Science, if used correctly, has no political affiliation: director Scott Hamilton Kennedy on the new documentary "Food Evolution"

The film makes a case for GMOs as the future of food if only politics could get out of science's way

Published June 25, 2017 3:30PM (EDT)

Food Evolution   (Photo courtesy of Black Valley Films)
Food Evolution (Photo courtesy of Black Valley Films)

Show us your data and we’ll show you ours. That’s the stance of Scott Hamilton Kennedy, the director of the new documentary “Food Evolution,” which takes the — gasp! — position that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the agriculture industry might well be the best thing to happen to the planet since solar panels. And he’s not alone — he enlisted two of the nation’s most beloved scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who narrates, and Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” who appears in the film. Incredibly, both affable, smart guys have come to the same conclusion as Kennedy that the science demonstrates that genetically engineered food isn’t as damaging as popularly believed, and, in fact, can lead to downright sustainable farming practices.

Kennedy goes deep here with his answers to Salon’s questions, judiciously explaining what others might consider blasphemy. Still, pardon us for maintaining some journalistic skepticism, especially considering his film was financed by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a food science society the includes academics from the public and private sectors. Note that the president-elect, Cindy Stewart, hails from DuPont — and before that, Pepsi. But Kennedy sure does sound reasonable and level-headed (which is reflected in the film) in the following answers. Also, check out the filmmakers’ statement regarding the IFT.

Keeping an open mind is a key to scientific inquiry, after all. The exclusive clip below (which actually didn’t make it to the final cut of the film), in which anti-GMO scholar and activist Vandana Shiva equates writer Mark Lynas' pro-GMO stance with being pro-rape, clearly indicates the issue has become way too muddied.

If we all agree that the planet is in a perilous state, it’s time to consider some radically evolved thinking. “Food Evolution” opened on June 23.

How did you maintain objectivity?

Curiosity, skepticism, seemingly endless research, and data, data, data. We tried to never take someone’s word for something, check their data and check it again. And a great rule we learned from the wonderful science journalist Tamar Haspel: Talk to the smartest people on both sides of any argument.

Through the course of this film, one of the ways I came to determine the legitimacy of a person or organization, a shill metric if you like, was to look at their endgame. What were they really trying to achieve as a scientist, activist, farmer, politician, business person, etc.?

In creating the GMO Rainbow Papaya, scientist Dennis Gonsalves' endgame was very clear: Can he find a safe and affordable way to save the papaya industry from a terrible virus, without losing any of the quality of their beloved papaya? And he succeeded by using GMO technology.

But often the inverse wasn’t as clear; with many people and organizations who were opposed to GMOs — including Dennis’ papaya -- I often struggle with what their endgame truly is. While they often say it’s about things like safety, sustainability and transparency, their actions and inability to accept information that goes counter to their ideologies seems to contradict those goals. Is their endgame about safety or to get an ideological victory no matter what the data says? Are they trying to have their kale and eat it too?

Though we as filmmakers are far from perfect at this, the goal is to always remain skeptical yet humble. Skepticism as a scientist, journalist or documentary filmmaker is pretty obvious: Don’t take things at face value (also includes, beware of the ‘Single Study Syndrome’); triangulate your position based on the information out there; look for and be aware of your own financial or ideological ‘dogs in the fight’; but ultimately be led and anchored by those things that have been objectively proven to be true while recognizing that science is just a snapshot at any given time of the current body of scientific knowledge. Which leads into the second goal: Have some humility, because it is essential to being able to admit when you are wrong. There’s a really interesting graph we came across during our journey that essentially shows that the less expertise you have in a given subject, the more likely you are to be certain that your views are right, whereas the more expertise you have, the more comfortable you are with the notion you might be wrong. That really brought into focus the whole debate and critical thinking in general.

What's the strongest argument for the positive development of GMO foods?

In figuring out the core communications of the film we came to a few must-have tenets: 1) GMO, or more correctly, GE (genetic engineering) is a process, not a product. It is a breeding method, similar to the ways farmers have been manipulating and improving plants for the last ten thousand years, but now it is done in a lab. 2) GMO is not ‘owned’ by any one company or industry. So the strongest argument for using GMO technology is that it works. Then the question becomes: Is it the correct fix for the given situation, and that is another of our core tenets: 3) take all future GMOs on a case-by-case basis, just like any other technology. Is it safe, is it helping, is there a better way to solve the problem? And in many situations, like the papaya in Hawaii and the bananas in Uganda, no other method could stop the devastation of that crop except for GE.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson has said, ‘We’ve been doing this for 10 thousand years but now that we’re doing it in a lab, now you have a problem with it?’ And while that might be oversimplifying the difference between genetic engineering and previous seed breeding techniques, it really does capture the spirit of and motivation behind what scientists are trying to do with this technology.

The problem is GMO has become such a catch-all for all the issues in our food system that not a lot people actually know what it is. And part of that is because a GMO, a genetically modified organism, is not only a really terrible name that instantly makes average consumers a bit suspicious, but it is scientifically meaningless because at its essence every living thing in our world has been genetically modified relative to their ancestors.

So what are we talking about? I think the term GMO needs to be better defined so average people can be better educated on this issue. OK, so here we go, a GMO is simply the product that results from the process of genetic engineering, which at its core is the latest, much more precise method of breeding better seeds, which is generally undertaken when 1) a specific problem needs to be addressed (climate change-resilience, disease-resistance, vitamin-fortified, etc.) and 2) there is not a conventional breeding alternative.

So with that in mind, the strongest argument for genetically modifying foods is that it provides scientists and farmers with a tool to fight major food and agricultural problems that in most instances cannot be fought any other way. Are there some GMOs, notably RoundUp-Ready, that are a bit more complicated? Because they’re part of a more complicated debate over pesticide use and farm production systems in general? Yes, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Debate that specific GMO, not the process of genetic engineering itself. Because if we follow the lead of the antis, and use their arguments against RoundUp-Ready to ban the entire technology, which they advocate globally, then not only will we be trying to take on the specific global challenges facing farming with one arm tied behind our back, but it will cause suffering around the world.

Is it fair to call you and the film "pro GMO"?

I can see why some people would call the film pro GMO, but we always saw it as pro-science, pro-data, pro-scientific method to help all of us make the best decisions we can. And the GMO controversy was just a metaphor for what can happen if people allow their ideologies to lead their decision making over using the scientific method.

Some say our film is ‘pro-GMO’ but we would counter we are simply ‘pro-science’ because currently every major scientific institution and all the data and peer-reviewed science tells us, as a process, it is as safe, if not safer, than any other seed breeding technique available.

After watching your film, I am still not convinced GMOs don't somehow increase the dependence on damaging herbicides or damage the environment in other ways. For all the stats you use, I imagine there being counterpoints. It probably comes down to a case-by-case approach. Your thoughts?

Your concern was very much Bill Nye’s concern, and while he was skeptical of the long-term impacts of GMOs on the environment, he took the time to do more research, including visiting Monsanto, and after this research he changed his mind and determined the current products are safe for the planet and safe to eat. And further, that in most cases they are a net positive in terms of environmental impact improvement.

And, forgiving the mild snarkiness, may I also answer with one of my favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes: ‘Science doesn't care about your opinion.’ We have to check ourselves and think twice beyond just our opinions, gut feelings and tribal echo chambers.

In the case of herbicide-tolerant GMOs, people don’t realize that this is not an issue specific or unique to GMOs or, more accurately speaking, genetic engineering. It is a question on pesticide use in general, and even more broadly, part of a vastly oversimplified debate on farming in general that most media insist on framing as a binary, either/or approach. We’ve met ‘big’ farmers who adopt organic principles and organic farmers who adopt some ‘big’ practices. It’s a continuum, and which production system the farmer chooses is based on their own specific circumstances, and not some ideological, usually over-romanticized notion of one being "good" and the other being "bad."

And getting down into the weeds of it (pun intended), Alison Van Eenennaam states it best in the film when she relates a story from a farmer she met who is trying to comply with recent regulations in his county banning the use of glyphosate (i.e., Roundup); she asks Charles Kimbrell, paraphrasing here, “Now that he’s been forced to give up glyphosate, what do you think he’s going to use? He’s going to go back to using more toxic herbicides . . .” Now how does that make any sense? Is glyphosate perfect? No, weeds will always be a major challenge for farmers and it’s vastly more sustainable than what farmers were previously doing. And in near future, science and tech will continue to evolve, moving away from chemicals and turning to more biologically based approaches, and an even more sustainable solution to weeds will become available. That’s progress. Incrementally better, more sustainable solutions.

I can't believe that Monsanto/Pharmacia can be a trustworthy source of information considering their history and the fact that they have so much to gain financially from GMOs (Roundup, etc.). Do you?

Of course we shouldn’t take any one industry’s opinion on anything without having other checks and balances in place, and if you look at the thousands of studies that have been completed on the safety of GMOs both in the U.S. and around the world, they overwhelming conclude that the current products are safe for ourselves and the environment, and again, in many cases have had a positive impact on the environment, such as lowering toxic inputs.

And while our film is clearly pro the scientific method, in no way are we trying to say that science or scientists are infallible. All of us and all of our systems need checks and balances. But still, we human beings have not found a better system of checks and balances than the scientific method. So you can't rely on single study; it needs to be repeated, and repeated by people who might want to see you fail. What a great system!

I’d also first want to get clarity on what appears to be an assumption in the question itself . . . . Are you implying that the sole source of information on GMOs is from Monsanto? I wouldn’t think so but do want to be certain that that is clearly not the case with our film or scientific knowledge in general (the recent NAS report on GMOs is a good, independent source to start from . . . ).

Moving beyond that, of course they have a motive, a drive for profits, that must be taken into consideration when looking at any information directly from them. But what matters is, again, what has been objectively proven through independent, peer-reviewed science. And as it relates to the safety of their GMOs, the science has been confirmed to be on their side. And I don't subscribe to the conspiracy theories out there that the global scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs (see the list of institutions referenced in the film) has been bought or compromised by their influence. We had a phrase in the edit room that our editor came up with that I quite liked, ‘What if Darth Vader helped invent the polio vaccine?’ Now that's probably hyperbole on both sides of that statement but you get the idea, a company with a questionable track record can still be part of developing a worthwhile technology.

Were Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye wary about being associated with the film? Are they supporting its release with any events?

I asked Neil exactly that question and he said when he saw our film he thought: It’s about time somebody told this story correctly, using sound scientific information. But again, Neil didn’t make the film with us to defend GMOs, he made the film to defend science. Or as he said on camera at our DOC NYC premiere (and we can share this clip): 'It's not a matter of being pro or anti-GMO. I think many people will presume that that's the message of the film, but I did the film because we need a more scientifically literate electorate so that we can make informed decisions about the future of our democracy, and this is an example of where they can be more informed.”

Neil has been great in his support of the film; just saying yes to being our narrator and script consultant drastically increased the scientific gravitas of the film.

Thanks for the exclusive clip of Dr. Vandana Shiva equating Mark Lynas' pro-GMO stance with being pro-rape. It's so inflammatory! Why didn't it make it to the final cut of the film?

It was difficult not to include it, but we had so much other great footage. As a documentarian or really any kind of storyteller, you are always asking yourself does a scene serve the purpose of the entire film or is it making it too long, and in this case we thought the film was better served without it. And, that tough decision was softened by the fact that we knew this and many other scenes would live again online.

It's ironic that pro-GMO seems like a stance that pro-business President Trump would be for. And yet, the film relies on science to make its case, not exactly Trump's strong suit. Care to parse that?

One of the great things about science is that, if used correctly, it has no political affiliation. It isn’t blue or red, rich or poor, big or small; it is the best system for determining the truth that we have at our disposal. Or again, as Neil said at DOC NYC, "When results are repeated and found to be true — that is objective, scientific truth. That is the kind of truth people should base legislation on. If you start basing laws that are not anchored in objective truths, it is the beginning of the end of an informed democracy." And just to bring it back to Trump, Neil made this statement just days after Trump was elected. His point was made.

By Tom Roston

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