Thomas R. O'Donnell

Documentary draws lines in GMO debate

In Government, Industry Research, University research on November 5, 2017 at 2:49 pm
The "Food Evolution" movie poster, courtesy of Black Valley Films.

The “Food Evolution” movie poster, courtesy of Black Valley Films.

Given Iowa’s reputation as an agricultural state, it would be no surprise to find we’re in the middle of a debate about the use and safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Odds are, the corn and soybeans you see farmers picking as you drive down a highway or country road (or that you’re harvesting yourself if you farm) this fall are GMOs. Most probably were genetically altered to tolerate herbicides, resist insects, or both. In many cases, these tweaks have let farmers grow more grain with less cost, often with lower environmental impact.

These products have been in the field for decades. (And one could argue that virtually every plant we eat has been genetically modified through cross breeding.) We’ve all eaten them with no ill effects. Yet arguments continue over their safety, whether their presence should be disclosed in food labeling and whether they’re tools of money-grubbing corporations.

All these issues come up in “Food Evolution,” a documentary making the rounds and presented last week at the Iowa State University Memorial Union in Ames. It asks important questions: How do we make the most informed decisions about what we eat? And what if, in rejecting GMOs, we get it wrong?

Iowa makes several cameo appearances, with scenes shot in Ames and Des Moines and in the credentials of activists and bystanders on screen.

The producers of “Food Evolution” say it started as an attempt to explore the nutrition demands of a growing population, but morphed into a more achievable look at GMOs (also called genetically engineered – GE – crops). With primary financing from the Institute of Food Technologists scientific society, it examines the issue from the perspectives of both GMO supporters and opponents.

The filmmakers may have narrowed the documentary’s scope, but it’s still expansive, going from Hawaii to Uganda to South Africa and across the United States.

It opens with a Hawaii county council banning GMOs – only to later crack the ban open to allow rainbow papaya, a GE version of the tropical fruit that resists a virus that nearly wiped out the plant.

Among people the county consulted with is Jeffrey Smith, an anti-GMO crusader. In one telling scene, officials ask if he should be called “Doctor Smith.” “No, just Jeffrey,” Smith replies via video link – because Smith is not a scientist and isn’t trained in plant biology, chemistry or other related fields. He does have a degree from the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa – a center for the dubious science of Transcendental Meditation. TM practitioners generally eschew meat and chemically treated food. Organics rule. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s also little evidence that organics are safer or nutritionally better than ordinary food.

Smith, a TM practitioner, former Natural Law candidate and one-time yogic flying instructor, apparently still has a home in Fairfield. He’s written a couple of self-published books and produced an anti-GMO film. (“Food Revolution” notes that he makes a nice living out of opposing GMOs.) Talking to the Hawaiian council, he asserts that GE food COULD be linked to a host of conditions: cancer, obesity, HIV, diabetes and more.

But researchers have repeatedly debunked his claims and the studies he cites. As the film notes, virtually every scientific society in the U.S. and around the world has examined the evidence – thousands of experiments over decades – and found no link between GMO consumption and illness.

Yet, the notion persists, leading many governments to ban GE crops. This isn’t without consequence, as the film demonstrates. One tale woven through the narrative shows Ugandans in danger of poverty and starvation as disease wipes out banana plants. Researchers have solved the problem with genetic engineering – if only the new varieties can be moved out of the lab and into the field.

As the documentary notes, the GMO debate has become synonymous with arguments over big agribusiness and its profits from seed and chemical sales. Monsanto is the world’s most hated company, narrator Neil DeGrasse Tyson notes, and the film explores the firm’s past as a maker of DDT and napalm. But it also gives time to a defender: Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s executive vice president and chief technology officer.

Monsanto's Robert Fraley, left, talks to a GMO protester after Fraley spoke at Iowa State University. The "Food Evolution" documentary noted that Monsanto hasn't genetically altered any bananas, but anti-GMO laws and sentiments threaten to keep a GE banana out off Ugandan plantations, threatening food security in the African nation. Photo courtesy of Black Valley Films.

Monsanto’s Robert Fraley, left, talks to a GMO protester after Fraley spoke at Iowa State University. The documentary noted that Monsanto hasn’t genetically altered any bananas, but anti-GMO laws and sentiments threaten to keep a GE banana off Ugandan plantations, threatening food security in the African nation. Photo courtesy of Black Valley Films.

Once sequence shows Fraley speaking at ISU and facing questions from activists – including at least one dressed as a banana. In the audience and, at one point, standing to one side as Fraley speaks, is Wendy Wintersteen, then dean of ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Iowa Board of Regents recently named her ISU’s president – over the objections of some activists and journalists, who say she is too wedded to the very agribusiness infrastructure Fraley represents. Her incidental appearance in “Food Revolution” won’t help dissuade her detractors.

Another sequence features a Des Moines visit by Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal genomics and biotechnology specialist at the University of California, Davis. She may have been in the state conjunction with activities at the World Food Prize headquarters, and there are later scenes featuring prize officials.

Outside the downtown Marriott Hotel, Van Eenennaam talks to women who are protesting Monsanto, engaging them in a friendly way. When the Iowans mention suicides among Indian farmers, which some activists have linked to Monsanto’s sales of GE seed for crops like cotton, Van Eenennaam corrects them: a study debunked the connection and found Indian farmers using GE seed have boosted yields and cut pesticide use.

Reviewers have said “Food Evolution” is respectful of GMO opponents, and I agree. However, the activists come off far less favorably – sometimes even appearing like naïve pseudoscience fanatics – because the data are not on their side. Yet, the film – and Van Eenennaam, who was at the Ames screening and took questions – provide some hope for bridging the divide. Both factions, the film and the researcher say, are fighting for the same goals: nutritious, healthy and plentiful food grown more sustainably and with less chemicals.

Van Eenennaam emphasized that point repeatedly as she addressed some tough questions from the ISU audience. To her, the film’s themes include addressing the spread of “alternative facts” and the importance of making decisions based on objective scientific evidence. But if facts alone could change minds, the debate would have been settled long ago.

My question, the final one of the night, touched on that point. I asked about CRISPR/Cas9 technology, which generally just modifies a plant’s existing genome instead of inserting DNA from another organism. Some researchers I’ve talked with have suggested that may make the technique more palatable to GMO opponents.

Van Eenennaam’s take: Few people object now, but it may not last. Given previous opposition to genetic engineering and the visceral reaction it provokes in some people, it’s only a matter time before it comes under fire.

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  1. Great post. Wish anit-GMO activists would bother to see the film.

    On Sun, Nov 5, 2017 at 2:49 PM, Iowa Science Interface wrote:

    > iowascienceinterface posted: ” Given Iowa’s reputation as an agricultural > state, it would be no surprise to find we’re in the middle of a debate > about on the use and safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Odds > are, the corn and soybeans you see farmers picking as you d” >

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