A screening of the documentary “Food Evolution” followed by a discussion panel was held at the Learning Innovation Center Thursday, Septemeber 28th. It was nearly a full house in the rather stuffy classroom with one big screen and three smaller ones for the back rows. The lights dimmed, the crowd hushed, and the film began.
“Amongst all the conflict and confusion, how are we going to make informed decisions about how we feed ourselves?”
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a renown astrophysicist and science communicator with a great sense of humor. His smooth voice began narrating the story of how our food became what it is today, busting myths and common misconceptions from start to finish. For example, he explained how everything we eat has been genetically modified in some way for preferable characteristics since traditional breeding thousands of years ago. We could easily consider our domesticated pets genetically modified as well. The difference in genetically modifying something and genetically engineering it is the method, which we have developed after years of trial and error to find the most effective and safe ways to select for the characteristics we need from plants (such as drought or disease resistance). Since GMO is a broad term (hell, even your cat is a GMO), I will be using GE here to refer specifically to the method that is in the midst of such fiery debate. For the sake of full disclosure, I played my title off of Dr. Kevin Folta’s campaign “Just Say No to ‘GMO’” (link goes to his first article about why we should say GE published June 1, 2017).
Other genetic engineering applications were also brought to light, such as life-saving insulin and rennet which is used to make cheese (we used to have to kill calves for their rennet, now we can grow it from bacteria). We learned how genetic engineering saved the Rainbow Papaya from going extinct (via a virus) and thus saving the papaya industry from collapsing in Hawaii. While Hawaii tried to ban all GE crops, they made an exception for the papaya. This cheery picking effectively hurt their argument that GEs cause health problems. The myths of GEs causing health problems were also debunked when our narrator explained that over 2,000 studies from around the world found no human health risks. This evidence echoed the film urging its audience not to trust one voice, but a consensus earlier on. And we learned that glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp which is used on RoundUp Ready seed) is less toxic than caffeine or salt, and is less toxic than any pesticide to come before it. Our narrator said calmly,
“To be concerned about the safety of your GMOs is to be misinformed.”
“They’re not farmers, they’re mad scientists!” one protestor in the film shouted out. This sentiment is why I found it so important that the documentary humanized the scientists and paid due attention to the effects of GE crops on developing countries. It did so by following stories of scientists and farmers working together. The narrator didn’t say it outright, but using GE crops is also an environmental justice issue.
Following farming families in Uganda and Kenya, I became quickly emotionally invested in their success. As more and more countries ban GEs, the fear of them grows and it is the developing countries that suffer the most. Banana Wilt devastated 50% of the crop and 1/3 of Ugandans were estimated to be suffering from this famine. At first, the idea of a genetically engineered alternative was met with hesitation and distrust by Ugandans and their government. But once the families went to go see the test crops, and see the health of the banana trees unaffected by the disease, the mother said, “These are just like ours!” with a big smile on her face. However, the grandmother’s face reviled a heavy heart; she was concerned about what they would do while they waited several years for the GE banana plant to be approved. Thankfully, the documentary reported that so far Kenya has agreed to lift the ban on GE crops on a case by case basis. This situation points out the humanitarian applications of genetic engineering. Golden Rice is another fine example; by adding the precursor to beta-carotene, people in developing countries no longer have to go blind and die from Vitamin A deficiency. Once African farmer felt so strongly about his GE crops, he said,
“Americans beware – when you say no to GE technology, you are suppressing Africa.”
I sincerely wonder what the GE opponents have to say about that. Here in the USA, many of us have the privilege of denying food if we so choose, and it’s thought of as a personal choice. Clearly, it is not, but rather a social choice with global consequences.
To my understanding, corporate greed and bias have broken people’s trust. Even Monsanto, the USA’s most hated company, openly admits that they should have been more transparent from the start. Yet, I wonder further, are we distrustful of the right companies? Did you know GreenPeace has become a group of ecoterrorists, destroying test crops in developing countries? Did you know that if a company were to try to “buy” scientists, Whole Foods actually has more money than Monsanto? Speaking of Monsanto, did you know the suicide rates of farmers in India hasn’t changed (despite rumors, from whom, exactly?) and that Monsanto continues to donate seed to developing countries as a humanitarian effort (for example, to Haiti after Hurricane Matthew)? If we must argue the virtues of companies and individuals, we must look at both sides. Plenty has been said to promote the anti-GE side (unfortunately most of based on poor science or straight up lies to sell you something), so allow me to present just who this anti-GE side includes.
Can scientists be bought? Have conflicts of interest? Sure. But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge their humanity. They are just like the rest of us. They are human, they have families, and they also want to feed their families healthy food. People make mistakes and when those mistakes are severe enough, the greater scientific community does not remain silent. For example, a scientist who has been discredited is Stefanie Senif. She doesn’t even have a biology background. She is a statistician who overlaid two graphs on each other, showing a rise in GE crops and a rise in autism, concluding that GE crops cause autism. For those of us that took biology, I’m sure most of us have memories of chanting, “Correlation does not equal causation!” It is really easy to make anything correlate. In the documentary, a couple scientists showed that if you lay a graph of organic food sales over autism diagnoses, using Senif’s logic you can just as easily conclude that organic food causes autism. As a society, we have become more accepting of mental illnesses and are better at diagnosing them. Additionally, psychologists also recently widened the spectrum of what is considered autism. Let’s start looking at links before we get too excited.
My least favorite scientist is French-born Gilles-Eric Seralini. In his rat study published in 2012, Seralini did not allow any scientists at his press release for the study and simultaneously announced his book release and a film about the study (conflict of interest much?!). Not only did he use rats that experience a high rate of tumor growth, he violated animal treatment standards by letting the rats live well past the point that most studies would conclude their work to prevent the animals from living in pain. However, the larger the tumor the more shocking the photos, so Seralini allowed the animals to suffer until the tumors took over most of the rats’ bodies. Disgusted by this along with the obvious bias and lack of rigor in his work, this study was quickly dismissed by the scientific community and they then called for a more stringent peer-review process from all scientific publications. The outcry and controversy generated when this paper was published, retracted, and republished was coined “the Seralini Affair.”
To look specifically for a case of companies “buying” scientists off, we need look no further than Charles Benbrook. For years he was the go-to scientist for anit-GMO studies until the New York Times published emails between him and his funders. They clearly showed he set up his studies with the intent of finding health benefits of organic foods and health risks of GE foods. Funders included Whole Foods, Organic Valley, and Stoneyfield. He was let go from his post at Washington State University. You can read more about that at The Genetic Literacy Project along with lots of other fun facts.
All of these scientists were discussed in Food Evolution. But one audience member asked about someone else – Dr. Kevin Folta. The audience member asked how to have courage as a scientist to stand up to being accused of being a shill, having death threats sent to their office, and having their research burned to the ground. Sadly, the panelist simply said that not all scientists have that courage; many just quietly publish their work. But not Kevin Folta. He is the Chairman and a professor of the Horticulture Sciences Department at the University of Florida. After Joe Rogan urged him in an interview to start a podcast, Folta started Talking BioTech to reach out to everyone across the US to help spread accurate information about various bio-technologies.
Just because a company is “a huge corporation,” it does not automatically follow that it is “evil.” In fact, it takes a certain level of emotional maturity to move past the idea that things in life can be as black and white as “evil” and “good.” Even famous individuals, who are viewed as modern-day saints by their followers, are paid large sums for their positions. Vandana Shiva makes $40,000 per speech against GEs and Zen Honeycutt makes a commission on every food product sold that she promotes on her website. And while founding something with the title of “Moms Across America” sounds innocent enough, that organization has been known for shaming mothers for what they feed their children. In addition, they promise not to use donations to fund political campaigns, yet were blatantly caught in that lie when they marched up to the Environmental Protection Agency with 90,000 signatures to ban glyphosate. One of the mothers who faced the wrath of Mom’s Across America was Shelley McGuire, a scientist and mother, who dared to point out that the studies Moms Across America cited on their website were poorly done and flawed.
“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.”
This Mark Twain quote was actually the first image and words of the documentary. But did the scientific accuracy of the documentary get through to this audience, or the rest of its audience outside this screening? Keith Kloor says no, in his article in Slate titled, “Food Evolution Is Scientifically Accurate. Too Bad It Won’t Convince Anyone,” published last June. He believes the documentary missed the main issue in the GE debate: it’s not about facts, it’s about values.
So how do people make decisions? Mark Lynas, a British environmental activist who sheepishly admits he used to destroy test crops and openly apologizes for it, asks “When was the last time you changed your mind on something fundamental?” Lynas goes on to say that people don’t make decisions based on facts. Maybe a few initially, but it always comes down to a feeling, to what your gut says. Generally, once a person has made up their mind and then is presented with conflicting evidence, they dig their heels in even deeper to their previously held beliefs. Psychologists call this phenomenon “cognitive dissonance.”
The anti-GE movement uses the same fear tactics that its protestors complain of war mongers; they use fear. From Zen Honeycutt shaming mothers to Seralini telling parents their children will get cancer – it’s all fear based. And it works. It spreads confusion and spreads distrust, and sells lots of books and food products to those desperate parents who can afford to pay more for snake oil. However, Zen Honeycutt maintains the belief that there are no repercussions if she’s wrong about GEs. She must not have heard of Africa or shaming moms or the babies sent to hospitals because they get put on fad diets.
And so, it is my deepest hope that the film ventured deep enough into the connections between humanitarian efforts, environmental justice stories, and the humanity of scientists to convince people that we are all fighting for the same thing, that we all actually do have the same values and are on the same side. We are all fighting to have nutritious and abundant food that is secure and sustainable.
A few minutes after the film ended, the lights came up and the discussion panel made up of OSU science professors with various levels of expertise in specific areas of genetics, responded to questions from the audience. It was not nearly as exciting as the film, however, if you like a solid debate. Most questions were not concerned with the safety of GE food but the how to implement them as best as possible, such as crop rotation and effective combinations of GE crops and traditional practices. If anyone disagreed with the film they remained silent, although their questions would have been welcome. Essentially, the main point I took away from the panel was the same point made in the film by an organic farmer at UC Davis:
“…we should use every tool we have
to produce safe, accessible, healthy food.”
If you’re a student and want to know more about GEs, a highly recommended class is called “FW 435/535: Genes and Chemicals in Agriculture: Value and Risk,” and is also known as “the GMO class.” It’s taught by Steve Strauss who was a panel member and runs the Oregon State Forest Biotechnology Lab.