we need to consider all correlations if we are going to use them as evidence.

Jeffrey Smith

There was also expert testimony from Jeffrey Smith, an anti-GMO activist. The first thing that I feel compelled to say is that in the video provided, Smith misleads his audience by not refusing the title of "Dr." Smith openly says that many people mistake him for a scientist with a doctorate, but doesn't see the need to correct people when they call him a doctor. This misleading is one reason that people are so afraid of scientists these days. If you don't know who to trust, why trust anyone?

Mr. Smith is also guilty of fear-mongering. All of his efforts to stop the use of GMOs stems from the fact that there is a theoretical possibility that GMOs might cause cancer or other diseases, which has not been investigated. Without proof, this fear-mongering does more harm than good. It convinces people that the likelihood of getting sick increases with the use of GM foods, when it does not. It also plays on the fears of parents, by suggesting that they are harming their children by feeding them GM foods. This is not true! Smith is not a scientist, and he makes money from all of the scare tactics that he employs. No matter my side, I would not take his advice because he can't back up his position.

Rainbow Papaya

Dennis Gonsalves is one of the co-creators of the Rainbow Papaya. He provided a testimony to the fact that without genetic modification, the papaya would be gone due to disease. Although his testimony provided facts about the safety and necessity of GM crops, he was not given nearly as much time to talk as Jeffrey Smith. And his testimony was given the same amount of consideration. Although the papaya ended up grandfathered into the bill banning GMOs, Dr. Gonsalves was unable to convince the council that GMOs are not inherently bad.

Even though the GMO ban was eventually revoked by the state of Hawaii, the original ban helped the fear-mongering to cause bans across the world.

Uganda bananas

Across Africa, many countries have banned the use of GM crops. Uganda and Kenya are two of these countries highlighted by the movie. In Uganda, where bananas are how many farmers make a living, banana wilt has decreased banana yield by 30-52% in Central Uganda. There is a group of Ugandan scientists working to find a solution to banana wilt. This resulted in GM bananas that have 100% resistance to the banana bacterial wilt, but were illegal to plant because they were genetically modified.

After visiting the research facility, Ugandan citizens learn that this can save their livelihood, preempting farmer Emma Naluyima to teach her fellow farmers about the benefits of GM bananas. And now, Uganda and Kenya are both close to allowing the use of GM crops on a case by case basis. I'd count this as a big win, because everything should be on a case by case basis.

I also want to point out here that by refusing to accept GM crops, these African nations are condemning their people to starvation. Their people are being suppressed because they refuse to help them find solutions to pests, weeds, and diseases that ravage their crops.

banana anti gmoAlthough it is unclear to me which bananas this image is in reference to, I want to point out that this person is attending a lecture by Dr. Robb Fraley, Monsanto's executive vice president, to protest Monsanto's GM bananas. But Monsanto has no hands in the production or sale of GM bananas.

Intelligence2

The intelligence2 debate over GMOs was also included in the movie. This debate pitted pro-GMO scientists Dr. Robb Fraley and Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam against anti-GMO scientists Dr. Chuck Benbrook and Dr. Margaret Mellon to see who could change more minds. And although Benbrook states that he has science on his side, Fraley and Van Eenennaam manage to change 28% of their audience to being "Yes" to GMOs by providing the scientific proof to back up the use of GMOs.

And Bill Nye was even one of those in the crowd who changed his mind. Nye says in the movie that he will look more into the GMO debate and dedicate one episode of his new series "Bill Nye Saves the World" to discussion of GMOs. An episode which I have already watched and reviewed for all of you. It was nice to see where he came up with the idea and to know that he did follow through.

Dr. Benbrook

This seems like a good idea to delve more deeply into the kind of science that Benbrook had on his side. As a professor at the Washington State University, Dr. Benbrook was funded by many organic food sellers. His scientific process started with the conclusion that his funders were paying for, finding evidence to support those conclusions, rather than following the scientific method where conclusions are not foregone. After three years of only being funded by organic food companies, Washington State terminated Benbrook's contract.

Many of the scientific studies used by anti-GMO activists have been published by Dr. Benbrook and are therefore suspect. Which brings me to the Séralini rat study which caused everyone to worry about getting cancer from eating GM crops, because he used tumor-prone rats. This study has been RETRACTED. This means that the journal that published the study has made it known that they no longer agree with the study. I will also point out what Dr. Van Eenennaam stated in the movie, which is that when Séralini held a press meeting for the release of his study, he refused to allow other scientists to attend. This kind of refusal suggests that he didn't want others to be able to debate his study in view of the public. In addition to this study, others have used bad science to influence political decisions, because it makes for more flashy titles.

One more thought in regards to scientific research on this topic: there have been many studies completed analyzing the affects of genetic engineering on the health of society and livestock. This study compiles all studies done over the last 10 years, and points out that none of the research done suggests that GMOs are a health risk. Though this doesn't mean that all GMOs are good, all those in common use today are probably safe.

The Anti-Science Movement

Part of the hidden message given by this movie is that we need to stop being so anti-science. These people are anti-GMO because scientists are telling them that GM crops are safe. This one woman in the video says she trusts social media more than most medical doctors, the CDC, the FDA and the EPA. She trusts things she sees on facebook because "why would they say things that aren't true?" And if you believe that, there is a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you. She doesn't need scientific studies because she has the truth from other mommy bloggers, but most bloggers are actually trying to make money from their blog. They have a message that they want to get out, and they sell things to make a profit. This means they do have a reason to lie.

Not everything on the internet it true. Hell, half the news these days is fake. This is truly a call to stop fake news. Read the science. Listen to the experts. Why would you believe someone without proof? Just because you believe everything that you say, that doesn't make you correct.

An interesting movement that I learned about through the movie was the March Against Myths. This group is rallying in the face of all the anti-science being spewed by anti-GMO activists.

Funding

So one disclaimer goes under this title is that this movie was completely funded by the IFT organization, with the topic of sustainable food being supplied, but complete artistic freedom was given to the directors, without an end goal asked for or promised. So I don't see a problem with this, but now you know.

The real funding things that I want to talk about are who is making money for GMOs. Everyone talks about how evil Monsanto is because they originally created DDT and Agent Orange. They are also super pro-GMO because they have made so much money from selling GMO seeds. I want to point out that Whole Foods has made more money from their anti-GMO agenda than Monsanto has from GMOs. You can't really hate Monsanto for making money on GMOs, because so is their opposition.

This also brings me to the point where people claim that Monsanto sues every farmer who accidentally sells GM crops as a result of seeds or pollen being blown into their fields. The truth is, they don't. Monsanto will only sue those farmers if they knowingly sell their GM crops as GM crops, but don't pay Monsanto. As in, if farmers know they are doing it, and they don't tell Monsanto, then they get sued. They probably deserve it, too, because they know what they are doing is wrong.

Reaction

I thought that this movie was very well done. I think that they allowed the anti-GMO people to prove themselves idiots by just letting them talk, rather than trying to prove them wrong. When people will find a way to refute anything you bring up, this is the easiest way. Let them dig their own holes, I'll provide the shovel.

I'm excited about the GMOs that are being created: allergy free peanuts and disease resistant mosquitoes. Now, I'm not allergic to peanuts, but for those who are, I'm sure this is an exciting prospect. Disease resistant mosquitoes sound revolutionary because many of the diseases that we are afraid of today are transmitted by mosquitoes. If that were to stop, I think everybody would be happier.

One thing that I thought could have been more emphasized is that we have been genetically modifying our crops since we began to artificially select and breed them. Although we are now doing this with a more finessed method, the idea is not new. If we really wanted to get rid of GM crops, we would have nothing to eat.

I truly appreciated that this movie presented both sides, allowing everyone to talk for themselves. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, "the good thing about science is that it's true, whether or not you believe it."

2 thoughts on “Food Evolution: What’s the Story on GMOs?

  1. Jorge
    Well done. I can wait to the screening of this movie in Australia. I used to campaign against genetic modification since the 90's thanks to the influence of Greenpeace Argentina. I was scientific illiterate and thanks to moving to Australia and social media I got exposure to articles like yours and all the data that changed my point of view on that topic. Thank you.
    Reply
    1. mem_somerville
      That's great to hear, Jorge. I don't know where you are, but I just happened to hear of an Australian viewing in August: https://twitter.com/BioBeef/status/883861572153507840 Follow Alison and the film account for others too.
      Reply

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