If you have the opportunity to see the documentary “Food Evolution,” do it. It has been the most talked-about food and agriculture film of the year — and rightfully so. The movie examines one of the most important tools in today’s agricultural industry, genetic engineering technology, and shows the emotion and divisiveness created by three small letters: G-M-O.
It’s a movie about the science of farming, and the filmmakers said they approached this project with no preconceptions and with a level playing field in the GMO discussion. After seeing the film Tuesday night during a screening at Ferrum College in Southwest Virginia, I understand why detractors have labeled this as GMO propaganda — truthfully, you can’t be pro-science and avoid being pro-GMO. So yes, the film shows GMOs in a favorable light. It respects science and technology. It would be a disservice to play down the consensus among the scientific community and how widely celebrated genetically engineered traits are for drought tolerance, disease resistance, and the ability to feed the hungriest among us.
I enjoyed this film immensely, as did most of the 100 or so people in attendance at the screening, and it affirmed much of what I understand about biotechnology and agriculture in the modern era. So much has already been said about the movie (just look here and here and here), and because of any perceived or actual confirmation bias I may have, I’m not going to write a review, per se, but I will share six takeaways I have after seeing this film:
Food is an emotional issue
The filmmakers have a deep understanding of what drives people to make decisions about their food — there are more emotional factors at play than there are rational ones. I’ve long described our relationship with food and farming as an intimate one, because few things are as important to us as what we choose to put into our bodies. From the film’s opening scenes in the Hawaii council meeting to the street protests and the social media dynamics, “Food Evolution” captures the spectrum of how food issues galvanize the public and how difficult the struggle is to engage with people who are driven by fervor and fear rather than by facts. After all, today’s gap between science and the public perception of GMOs is wider than for any other major politicized issue.
You have a tribe if you’re pro-GMO
If you visit social media or listen to many mainstream news outlets or visit the trendiest grocery stores in your area, the odds are that you’ve been given a hearty dose of anti-GMO sentiment. Those may not be the best sentiments for food production or health or sustainability, but they are often the loudest, so they get heard. “Food Evolution” shows you, that if you support biotechnology in agriculture, you’re not alone — you have a tribe that shares your beliefs, that wants to help the voices of science to be heard for the betterment of society. It’s easy to feel alone, especially if you’re a farmer in an isolated community or in an anti-GMO region, but the activism against biotech is not all that’s out there. There are allies. No matter the side, everyone feels like they’re fighting the good fight — just know that there are plenty of people armed with data and passion and education on the side of science.
It’s cool be an ag nerd
Do you love lab coats or enjoy dwelling in the halls of academia. This movie shows how awesome it is to be nerdy in the field of agriculture — and how the survival of our species depends on the advances of agriculture. We often don’t realize how much we rely on science until it’s no longer available to us or until technology becomes outdated. The film highlights that the goal of genetic engineering is the add useful traits to food and give those products the means to produce better, even when conditions are unfavorable. Let’s celebrate the nerdy types who can make those things happen!
Zen Honeycutt should be embarrassed
I’ll admit that beyond recognizing her name and having some familiarity with Moms Across America, I never knew much about Honeycutt. Wow, what a first impression! When positioned next to some of the other people who contributed to the film, her shortcomings are readily apparent. This begins when we’re introduced to her. After waves of contributors who have master’s or doctorate degrees in science and agriculture, it’s jarring to see: Zen Honeycutt, Founder, Moms Across America, B.S., Fashion Design. (That drew a noticeable chuckle from the audience, but not the boisterous laughter that the Chicago protesters’ awkwardly cornball “Monsanto is Evil” song got.) Honeycutt’s status was undercut even further toward the end of the film when she says that she would trust what any random parent blogs or posts on social media before she would trust her doctors or science or the CDC or FDA or USDA or EPA (did I miss any there?). She asks, “Why would someone lie on social media?” Oh let me count the ways …
The California organic farmer
In a film about genetically engineered crops, it’s, of course, imperative to feature someone doing things organically. This is where I feel the film gives a bit of weight to its critics. There were at least two boots-on-the-ground organic farmers featured — one from Uganda, who ultimately embraced disease-resistant bananas. The other is from California, but he’s far from being an activist on the side of organic. This farmer grows organically but also notes the many positives of GMO technology and how this kind of tool is needed to feed the growing population. While many anti-GMO activists are shown, I don’t recall there being any vehemently anti-GMO growers in the mix. I agree with the California farmer, that it will take all stripes — conventional, organic, big, small, part-time, full-time — involved in our food supply to make it successful and sustainable, but including even a few minutes of a farmer connected to a large anti-GMO entity such as Organic Valley might have given the perception of more farmer-level balance to the film (or at least given critics less to latch on to). I hate that we would have to pander to perceptions, but that’s the reality of societal dynamics.
This isn’t the end of the discussion
Neil deGrasse Tyson did an amazing job narrating the film and helping to present the science behind our food today. So we’re done, right? Not so fast. This is just the next step in a long-running discussion about today’s technologies and what the industry and government are doing to move the system forward. We need to keep talking and to keep learning so that people get informed, while connecting with them on all levels — as a parent, as relative, a colleague, and as a person. This film is available via Hulu and Amazon. If a screening isn’t coming to a location near you, I encourage you to take the time to stream it online.
Prior to the screening, I spoke with Dr. Tim Durham, the Ferrum College agriculture professor who helped organize the screening, as well as with two of his students. You can watch that Facebook Live interview below: