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Is ‘Food Evolution’ propaganda? No! Just an accessible presentation of a tough topic

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | July 14, 2017

Food Evolution is a documentary about GMOs. It is an excellent film that mixes a few compelling stories with interesting interviews that inform viewers without losing their attention. As someone that has worked in agricultural biotechnology for 30 years, I find the contents accurate and insightful.

The lynchpin of the movie is the story of a public debate to ban GMOs in Hawaii, which illustrates how the opponents of the technology had good intentions and real concerns about the environment, but little information about what GMOs are all about. During the debate about the technology, we realize that the fear of the technology has no scientific basis and the benefits are underappreciated.


GMO papayas in Hawaii

Through this debate, we came to meet the real hero of the movie, Dennis Gonsalves, a scientist who used biotechnology to develop a virus-resistant papaya that would soon save the Hawaiian papaya industry. With this information, the legislators exempted papaya from the ban.

While the main applications of GMOs are sold by major corporations, like Monsanto, Gonsalves shows that GMOs are a product of public sector research that can be used for many uses, including “minor” crops. One of the ironies emphasized in the movie is that heavy regulation has advantaged major companies in utilizing the technology, reducing its use for less lucrative markets.

I found the appearance of Michael Pollan, a leading voice for alternative agriculture, refreshing as he states that GMO foods don’t present more risks than traditional foods and may increase yields. While clearly GMOs are not Pollan’s cup of tea, they is not the devil that opponents of the technology make it out to be. Pam Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are a couple who show that organic farming methods can be married with agricultural biotechnology to create healthier and more productive agriculture, and that the current ban of GMOs in organic agriculture is short-sighted.

One theme that becomes clear is that GMOs are an application of modern biology developed by people who care about humanity and aimed to solve real problems, address food security and improve the environment. The process is not a silver bullet, but one important part of the toolbox available to farmers within a diversified farming system.

Another theme is that opponents of the technology have been very successful in demonizing it. The exchanges of Alison Van Eenennaam with people on the street as well as a public debate clearly demonstrate that a little real information can change peoples’ perspective.

I am saddened to hear the criticism of the movie by some of my colleagues, as you can call any artistic effort that takes a position “propaganda.” Since English is my second language, I looked up the definition in the Oxford dictionary, and it is “[i]nformation, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

Based on my knowledge, the movie doesn’t present false or biased information. It presents researchers who discuss research findings that were applied and accepted by the scientific community, and different points of view of activists and researchers debating about policy. The presentations speak for themselves, and the viewer is likely to leave with a positive perspective about GMOs and their potential. The movie was respectful of the opponents of GMOs, gave critics like Pollan an opportunity to present their views, but most importantly it presented a compelling story about implementing a new technology.

I like also to note that while the criticism conveys the impression that Berkeley faculty as a whole hold a negative view of GMOs, this impression is wrong. One of the first applications of genetically modified organisms was performed here by Stephen Lindow in late 1970s. Berkeley boasts one of the world’s best life sciences departments, whose outstanding faculty members made breakthrough discoveries in biotechnology, both in terms of transgenics and now gene editing. I heard very positive responses to Food Evolution from numerous Berkeley students and faculty in recent screenings. So UC Berkeley faculty and students have diverse opinions, on GMOs as well as many topics — let a thousand flowers bloom.

Food Evolution was much softer than hard-hitting movies like Food Revolution and Food Inc. It didn’t emphasize that all the prominent academies of sciences have found GMOs acceptable and worthwhile to utilize, and that restrictions on its use harms the poor. It didn’t use the damning of Greenpeace by over 100 Nobel prize winners over its campaign against GMOs, in particular Golden Rice (they even end the letter saying “How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a ‘crime against humanity’?”). It didn’t even use multiple findings that by increasing food supply and productivity, GMOs have already reduced greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, made food and fiber more affordable, enhanced food security and helped poor farmers.

The movie presented a message of hope. Behind GMOs and many other applications of modern science, there are dedicated and caring scientists. Every new application is building and augmenting existing knowledge. Regulations are necessary to protect against mishaps and mismanagement and to enable utilization of the potential of technologies. Thus, new agricultural biotechnology products deserve a chance, and they will help humanity to address major challenges like food security, deforestation, and climate change.

Comments to “Is ‘Food Evolution’ propaganda? No! Just an accessible presentation of a tough topic

  1. I just don’t like the heavy handed tactics of Monsanto when wind blows their GMO seed onto the land and crops of someone who doesn’t want them. Then they sue that person.

  2. Having seen the trailer and read interviews with the filmmaker, i find the film to be a clever form of propaganda. Of course, i’d love to watch the full film and be able to comment more, but in the current context of the ideological battle between the biotech industry and critics, truth suffers injuries by bias — on both sides, yes, but unequally.

    The industry have a vested interest in maintaining a perception that there is a consensus on the safety of GMOs on the market. This is a “dirty consensus” and not genuine at the moment. It may hold up to further scrutiny, but the state of the science around GMOs and agrochemicals is so biased as to not be definitive. The so-called “consensus” is more of a facade actively constructed by the PR consultants who are paid to do this job. That is not unwarranted conspiracy theorizing, but actually well-documented fact. I’ve been watching this space for years now and the evidence is copious that there is a wide-ranging propaganda campaign to maintain the industry preferred perceptions in science, policy, and public thought.

    This film is part of that, slick with the cool voice of NdGT and the messaging of the industry, as far as i can tell from the discourse around it and the trailer (having not driven from my farm country to see a screening in an urban center).

  3. I saw the film in Dublin, Ireland last week and do not have much experience of the rural United States. Therefore I’m only speculating, but the climate science denialism prevalent among rural Republicans could owe a lot to this. They know the green movement is wrong about transgenic crops, so why would they believe them about climate science? If this is the case then it’s another counterproductive consequence of the irrational demonising of agricultural biotechnology.

    The film is excellent btw 🙂

  4. David,
    I just returned from South Dakota. Since I left farming 30 years ago, GMO crops (RoundUp Ready) have transformed the landscape I left – for the environmental good. Due to less (or even no) tillage, fuel use has plummeted, soil erosion has been greatly reduced, and soil is sequestering C. These are enormous positive impacts that are seldom mentioned, and the farmers that do this (largely Republicans) are rightly upset at the negative press that they sometimes get from urban foodies. Every scientific organization in the world that has made a detailed review of the literature concludes that there are no recognized risks associated with these crops. This is an arena where maybe some good will could be established between urban and rural voters in an otherwise divisive climate…

  5. I appreciate opening up debate and looking at data, as this movie does. I greatly prefer that to prioritizing the “lived experiences of farmers and eaters” as the critics would like, Those lived experiences are riddled with misinformation and unconscious, unexamined bias.

  6. In fact, if this documentary has to do with changes wrought by humans in the design, development and deployment of food technology, that is great. But such things have nothing whatsoever to do with “evolution”. People have agency, do things, make things. Evolution, on the other hand, has no agency. Evolution just happens, and in fact we correctly use the word to describe happenings outside our control.

  7. Good synopsis. This is why I’ve been so willing to push back on the propaganda claims. This is three stories– banning GE crops/papaya in Hawaii, the need for disease resistant banana in Uganda, and the Intelligence Squared discussion. All three of these topics were the events of the day as the film was being made. They all feature stories of individuals for and against the technology, and all are presented here. I’ve been disappointed in the faculty and students in academia that lend the credibility and reputation of the institution to discount science and malign public researchers. It is particularly bad form for fellow academics, and something that should be discussed. Academic freedom should not give the latitude to impeach the reputations of others without evidence. This is especially concerning for the students and junior faculty that could find future opportunities curtailed because of good argument that was made in completely the wrong way. I appreciate their concerns. Tearing down others and rejecting a consensus is not a good way to communicate them.

  8. As a daughter of a Hawaii papaya farmer, I have seen firsthand what this technology has done for our farm. I’ve also witnessed the entire GMO war has done to our communities and can attest to the damage it did to our entire agricultural community. The story in the film is accurate. It’s a personal one and should not be marginalized as propaganda.

    Thank you for speaking out on this for the small farmers of the world!

  9. David, I have not seen the film and cannot comment on it. But I followed the link to the criticism at Food First. It is very standard for critics of GMOs to complain that any support for it is riddled with conflicts of interest. Indeed, for them, the truth is so self-evident that the only ones accepted as `neutral’ and who can call things as they are, are those critical of GMOs. While science is not necessarily `free of politics’, the position that conflict of interest explains any positive view of GMOs is not only self-righteous but also deliberately political that obviates the need to address any argument.

  10. A well thought out article that contains sources from many perspectives. After reading your article, others cited, and viewing the move, readers should be a better informed and enlightened on a controversial topic that has global implications.

  11. well done David; I agree that the film is a good compromise between getting into the weeds too much and remaining amorphously ideological, like the films you cite. Very well done and worthy of everyone’s attention, I think.

  12. Excellent review and comment David. I have seen the film and agree that its treatment of the scientific evidence is sound and consistent with the conclusions of the vast majority of active scientists in the field, as shown in the many reports of national academies around the world that you refer to. I find it interesting that the critics of the film conclude that “we can value scientific inquiry without viewing the sciences as free of politics” at the conclusion of what is almost entirely a political statement that undermines or devalues well established scientific results, with many of the signatories being associated with political organizations well known to ignore or deny scientific evidence in pursuit to their advocacy goals.

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