Doug Gurian-Sherman, PhD, is an Independent Consultant with Strategic Trainings and Expansion. This article is the first of a two-part series analyzing the documentary “Food Evolution.”
Recently, a documentary was released which claimed to bring science to the polarized genetically modified organism (GMO) debate, settle the relevant issues of the safety, and prove the value of these technologies for global food security. Although it claims to adhere to science, wrapping itself around the narration of Neil deGrasse Tyson, a closer look at “Food Evolution” shows that it is a slick propaganda piece.
Unlike previous attempts by pro-GMO industry and others to advance their cause, “Food Evolution” is being widely circulated on college campuses and has been mentioned as an Academy Award nominee.
Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy adamantly denies that the film is propaganda. The online Oxford dictionary defines propaganda as: “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.“ The points of view promoted by the film are clear: GMOs are safe to eat, and needed to feed the world, especially given the threats of climate change and an increasing population. According to the film, science is settled on these issues, and those that disagree are fearmongers. But the film distorts the important debate about how to produce food in ways that are affordable, just, and environmentally sound, and does a huge disservice to its viewers.
Others have already raised serious issues with the film. Professor Marion Nestle, prominent nutrition scientist at New York University, found her appearance in the film seriously out of context. She requested that her sections be removed, which director Scott Hamilton Kennedy refused to do. Nestle called the film propaganda in her blog.
Michael Pollan, respected food writer and journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, also felt betrayed by the filmmaker and agreed with Nestle. A letter advancing several arguments about the biases and inaccuracies of the film was signed by 45 mostly doctorate-level scholars and academic scientists.
The film was funded by the Institute for Food Technologists (IFT) which includes academic scientists (such as Nestle), but is also funded by the GMO industry. IFT’s most recent president was an executive from DuPont and Monsanto, and the president elect is from DuPont. Kennedy claims that he had free rein in making the film, but that does not of itself demonstrate that the industry did not influence him.
The film rests on the idea that GMOs will be needed to ensure food security, but it spends most of its time defending the dietary safety of these foods. There is little discussion about how GMOs would address food security and reduce the tremendous harm from industrial agriculture, let alone ensure food equity.
Instead, there is extensive discussion of two GMO crops: disease-resistant banana and virus-resistant papaya in Hawaii. We are, it seems, supposed to assume that these GMOs establish the value of the technology toward establishing food security. The former is an important African staple, but the GMO banana is not yet available to farmers. It faces many hurdles exemplified by previous GMO failures like GMO virus-resistant sweet potato in Kenya, protein-enhanced cassava, and cassava-resistant to mosaic virus, or the extensive technical and other problems encountered by beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A) enriched “golden rice” 20 years after it was first developed. The second crop, virus-resistant papaya, is limited to Hawaii and comprises a tiny percent of commercially grown GMO crops.
The dearth of successful GMOs, after 30 years of development, actually suggest that producing beneficial GMOs is not nearly as straightforward as the film implies. But whatever the reasons, the limited number of successful GMO traits, and the domination of a few industrial GMOs, needs discussion, not dismissal.
By strongly emphasizing a small-acreage crop like Hawaiian papaya, the film not only largely avoids the overwhelming on-the-ground reality of most GMOs for the past 20 years, but thereby avoids much of the available science and data about the technology that is associated with those crops.
By largely conflating potential harm from GMOs with food safety, the film ignores the many other legitimate concerns about the technology. While food safety has been a major concern of many GMO activists, many biological and social scientists as well as other activists have focused attention on concerns about the concentration of the GMO/seed industry, the nexus of GMOs with environmentally and socially harmful industrial agriculture, patents, negative environmental consequences of GMOs, and loss of food sovereignty. The film almost entirely ignores these issues.
Kennedy has claimed that his focus was dictated by the practical need to limit the issues covered. But because his meme is science, those limits should have included issues that scientists—natural and social—are concerned with rather than an almost exclusive focus on an issue favored by some non-scientist activists.
But even the science that is included in the film is heavily biased in favor of GMOs. For example, the film does not mention a major science assessment that challenges the basic premise of the film. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in its May 2016 report, found that GMOs had not increased crop productivity overall, either in industrialized or less-developed countries. It also found that while GMOs might contribute to food security, this is highly contingent on how it is developed. And it concluded that there are alternative ways to achieve food security. The NAS is the most prestigious science society in the U.S., so it is a big and inexplicable omission for a film supposedly based on science to ignore these findings.
It is also questionable whether GMOs will be a useful approach to addressing the threat of climate change. For example, late in the film, a black South African GMO maize farmer, one of the only 1 percent of black farmers there who grow GMO maize, says he is hopefully waiting for GMO drought tolerant varieties.
But not mentioned in the film is that conventional breeding is producing dozens of drought-tolerant maize varieties for Africa, while genetic engineering has produced one mediocre variety that is not yet available in Africa.
It is also revealing that the film presents a few farmers from developing countries who support GMO crops, but ignores the many who oppose or are critical of them for reasons ranging from loss of control of seeds and food sovereignty to risk to the environment. Organizations like La via Campesina or ROPPA in Africa represent a very large number of farmers and have thoughtful and cogent critiques of GMOs, including concerns based on science. Again, it is striking that a one-sided perspective is provided when at the least, accuracy would require a much broader presentation of these issues.
This is not to say that some GMOs could not potentially have some positive impacts in specific instances, but rather that we have other viable alternatives to address these global challenges. These important alternatives, such as agroecology or other forms of crop genetic improvement, are not addressed in the film, with the exception of organic farming, which will be discussed in part two of this series.
Emphasizing the 1 Percent Over the 99
The overemphasis of GMO banana and papaya over the corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola that make up more than 99 percent of GMO acres turns the real-world situation on its head.
“Food Evolution” devotes a disproportionately small segment to dominant herbicide-resistant crops, and the glyphosate herbicides they were designed to use. And, once again, the discussion is limited to food safety. But even for this narrow topic, the film gets the science wrong.
For example, “Food Evolution” refers to a peer-reviewed paper from 2012 by Charles Benbrook that first documented the higher use of herbicides in recent years in the U.S. due to engineered crops. The film then argues that the amount of pesticides used is not the important point, but rather the toxicity of the pesticides, and that glyphosate is less toxic than herbicides it replaced. To cement this critical point, a figure is flashed on the screen, apparently from an authoritative source, that shows glyphosate with apparently lower toxicity than other herbicides. A graph is shown depicting supposedly decreasing toxicity of herbicides over time.
Unfortunately, this analysis is wrong because it ignores the actual measures of toxicity used by regulators like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The measure of toxicity in the film is the dose needed to rapidly kill 50 percent of the exposed populations, so-called acute (short-term) toxicity. This is a seriously incomplete measure of overall toxicity, which should include long-term or chronic toxicity, such as the ability to cause cancer or diseases like Parkinson’s. Most herbicides, including most that glyphosate replaced, have relatively low acute toxicity, so it is not usually a practical concern, while chronic toxicity can be more important.
The most prominent international body that evaluates carcinogenicity, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), published a widely discussed evaluation of glyphosate in 2015—well before “Food Evolution” was finished—that concluded that the herbicide was a probable carcinogen. But the IARC assessment, which contradicts the films’ assertion about the safety of glyphosate, is not even mentioned in the film. This assessment was conducted by 17 highly qualified and independent scientists, who came to their conclusion unanimously. When a proper assessment of toxicity is made, glyphosate can no longer be considered generally less toxic to people than the herbicides it replaced.
Kennedy dismissed the validity of IARC’s glyphosate assessment, and the agency itself. This is in sharp contrast to 100 scientists who co-authored a paper in 2015 supporting the scientific strength and accuracy of IARC cancer assessments over the years.
Kennedy repeated a common invalid criticism that IARC concludes that most things it evaluates may cause cancer, implying that their assessments are wrong or meaningless. But IARC evaluates substances for which there is already considerable evidence of carcinogenicity. So it is not surprising that many of the substances IARC evaluates turn out to be possible, probable, or confirmed carcinogens.
Kennedy is also simply wrong about IARC conclusions. He is quoted as saying that “like 90 percent” of what IARC evaluates are found to be probable carcinogens. In fact, more than half (about 52 percent) of the IARC assessments were found to not be classifiable, only 7 percent probable carcinogens, and 12 percent carcinogens.
Kennedy also makes another point which has some merit—that IARC conducts a hazard assessment, not a full-risk assessment. Hazard refers to inherent toxicity, but risk also depends upon exposure to a substance like glyphosate—i.e. how much and for how long. But IARC does review real-life exposure through epidemiological studies, and although weaker than the toxicology research for glyphosate, found some evidence of higher non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) in farmers.
Hazard assessment remains important because exposure can increase over time, which also increases overall risk. And the amount of glyphosate has been increasing dramatically in recent years. The highest levels of glyphosate use have occurred only in the past decade, within the 10 years or more that NHL and other cancers may take to develop. In other words, even if there was not enough exposure in the past to produce unequivocally measurable increases in epidemiology studies, increasing exposure may change that given enough time for cancers to develop.
Kennedy also refers to controversy concerning the head of the IARC glyphosate panel, Aaron Blair, based on small bits of testimony from an on-going court case, as a reason for his mistrust of IARC’s assessment. But the story about Blair was not published until June 14, 2017, just 10 days before “Food Evolution” was released. Kennedy did not respond to emails asking him about this apparent discrepancy.
The original story about Blair quotes him agreeing that had important research been published in time, it would have affected the IARC analysis. That is also reported in a follow-up Mother Jones story that refers to the earlier Reuters piece. But a hazard assessment might be lowered somewhat and remain substantial. And, in fact, when Blair was asked directly in the same deposition whether his testimony about the unpublished research changed his conclusion about the IARC glyphosate assessment, he said “no.” He remained convinced that glyphosate should be classified as a probable carcinogen. Unfortunately, this important statement was not included in either the Reuters or Mother Jones articles.
There was also another epidemiological assessment revealed in Blair’s testimony, the North American Pooled Project, that apparently reinforces the possibility of glyphosate causing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The IARC also did not see it because it had likewise not yet been published. This was also not mentioned in either the Reuters or the Mother Jones stories.
More recently, additional questions have been raised about media portrayals of another IARC scientist concerning glyphosate. An article in Politico by Simon Marks quotes snippets from the deposition of Dr. Jameson of IARC, which express apparent concern that he had not seen a large review of glyphosate toxicology early enough. And that had he been able to evaluate that research thoroughly, it might have changed the IARC assessment.
But the Politico article does not mention that Dr. Jameson later performed a detailed reassessment of glyphosate that included this controversial research. In that report, Dr. Jameson confirmed the IARC assessment that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen. In a later, September 2017 deposition, Dr. Jameson reportedly complained, “I just wanted to express my displeasure with the way my testimony was given to the press and their misrepresentation, so stop with the fake news.”
While the debate about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate is not over, that is exactly the point. Science controversy cannot be settled by a film director’s fiat. Any reasonable discussion about the science of GMOs and the products they were designed to use must include such debate. “Food Evolution” fails at presenting such a central issue about the safety of the most common genetically engineered (GE) crops. And given that “Food Evolution” focuses on food safety—improperly in the broad context of the film as a discussion of the need for GE for food security, or other harm from GMOs—it is even more egregious that the issue of glyphosate toxicity is so biased.
Had the biases, exclusions, and errors discussed above been the extent of the problems with “Food Evolution,” the label of propaganda would be applicable. But there is more, including its treatment of organic food, herbicide-resistant weeds, and harm from the dominant current GMOs. Those topics will be analyzed in part two of this series.