Berkeley Blog, Opinion

No evolution in thinking in 'Food Evolution'

But we’re learning new things about privacy and emails in the age of FOIA.

For many years, I’ve studied environmental and science policy, looking into how governments, industry and NGOs jointly help find ways toward greater sustainability. Most of my work has been on chemical policies and greening chemistry, but in recent years I’ve developed a new interest in sustainable agriculture.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve gained some unexpectedly participatory insight into what have come to be known as the “GMO wars.” In mid-June, I heard that the Food Evolution film was going to be shown on the UC Berkeley campus, and it was being advertised as a scientifically objective, meticulous dissection of the GM crop topic. Curious about whether this was actually the case, I talked with a few academic and NGO colleagues to see if they had seen the film, and if so, what their impressions were. I also looked at the available film clip. It quickly became clear there were serious issues with the film. Thus, I gave feedback on and signed onto a letter expressing concern that the film was being shown on campus without putting it into a proper context.

hands with grain

(Image from the trailer of ‘Food Evolution’)

Some days later, some of my faculty colleagues (at UC Berkeley, the University of Vermont, Michigan State University, UC Santa Cruz and other universities) and I were rather surprised to receive a FOIA request from a Stephan Neidenbach for all messages from the start of this year to the end of June that contained the Food Evolution film name. He is apparently a Maryland-based middle school teacher who is interested in GM issues. Subsequently, I learned that any message that is sent through a university email address or listserv is subject to FOIA. Clearly, the motivation was to try to find out more about the backstory of the letter. This seems to be a fairly new tactic that the biotechnology industry and its proponents are trying out. (To be fair, the US Right to Know Group has been successfully learning about the close ties between the biotech industry and many apparently independent advocates of GM crops by using FOIA requests. This research has appeared in the New York Times among other media outlets.)

As a result, Neidenbach wrote a letter on the Medium website that claims the letter of concern was written at the behest of the organic food industry, without disclosing this connection, and is based on false information (i.e. we did not see the film). Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Neidenbach chose to quote very selectively from the email messages that he was able to extract. He and his colleagues are also circulating images of the extracts on Twitter.

Contrary to what Neidenbach and others are implying, the letter was the collaborative idea of students, faculty, and staff at UC Berkeley. Authors did not receive assistance or funding from the Pesticide Action Network, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety nor any other outside organization. Nor did we have any funding from the organic food industry.

While we think good social science work should be inclusive of civil society organizations, in this case, that is factually incorrect.

On July 15, I wrote an email to Neidenbach clarifying the origins and authorship of the “45 letter.” But he refused to acknowledge the error, and has now reposted the same misleading article on the Genetic Literacy Project website. If it was an honest mistake the first time around, after receiving the explanatory email, Neidenbach and GLP are now knowingly propagating falsehoods – all the while claiming that comments from the authors have been ignored.

We had various reasons for publishing the letter, including what we thought was the director’s misleading portrayal of the film as scientifically objective, as well as its failure to cover key questions about the full environmental and social impacts of GM crops. Personally, I was concerned that the film didn’t acknowledge that legitimate questions exist as regards the way in which GM crops have further entrenched agricultural chemical use and have increased weed resistance — while sometimes forcing farmers to pay much more for modified seeds. As a scholar of science and technology, I’m very familiar with how technological systems can lock us into pathways of development that end up being less ecologically resilient, more unsustainable. Emphasizing GM crops so much in the last 20 years has meant much less investment in developing sustainable agriculture practices.

I was also concerned that the film seemed to exclude critical voices and to depict GM crops in an excessively favorable light, given what we do know about these. For example, it became clear that Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan had been interviewed for the film, but once they found out more about the film, they wanted to have their interview clips removed. At this point, Scott Kennedy, the film director hasn’t done so, despite various requests. Meanwhile, mainstream film reviews continue to quote from Pollan’s cameo – without seeming to realize or acknowledge that Pollan also signed our letter. The filmmaker, moreover, appeared to have interviewed a number of farmers and NGO staff —but then left them out of the film. I’m all for a documentary that carefully and openly discusses GM crops, but this seems to be less than honest practice. For more about these omissions, see Alex Swerdloff’s recent Munchies article.

The FOIA’d email now being circulated on Twitter due to FOIA requests includes a note from PAN’s Marcia Ishii-Eiteman indicating that the “45 letter” “integrated feedback from” a number of people. This feedback was part of several discussions with people who had seen the full-length cut of the film early on, who were interviewed for the film but were later excluded from it, and/or whom appear in the film but felt their quotes were taken out of context. These discussions included farmers, academics and non-governmental organizations. Through these discussions, we took great care to learn more about the film’s content before drafting our letter.

Here, Neidenbach revealed his selective misrepresentation by how he treats CMU history professor John Soluri’s messages. Soluri initially wrote a hasty reaction to a Berkeley student’s message, saying that it was lazy thinking to write a letter without seeing the film. However, Soluri subsequently followed up on his first note and apologized for not having first read the actual letter itself. Once he had read the letter, he looked at the film clips and film reviews, and he supported the letter. Neidenbach focused on the first message but ignored the follow-up.

Importantly, the letter represents a cross-section of scholars, NGOs and scientists who collectively have extensive experience with sustainable agriculture and food. The letter was signed by 45 diverse people, including academics at the University of Michigan, the University of California, Santa Cruz, the University of California, Berkeley, Middlebury College, the University of Vermont, Haverford College, Michigan State, Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell, New York University, Stanford University, and Coventry University (UK). Two senior scientists from PAN, two people formerly with the Center for Food Safety, the director of Food First, the director of the Millennium Institute, and a handful of physicians and independent scholars also signed the letter. Many of these non-academic people also have Ph.D.s.

It is a real pity that this film is continuing the familiar lines of argument that have prevailed for the last 20 years – on all sides. Rather than allow that there are serious questions about whether or not GM crops are helping intensify the environmental and social problems of industrial agriculture, their boosters seem to want to put these aside.