When two friends disagree about GMOs, they pledge to investigate the reality about the agricultural technology.
That’s the premise of the documentary “Well Fed,” which sends two Amsterdam city boys on a journey to learn what they can about genetic engineering. One is Hidde Boersma, a scientist who sees remarkable potential in GMOs; the other is Karsten de Vreugd, a man who celebrates organic production and is skeptical of GMOs. They go from their native Netherlands to England and then to the farms in Bangladesh.
The question is: Can de Vreugd be convinced of the value of GMOs?
The documentary, released last year, is available with subtitles for free on the streaming video platform Vimeo. It is an honest look at the perceptions, the needs, and some of the stakeholders surrounding this contentious technology.
Boersma and de Vreugd begin with the basics surrounding genetic engineering and the understanding of “natural” in the global food system. For example, in traveling through a farmers market in Amsterdam, Boersma describes how kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and more were bred from the same wild mustard plant and don’t actually appear in nature in the forms that we know them. He also talks about how radiation was used in the creation of what we now know as grapefruit.
But perhaps most enlightening for the public will be Boersma’s visual explanation of the genetic modification process, both in its past forms and in its current high-tech state. At about the four-minute mark of the film, he sits de Vreugd down at a bar table and uses coasters to describe the selection and implementation process of genetic change.
Yet knowing its process doesn’t necessarily explain why people fear it, why there is so much aggression against genetic engineering in many parts of the world. For that, the pair travel to Oxford, England, to speak with Mark Lynas, a well-known environmental radical from back in the day who has done an about-face on his stance toward GMOs. He has been on both sides of the ideological and scientific aisle, and gives poignant insight to the filmmakers as to why there is resistance in Europe, Africa, and other parts of the world to adopt the technology.
He describes his past life as part of “an anti-Enlightenment movement. It’s the opposite of an evidence-based scientific worldview.”
Of that activist fringe, he notes how there was a perfect storm that came together to hinder the acceptance of GMOs: the association with big corporations (leading to massive conspiracy theories), the herbicide tolerance (fear of a chemical-dependent industry), and the transfer of genes (perception of the unnatural in our food system).
While he would love the world to see things as he now does, he also recognizes that it’s arrogant to expect everyone to change their minds, especially in the short term.
For de Vreugd’s part, if he was going to change his mind, he needed to see GMOs in action. In response, the bulk of the film takes place in Bangladesh, one of the few developing countries to fully embrace genetic engineering. There, the dense population prompts farmers to look for solutions that will lead to higher yields with fewer inputs (in fact, one farmer who doesn’t use GMOs talks about having to spray insecticide on his fields 120 times in a growing season).
Bangladesh is a nation where machinery and digital technology is far behind the agricultural world that most of us are familiar with. The film explores the nation’s multiple regional varieties of Bt eggplants. De Vreugd plays the role of the skeptic well; despite seeing many of the benefits that genetic engineering brings to poor and small-scale farmers, he wants to know “who’s in charge.” It’s a sense that he believes the government to be the face of agriculture in Bangladesh, but that there may be an unwelcome corporate influence in the shadows.
As it turns out, the extreme influence in places such as Bangladesh is less corporate and more centered on non-governmental organizations. Greenpeace, for example, appears narrow-minded and villainous when it comes to embracing science. Lynas speaks poorly of the environmental extremism that shaped the early part of his life and the fringe’s misunderstanding of the modern world.
In the end, minds are changed, and an important conversation is had between two friends and the audience.
Ryan Tipps is the managing editor for AGDAILY. He has covered farming since 2011, and his writing has been honored by state- and national-level agricultural organizations.