Skip to main content

No evolution in thinking in ‘Food Evolution’

Alastair Iles, associate professor, Environmental Science, Policy & Management | July 17, 2017

But we’re learning new things about privacy and emails in the age of FOIA.

For many years, I’ve studied environmental and science policy, looking into how governments, industry and NGOs jointly help find ways toward greater sustainability. Most of my work has been on chemical policies and greening chemistry, but in recent years I’ve developed a new interest in sustainable agriculture.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve gained some unexpectedly participatory insight into what have come to be known as the “GMO wars.” In mid-June, I heard that the Food Evolution film was going to be shown on the UC Berkeley campus, and it was being advertised as a scientifically objective, meticulous dissection of the GM crop topic. Curious about whether this was actually the case, I talked with a few academic and NGO colleagues to see if they had seen the film, and if so, what their impressions were. I also looked at the available film clip. It quickly became clear there were serious issues with the film. Thus, I gave feedback on and signed onto a letter expressing concern that the film was being shown on campus without putting it into a proper context.

hands with grain

(Image from the trailer of ‘Food Evolution’)

Some days later, some of my faculty colleagues (at UC Berkeley, the University of Vermont, Michigan State University, UC Santa Cruz and other universities) and I were rather surprised to receive a FOIA request from a Stephan Neidenbach for all messages from the start of this year to the end of June that contained the Food Evolution film name. He is apparently a Maryland-based middle school teacher who is interested in GM issues. Subsequently, I learned that any message that is sent through a university email address or listserv is subject to FOIA. Clearly, the motivation was to try to find out more about the backstory of the letter. This seems to be a fairly new tactic that the biotechnology industry and its proponents are trying out. (To be fair, the US Right to Know Group has been successfully learning about the close ties between the biotech industry and many apparently independent advocates of GM crops by using FOIA requests. This research has appeared in the New York Times among other media outlets.)

As a result, Neidenbach wrote a letter on the Medium website that claims the letter of concern was written at the behest of the organic food industry, without disclosing this connection, and is based on false information (i.e. we did not see the film). Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Neidenbach chose to quote very selectively from the email messages that he was able to extract. He and his colleagues are also circulating images of the extracts on Twitter.

Contrary to what Neidenbach and others are implying, the letter was the collaborative idea of students, faculty, and staff at UC Berkeley. Authors did not receive assistance or funding from the Pesticide Action Network, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Food Safety nor any other outside organization. Nor did we have any funding from the organic food industry.

While we think good social science work should be inclusive of civil society organizations, in this case, that is factually incorrect.

On July 15, I wrote an email to Neidenbach clarifying the origins and authorship of the “45 letter.” But he refused to acknowledge the error, and has now reposted the same misleading article on the Genetic Literacy Project website. If it was an honest mistake the first time around, after receiving the explanatory email, Neidenbach and GLP are now knowingly propagating falsehoods – all the while claiming that comments from the authors have been ignored.

We had various reasons for publishing the letter, including what we thought was the director’s misleading portrayal of the film as scientifically objective, as well as its failure to cover key questions about the full environmental and social impacts of GM crops. Personally, I was concerned that the film didn’t acknowledge that legitimate questions exist as regards the way in which GM crops have further entrenched agricultural chemical use and have increased weed resistance — while sometimes forcing farmers to pay much more for modified seeds. As a scholar of science and technology, I’m very familiar with how technological systems can lock us into pathways of development that end up being less ecologically resilient, more unsustainable. Emphasizing GM crops so much in the last 20 years has meant much less investment in developing sustainable agriculture practices.

I was also concerned that the film seemed to exclude critical voices and to depict GM crops in an excessively favorable light, given what we do know about these. For example, it became clear that Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan had been interviewed for the film, but once they found out more about the film, they wanted to have their interview clips removed. At this point, Scott Kennedy, the film director hasn’t done so, despite various requests. Meanwhile, mainstream film reviews continue to quote from Pollan’s cameo – without seeming to realize or acknowledge that Pollan also signed our letter. The filmmaker, moreover, appeared to have interviewed a number of farmers and NGO staff —but then left them out of the film. I’m all for a documentary that carefully and openly discusses GM crops, but this seems to be less than honest practice. For more about these omissions, see Alex Swerdloff’s recent Munchies article.

The FOIA’d email now being circulated on Twitter due to FOIA requests includes a note from PAN’s Marcia Ishii-Eiteman indicating that the “45 letter” “integrated feedback from” a number of people. This feedback was part of several discussions with people who had seen the full-length cut of the film early on, who were interviewed for the film but were later excluded from it, and/or whom appear in the film but felt their quotes were taken out of context. These discussions included farmers, academics and non-governmental organizations. Through these discussions, we took great care to learn more about the film’s content before drafting our letter.

Here, Neidenbach revealed his selective misrepresentation by how he treats CMU history professor John Soluri’s messages. Soluri initially wrote a hasty reaction to a Berkeley student’s message, saying that it was lazy thinking to write a letter without seeing the film. However, Soluri subsequently followed up on his first note and apologized for not having first read the actual letter itself. Once he had read the letter, he looked at the film clips and film reviews, and he supported the letter. Neidenbach focused on the first message but ignored the follow-up.

Importantly, the letter represents a cross-section of scholars, NGOs and scientists who collectively have extensive experience with sustainable agriculture and food. The letter was signed by 45 diverse people, including academics at the University of Michigan, the University of California, Santa Cruz, the University of California, Berkeley, Middlebury College, the University of Vermont, Haverford College, Michigan State, Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell, New York University, Stanford University, and Coventry University (UK). Two senior scientists from PAN, two people formerly with the Center for Food Safety, the director of Food First, the director of the Millennium Institute, and a handful of physicians and independent scholars also signed the letter. Many of these non-academic people also have Ph.D.s.

It is a real pity that this film is continuing the familiar lines of argument that have prevailed for the last 20 years – on all sides. Rather than allow that there are serious questions about whether or not GM crops are helping intensify the environmental and social problems of industrial agriculture, their boosters seem to want to put these aside.

Comments to “No evolution in thinking in ‘Food Evolution’

  1. Its important to have objective and transparent information available for general public so we can make comfortable decisions on food consumption. GMO and Non GMO proponents and adversaries seems to twist the real truth to benefit their agenda!

  2. The irony is thick in this complaint about FOIA appearing on the Berkeley Blog within days of an earlier one by Prof. Zilberman (http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2017/06/22/do-your-homework-before-you-apply-foia/), about being FOIA’d by an activist journalist, possibly a hired gun, looking to play six degrees of Monsanto.

    While I don’t personally find this game of attacking academics for conflict of interest based on their collaborations to be terribly entertaining (it smacks of the postmodern view that facts don’t matter – all that matters is whether you can impugn the messenger), it was amusing to wade through the emails Mr. Neidenbach received and posted. (You can find them here – https://cdn.muckrock.com/foia_files/2017/07/13/Food_Evolution_Emails.pdf .)

    The group weighing in on this letter has some interesting views. A few highlights:
    * Robert Schooler of Cornell arguing that GMOs are a bad tool because you don’t need a jigsaw to lay a floor or a drill to hammer nails. (Seriously, that’s the analogy he draws.)
    * Ernesto Mendez of UVt (the original FOIA recipient) arguing that independent development of a drought tolerant GE corn variety would be bad because it would just be used for profit by corporations.
    * Miguel Altieri of Berkeley arguing that the development of the virus-resistant papaya is meaningless because “the poor can’t afford such fruits”. Altieri also argues that all other possible control methods (such as introducing predators of disease vectors) should be tried first before using GE to protect papaya in Hawaii or banana in Uganda. No explanation of *why* this tool is unacceptable for this purpose. (Or why introducing a (non-native) predator would be better.)
    * A telling sentence from Doug Gurian-Sherman explaining fairly clearly that what animates many opponents is not anything specifically about GE, but rather the entire developed-world economic setting in which large scale agriculture takes place: “the fundamentally radical nature of a the political, economic, and systems level aspects of the critique of GE necessitates the need for a movement, and not relying on those that are completely bought into the current system”. Others’ arguments in this vein suggest that GE would be OK, but only after we achieve some sort of economic utopia free from want and profit motive. This comes out as well in Mendez’ email and Montenegro’s Ensia article. (That utopia sounds lovely, but recent history –
    say Cambodia in the ’70s or the USSR in the ’30s – doesn’t promote confidence about how we get there.)
    * A complaint from Jonathan Latham (Bioscience Resource Project) that environmental groups like the Sierra Club and 350.org are “too timid” in not advancing the goal of “convert[ing] all farming to organics and agroecology”. (Also, he has a “scientifically watertight” argument against using gene drives he’d like you to read.)
    * Montenegro objecting to thinking of agriculture as being amenable to the very concept of “tools”: “It is dispiriting to see how many so-called agricultural experts view agriculture as a discrete elements that can be developed, exchanged, adopted, or discarded as if they were fungible bits in a toolkit, instead of part of a path-dependent, historical system.” I’m still trying to understand the “instead of” in that sentence – why isn’t it “and also”?
    * Finally, snarky dismissal of Ben Gordon, a PhD student and the one contrarian voice on the listserv, accused of “trolling” because of his desire to understand the objections to using the discoveries of modern biology to solve agricultural problems.

    Personally, I find Vaclav Smil’s case on the need for at least *some* industrial methods in agriculture (such as synthetic fertilizer and “green revolution” seeds) pretty compelling – at least at current population levels – see, e.g., http://www.vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/docs/smil-article-worldagriculture.pdf. And once you’ve acknowledged that such tools are acceptable (or essential), it’s hard to understand why we’d want to arbitrarily exclude others, such as GE. The arguments all seem to come back to a romantic desire for a lost pastoral agrarian past, eliding that this putative Eden involved much greater input of human labor and the occasional famine. It’s telling that so much of this cant emanates from people in urban centers (like Berkeley), entirely divorced from the day-to-day challenge of giving billions of people what they want (or need) to eat.

    Perhaps the main reason for the fury of the signers of the “Berkeley 45” letter is that if consumers are no longer susceptible to fear mongering about safety, support for the anti-GE movement will wane. The fraction of consumers ready to pony up for a radical overthrow of the agricultural / economic system is probably a pretty small number. Ultimately, though, this seems like needless anxiety. A large fraction of the public will continue to have baseless fears about GE food safety and the Non-GMO Project will continue to prosper slapping their butterfly on Himalayan pink salt and bottled water. So buck up anti-GE gang! There’s still hope!

  3. Please shake my comment out of moderation. I have a copy, though, if you have deleted it. You can choose not to post this one if you release my other comment, though.

  4. Irony thy name is FOIA. The US-RTK weaponized FOIA requests to go on fishing expeditions on behalf of organic interests and finds nothing, so they gin-up innocuous things on academics that support the scientific consensus on GE-Crops to make them look bad.

    It is no surprise then that a person who supports the science would use FOIA to check things that actually look suspicious (as opposed to RTKs fishing expeditions) to see if anything was going on. You have to admit that a letter signed by academics that denies the scientific consensus on GE-Crops looks suspicious. See the National Academies of Sciences report: http://nas-sites.org/ge-crops/category/report/. Also virtually all the reputable scientific organizations on the planet: https://goo.gl/g3yCXT, https://goo.gl/7FBFYf.

    Like Dr. Folta I find FOIA request distasteful but the loathsome US-RTK has lead the way and started this unfortunate series of events. Personally I think the denying the scientific consensus in the letter was enough to discredit it, going the extra mile for FOIA was not needed. But as they say, you reap what you sow, and RTK is the organization that got the ball rolling on this. I would suggest you vent your ire at that them. If they stop their campaign of harassment I’m sure Neidenbach will curtail his investigations.

  5. Not shocked to see Kevin “Let Nothing Go” Folta appear. Here’s the back story on Kevin Folta: “Flacking for GMOs: How the Biotech Industry Cultivates Positive Media—and Discourages Criticism” http://progressive.org/magazine/how-the-biotech-industry-cultivates-positive-media/#.WWYnCwhNYRs.facebook

    And here’s an email from Kevin Folta to Jon Entine discussing the money behind these industry funded conferences on GMOs https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3872363-Entine-Folta-BLP-Hotspots.html

    Kevin Folta: “I’m glad you put something in here for me, $7500 is a great chunk of change. If it is offered that way I’ll earn every penny. What about the costs of deployment?”

  6. So just to be clear, you signed the letter condemning a film you had not seen?
    “I also looked at the available film clip. It quickly became clear there were serious issues with the film. Thus, I gave feedback on and signed onto a letter expressing concern that the film was being shown on campus without putting it into a proper context.”
    Seems to me that the only thing you are sorry about is that you got caught!
    Social scientists not only need to engage activists … they also need to consider facts!

  7. It’s great that an academic wants to tell an artist how to do their work. No, Kennedy didn’t talk about resistant weeds and high costs of modified seeds. That has been well discussed and the scientific consensus certainly recognizes those points.

    The story follows news events of the day. Resistant weeds and higher costs seeds are not an issue with papaya farmers on Hawaii, or Ugandan banana farmers. Their problem is misplaced activism that wants to stop technology. I’m not the director, but that is the story I guess he chose to follow, along with the Intelligence Squared debate, March against Monsanto, etc.

    You must admit, out of all of documentaries on the subject, Genetic Roulette, Food Inc, GMO OMG, etc– this one was by far the most even handed.

    I do not agree with Stephan’s use of FOIA and he knows that. At the same time, I find it amusing that academics fail decry their use when USRTK does it, and actually endorse its use implicitly in this article.

    No, RTK was not “successfully learning about the close ties between the biotech industry and many apparently independent advocates of GM crops by using FOIA requests.” The information was freely on my website and at the end of every workshop I gave. I told Gary from RTK personally via phone about all of my outreach and research funds (where my research was never sponsored by anyone outside of strawberry industry concerns– not Big Ag).

    So here an academic repeats the false defamatory statements because it suits his political agenda, even if it harms a fellow Land-Grant scientist. That’s poor collegial form, let alone poor critical analysis. It is disturbing that academics and major institutions feel that scientists that teach science (like me) must be paid stooges of Big Ag. A quick email, a phone call, and they’d know the facts.

    Again the New York Times libelous hit piece comes home to roost, and an academic endorses selective abuse of FOIA when it is scientists that teach inconvenient truths. Very disappointing.

  8. So you did not actually see the documentary, but basing your opinion on a clip and some discussions with others before deciding to sign a letter dismissing a film as propaganda. Call me old fashioned, but I was taught that you do not even offer any sort of review of a documentary or a research paper without first-hand experience of the film or paper. I wouldn’t even give a critical review of an anti-vaccine conspiracy theory book on Amazon without reading it first.

  9. So you say FOIA results in cherry-picked representations of a researcher’s statements and/or perspectives? Do you think that’s possible that the dozens of FOIAs filed by US Right To Know suffered the same outcomes? Things that make you go: hmmm.

    I know that Paul Thacker and Charles Seife have said it’s taxpayer’s duty to do this: “Taxpayers have the right — the duty — to try to understand what they’re doing.” (LA TImes, Aug 2015) So maybe a middle-school teacher is being a good citizen to investigate the links between organic-industry funded NGOs, and organic businesses (also in the emails I saw). That said, if maybe you got 45 academics to write to Gary Ruskin and ask him to stop, that would be a nice gesture. But I know his colleague Stacy Malkan was also in the emails, so I expect that’s unlikely.

    It certainly is a pity that you guys have missed the opportunity to re-set the 20 years of debate. This film illustrates how bogus and baseless the health claims of some anti-GMO activists have been, illustrates crops that are the kind we hear that haters claim don’t exist–those that help small farmers and protect culturally important foods like the banana in Africa. You guys could have taken the opportunity to distance yourselves from the wacky claims and maybe talked about these. But you have squandered that.

    Just curious: did you blog in the past about how other ag documentaries left out things you thought were important? I don’t remember every seeing you do that. Can you point me to an example of that?

  10. “increased weed resistance” – Not all GMOs have herbicide based traits, while many non-GMOs do.
    “while sometimes forcing farmers to pay much more for modified seeds.” – Farmers choose the seed that is best for their farm. They are not forced.

    Every possible argument you make against GMOs also apply to artificial selection and mutagenesis.

    • Funny how the GMO considerations that should apply to artificial selection & mutagenesis are ignored by the hyper-partisan anti-GMO crowd. But that is par for the course of such ideological thinking. Reality should never impose itself on their tightly held beliefs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Security Question * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.