We’ve all see this in a science classroom or conference: The monotone reading from a prepared script, coupled with PowerPoint visuals = snoozefest. As any educator can attest, this is a surefire way to tune out your audience.
I marvel at how anti-ag “shockumentaries” never fall into that rut. You know, in the time-honored, inflammatory vein of “Food Inc.,” “Cowspiracy,” “Farmageddon,” etc. Through clever wordplays, provocative imagery, and anecdotes, they appeal to the everyman/woman in us all. The directors know how to press the right buttons — they have the pseudoscience down to a science.
These glorified infomercials are entertaining (in a cringey way), just insufferably formulaic. They dredge up the same old tired, recycled arguments. They artfully embellish with alternative facts and ignore whatever doesn’t suit. It banks on shallow soundbytes taken at face value, rather than a critical analysis of content. In effect, predatory messaging for the masses.
Thanks to Sound Speed PR, I recently had the opportunity to review a new entry to the shockumentary genre: “Secret Ingredients.” True to form, it’s an alphabet soup of common gripes, all rolled into a tidy package. Essentially, the duo of GMOs and Roundup are responsible for all our chronic health ills. The tabloid-esque assertions are so absurd, and the visuals so comically overblown (a butterfly fleeing in terror from a cropduster, and a Monsanto-branded tanker truck ferrying Roundup and Agent Orange on the road?) it seemingly borders on self-parody. But it’s deadly serious.
After recovering from an acute case of factual indigestion, I had to address a chronic problem with the piece. The messaging relies too heavily on absurd reductionism. The core message is that all of our health ills can be attributed to just a couple of dubious actors. By withdrawing these players from our diets, we can experience a near instantaneous health renewal. These calls for a health renaissance are delectably simple and elegant — and also laughably wrong. It desperately needs a dose of narrative Pepto-Bismol. So where did it go astray? Let me count the ways.
The brainchild of this opus is Jeffery Smith, of the Institute for Responsible Technology, with a special guest appearance by Zen Honeycutt of Moms Across America, among others. You know you’re in for an epic pilgrimage into factual no-man’s land. At the title screen, “Secret Ingredients” wafts insidiously from a loaded dinner plate. It starts with a family beset with tragedy — all sorts of chronic conditions cropping up (21 in all), including autism. And these were self-described health nuts. So the mom embarks on an odyssey of discovery to connect the dots. After doing “research” (a common trope for those dissatisfied with modern science), the answer was obvious — ditch the GMOs and Roundup!
We’re told that “independent” scientists disagree about the health consensus surrounding GMOs — implying that they have the moral scruples to resist pro-GMO payola. For their integrity, they’re the victims of a vicious industry response that punishes anyone who dares to question.
GMOs, it’s explained, artificially forces DNA into other species, causing a cascade of metabolic short circuits that leads to extra toxin and allergen production. This is not your mother’s idea of hybridization. And (gasp) it’s done in a laboratory, a true horror show! So, it’s no wonder that animals fed GMOs are subject to a variety of ailments (sarcasm). And we know why. Later, a 3D DNA model is shown fraying post-“GMO’ing” (full disclosure: I invented that schoolyard term for this piece — appropriate, as proper terminology is never utilized in the film).
Of course, modern scientists would argue that adding a couple of genes of known function (they call GMOs precision breeding) would be much preferable to randomly scrambling tens of thousands of genes. There’s no evidence (20+ years’ worth) indicating that “dreaded” GMO’s are biochemically any different than their conventional kin (short of what was purposely added in the first place). Sweet potatoes have bacterial genes in them. Insects have also been found to have genes from sexually incompatible, distant relatives. How’d that happen? We can’t just explain that away. It wasn’t our doing. Genes move horizontally all the time. Sexual reproduction isn’t necessary. Oh, and the entire field of biotechnology is inspired by a natural bacterium that genetically modifies its host (an inter-kingdom affair no less), but I digress.
There’s even mention of Bt insecticidal proteins made by select GMO crops — and how those proteins carve holes in the guts of insect pests, killing them. Imagine what it would do to us! Well, nothing actually. We lack the proper gut receptors to latch on to. We also don’t have alkaline guts, another prerequisite. No overdose of Tums is going to change that. There’s also the fact that Bt has been sprayed organically for 90 years. Live, formulated, chemical payloads. A pesticide. Spray it or give the plant the ability to make it in-house. There’s no meaningful difference, except in delivery.
The most hate seems to be directed at Roundup. According to the film’s “esteemed” experts, Roundup and GMOs are two peas in a pod. It’s implicated in body burden (all the toxins that accrue in our systems and screw up the works). A pediatrician confidently states that we should go organic to avoid GMOs (generally true if you want to avoid them), and pesticides (I’d check your references). And when she wrote this “prescription,” the results were miraculous!
So what’s wrong with Roundup? The laundry list suggests that it’s a(n): 1) endocrine disruptor, 2) antibiotic, 3) known carcinogen (see this story for a rebuttal), 4) robs us of essential nutrients, because it’s a chelator, and 5) selectively kills off all the good bacteria in our gut — bacteria that produce vitamins, minimize inflammation, and regulate mood, etc.
Apparently, kids are especially prone to not only chronic conditions, but behavioral outbursts because of the imbalance. When a child was tested for glyphosate, he had 8x higher levels than those in Europe (are we going to quibble about near-nil and closer to near-nil levels?) Are those levels biologically impactful? Not at all. More than 40 years to data can attest to that.
And don’t forget the generic catch-all condition of “inflammation” and the clinically unrecognized “leaky gut”. Autism, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and brain fog, “Secret Ingredients” says they’re all singularly due to Roundup. Clinical mic drop!
It’s amazing that all of our health problems can be attributed to one material (one that happens to be in the sights of activists — solely due to its association with GMOs and industry). At the miniscule doses applied (22 fluid ounces applied per acre) are the trivial residues enough to support claims of nutrient robbing and gut microbe genocide? Not by a longshot. Perhaps if you chugged the concentrate jug?
Another contention is that Roundup causes large-scale infertility. Why is this phenomenon uniquely localized among a select cohort of individuals — all now associated with the organic lifestyle? Are there controlled studies? Well, no. But that would just be selling out and validate the establishment. I’m sure they want to retain their prized “independence.”
One of my biggest gripes with this piece is the positioning of doctors. We have a motley crew of legitimate doctors working outside their area of expertise, as well as a chiropractor and naturopath. The chiropractor exhorted people to adopt an organic diet, chiropractic, and a positive mindset. These were her three lynchpins of success! Self-help (yourself to hard earned dollars). In addition, film called out the lack of nutritional training in med school, but feels comfortable with these doctors “prescribing” organic diets? And, no, doc, anecdotal reports of organic diet success are not “data” in aggregate — not without proper controls and context.
After viewing this film, I often wonder, where did fringe independent “scientists” (free from the constraints of peer-review quality control and scrutiny) become the last outposts of credible information, and actual scientists are viewed with scorn and mistrust? In quantum mechanics, there’s a theory that all outcomes that can happen — do happen — in parallel universes. If so, when did this irrational splintering in our universe occur?
Futurist Carl Sagan claimed that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” “Secret Ingredients” takes the proverbial cake. From a coarse understanding of the scientific method, including a lack of reproducibility and corroborating evidence and cherry-picking, the empirical and ethical lapses are striking.
In any reputable circle, these actors would be unceremoniously dismissed. Yet as self-proclaimed outsiders, they enjoy immunity from their actions. But to be fair, maybe real scientists need a kick in the communicative pants. There’s clearly a market for agenda-driven documentaries — take a look at Netflix’s questionable lineup. And that blame lies (in part) with a failure to convincingly convey science. It’s all about the delivery.
Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As a columnist and agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.