Is ‘Food Evolution’ propaganda? No! Just an accessible presentation of a tough topic

Food Evolution is a documentary about GMOs. It is an excellent film that mixes a few compelling stories with interesting interviews that inform viewers without losing their attention. As someone that has worked in agricultural biotechnology for 30 years, I find the contents accurate and insightful.

The lynchpin of the movie is the story of a public debate to ban GMOs in Hawaii, which illustrates how the opponents of the technology had good intentions and real concerns about the environment, but little information about what GMOs are all about. During the debate about the technology, we realize that the fear of the technology has no scientific basis and the benefits are underappreciated.

papayas

GMO papayas in Hawaii

Through this debate, we came to meet the real hero of the movie, Dennis Gonsalves, a scientist who used biotechnology to develop a virus-resistant papaya that would soon save the Hawaiian papaya industry. With this information, the legislators exempted papaya from the ban.

While the main applications of GMOs are sold by major corporations, like Monsanto, Gonsalves shows that GMOs are a product of public sector research that can be used for many uses, including “minor” crops. One of the ironies emphasized in the movie is that heavy regulation has advantaged major companies in utilizing the technology, reducing its use for less lucrative markets.

I found the appearance of Michael Pollan, a leading voice for alternative agriculture, refreshing as he states that GMO foods don’t present more risks than traditional foods and may increase yields. While clearly GMOs are not Pollan’s cup of tea, they is not the devil that opponents of the technology make it out to be. Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are a couple who show that organic farming methods can be married with agricultural biotechnology to create healthier and more productive agriculture, and that the current ban of GMOs in organic agriculture is short-sighted.

One theme that becomes clear is that GMOs are an application of modern biology developed by people who care about humanity and aimed to solve real problems, address food security and improve the environment. The process is not a silver bullet, but one important part of the toolbox available to farmers within a diversified farming system.

Another theme is that opponents of the technology have been very successful in demonizing it. The exchanges of Alison Van Eenennaam with people on the street as well as a public debate clearly demonstrate that a little real information can change peoples’ perspective.

I am saddened to hear the criticism of the movie by some of my colleagues, as you can call any artistic effort that takes a position “propaganda.” Since English is my second language, I looked up the definition in the Oxford dictionary, and it is “[i]nformation, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

Based on my knowledge, the movie doesn’t present false or biased information. It presents researchers who discuss research findings that were applied and accepted by the scientific community, and different points of view of activists and researchers debating about policy. The presentations speak for themselves, and the viewer is likely to leave with a positive perspective about GMOs and their potential. The movie was respectful of the opponents of GMOs, gave critics like Pollan an opportunity to present their views, but most importantly it presented a compelling story about implementing a new technology.

I like also to note that while the criticism conveys the impression that Berkeley faculty as a whole hold a negative view of GMOs, this impression is wrong. One of the first applications of genetically modified organisms was performed here by Stephen Lindow in late 1970s. Berkeley boasts one of the world’s best life sciences departments, whose outstanding faculty members made breakthrough discoveries in biotechnology, both in terms of transgenics and now gene editing. I heard very positive responses to Food Evolution from numerous Berkeley students and faculty in recent screenings. So UC Berkeley faculty and students have diverse opinions, on GMOs as well as many topics — let a thousand flowers bloom.

Food Evolution was much softer than hard-hitting movies like Food Revolution and Food Inc. It didn’t emphasize that all the prominent academies of sciences have found GMOs acceptable and worthwhile to utilize, and that restrictions on its use harms the poor. It didn’t use the damning of Greenpeace by over 100 Nobel prize winners over its campaign against GMOs, in particular Golden Rice (they even end the letter saying “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?”). It didn’t even use multiple findings that by increasing food supply and productivity, GMOs have already reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, made food and fiber more affordable, enhanced food security and helped poor farmers.

The movie presented a message of hope. Behind GMOs and many other applications of modern science, there are dedicated and caring scientists. Every new application is building and augmenting existing knowledge. Regulations are necessary to protect against mishaps and mismanagement and to enable utilization of the potential of technologies. Thus, new agricultural biotechnology products deserve a chance, and they will help humanity to address major challenges like food security, deforestation, and climate change.

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