There’s a food documentary new to Hulu as of last week, and if you think Food Evolution isn’t going to drive some people crazy, you’ve got another thing coming. Directed by Academy Award-nominee Scott Hamilton Kennedy, the film urges viewers to ditch gut instincts and base their GMO arguments on science and science alone. The term genetically modified organism, or GMO, has rapidly become one of the most vilified in the food industry, and Food Evolution wants to make sure you really know what you’re talking about before you go forth and spread knowledge.
The film’s narrator, Neil Degrasse Tyson, is one of the most respected scientists of our generation. He asks of anti-GMO activists: “What if they got it wrong?” What if every accusation they’ve mounted against genetically modified foods was unfounded? Genetic modifications have, after all, been around for thousands of years — that extra-sweet Michigan corn you enjoy every summer is only distantly related to what the Menominee natives originally grew. Ditto kale that’s all leaf and no stem and big, round beefsteak tomatoes. One clear message from the film is to not blur the line between selective breeding, which is a form of genetic modification, and genetic engineering, which involves specific gene manipulations. And don’t paint genetic engineering as the enemy, either: it is unequivocally the future of countless branches of science.
New immunotherapies developed for cancer treatment, for example, modify the DNA of immune defense cells, reprogramming them to suppress and destroy tumors instead of falling prey. If that reminds you of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready technology, which enables plants to withstand proprietary herbicidal treatments intended to kill weeds, it all originates from the same concept: the science of survival. And in the case of GMOs, the science of survival involves every creature who relies on agriculture for food.
That’s where the big ask comes in. What’s far more dangerous than the yet-unproven adverse health effects of GMO food? Famine. If large-scale agriculture, for any number of viable reasons, no longer proved sufficient to feed the global population, would artificially implemented advantages in pest, drought, disease and weed-resistance still be controversial? What about genetically enhanced nutritional value? Food security crops like beta carotene-rich “golden rice,” for example, help prevent childhood blindness and other avoidable ailments in developing nations. And with the tangible effects of climate change and overpopulation upon us, is “after the fact” too late to protest? Are we even qualified to protest?
Food Evolution draws on the example (among others) of a 2013 public hearing for the Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit on the Big Island of Hawaii. Before voting on a GMO ban, a city councilmember asked how many scientists with degrees were present in the audience. One raised hand belonged to Cornell professor and co-inventor of Hawaii’s rainbow papaya, Dr. Dennis Gonsalves. 20 year prior, Gonsalves had modified a strain to resist the ringspot virus decimating the island’s papaya crops. He attested at the meeting that there was “absolutely no proof there [was] a health hazard” in response to an activist who claimed the fruit caused higher instances of the common cold by editing human DNA on its own.
The Big Island GMO ban was eventually signed into law, following other legislation passed in Hawaii regarding modified crops and pesticide disclosure. It was amended, however, to allow cultivation of Dr. Gonsalves’ papaya, which was proven to be harmless (very healthy, in fact) and a saving grace for the island’s economy. The instance also suggested that in the end, reason would prevail.
Even award-winning authors, journalists and agricultural experts Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, without whom you really can’t make an important food documentary, go on camera to say, “I have always been careful not to say ‘this is dangerous food,'” and “I don’t think genetically modified organisms are dangerous to consume,” respectively.
And while a significant percentage of Americans (reported by the Pew Research Center most recently as 63%) do think modified organisms are dangerous, even asking the question “are you pro or anti-GMO” is fruitless when people polled on the street don’t know what it stands for, only that it’s bad. The most reasonable and propaganda-resistant within the larger GMO debate will always end a persistent line of questioning the same way: “We just don’t know.” That’s not a cheap exit; there really are no further straws to grasp at. Neil Degrasse Tyson himself says it all the time, whether in NOVA, Cosmos or his podcast Startalk, he states his lack of an answer with the confidence of endless possibilities, not defensiveness or resignation. Tyson writes in his book, Space Chronicles: Facing The Final Frontier, “…if you don’t know what something is, your interpretation of it should stop immediately. You don’t then say it must be X or Y or Z. That’s argument from ignorance. It’s common. I’m not blaming anybody; it may relate to our burning need to manufacture answers because we feel uncomfortable about being steeped in ignorance.”
But the anti-GMO side insists “real answers” be provided, regardless of the workforce currently qualified and available to uncover, package and make that information public objectively and in its entirety. They also generally don’t address a full range of possible outcomes, a requirement of the scientific process. The perceived problem might not even be the crops themselves — it could be the chemicals used to process them, or the frequency or volume at which the resulting products are consumed. It could be a contaminant that’s not involved in the food system in any way we’ve discovered, or the effects of many contaminants all at once. We have, after all, introduced more than 80,000 synthetic compounds into the environment in the last fifty years. It could even be that evolving to be able to digest synthesized and processed foods would take far longer than we’ve given it — a concept that begs attention if you’ve ever had your mind blown by NDT’s Cosmic Calendar. Clearly, the pro-GMO side consists of more than just blind, capitalist planet-ruiners; this is crop improvement as part of a larger survival plan. And while nature by itself is always preferable, humankind didn’t end up evolving, populating, drawing and re-drawing borders in a way that would allow the natural order to sustain it — satisfactorily, anyway.
Whether you’re on the fence about GMOs or have made up your mind, Food Evolution will challenge even the longest-held notions on either side, and hopefully convince you to need more convincing. This is a big conversation that deserves to be based on the best evidence available. You can consume pro-nature, anti-corporate food media all day long, but should the day come where we face mass global food insecurity, the science in question could change everything for the better.