IN the highly emotive landscape of Genetically Modified crops, proponents of the much maligned technology and users like farmers or others with legitimate commercial interests are often portrayed as the evil villains conspiring to inflict some wicked form of gradual poisonous demise on the planet, while rubbing their hands with glee.
In contrast, members of the opposing camp who denounce biotechnology are all too often characterised as glistening champions of truth, protectors of small children, bastions of integrity standing up for everyday people, or white knights seeking to protect the very essence of life itself from being annihilated by GMs.
But in an enlightening new documentary, ‘Food Evolution’, biotech scientists, GM farmers, truth-seekers and pragmatic thinkers with the capacity to respect and acknowledge robust evidence are the ones wearing the white hats while standing in the spotlight, shining a light on truth.
And the shady black hats are placed on some of the anti-GM movement’s biggest and most influential players, like Dr Vandana Shiva or Jeffrey Smith.
And the longer the film plays out, the more some of the intellectual dishonesty, logical manipulations and dark arts practiced by some of the staunchest GM critics, like spruiking pseudo-science to scare consumers and lawmakers against using the farm technology, are exposed, like never before.
The black hat brigade includes former research Professor at Washington State University Charles Benbrook, whose efforts seeking to prevent farmers growing GM crops - despite the fact there’s not a shred of credible scientific evidence to show they’re harmful to human health, but deliver proven agronomic and environmental benefits - have reached all the way to Australia.
One of the most poignant and revealing moments in the film is Mr Benbrook caught on camera whispering into someone’s ear – but to find out how and why, you’ll have to see it for yourself.
Food for thought and central to the documentary’s central theme of changing peoples’ minds and choosing facts over emotional logic is the use of a well-known quote attributed to Mark Twain, in the introduction, ‘It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled’.
However, there is ample conjecture among critics to question whether the American writer - whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his pen name Mark Twain - actually wrote it, including by the internet urban myth busting site Snopes.
“Doesn't matter, it's still true,” said one Twitter commentator on the quote’s authenticity.
The iconoclastic documentary aired in Canberra last night at an event partnered by the National Rural Press Club and hosted by GMO Only - a new group that says its “views are based on facts”.
An expert panel reflected on the controversial contents of ‘Food Evolution’ afterwards including its Hollywood based director and Academy Award nominee Scott Hamilton Kennedy, via Skype, live from his hotel at 5.30am in Washington DC.
Mr Hamilton Kennedy said the film was funded by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) which asked him to compile a documentary; originally based on the premise of looking at the 2050 scenario and how to feed 9 billion people sustainably.
But he said that was too big a subject so he went away and researched other potential variations of the proposed topic.
“The GMO story was just waving its hand saying, ‘This is a timely story’,” he said.
“It’s a story about science, it’s a story about food, it has elements of both the first and third world and most exciting for me as a story teller it was very controversial and wasn’t being told correctly.”
National Farmer's Federation CEO Tony Mahar also sat in on the panel as did Editor-in-Chief of Cosmos Magazine Dr Elizabeth Finkel, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis at Australian National University (ANU) Professor Robert Furbank and Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research CEO Professor Andrew Campbell.
At the start and end of the ANU screening, audience members were asked to hold up a red, yellow or green card to signify if they supported GMs or not.
The obvious purpose of the exercise was to see whether any minds were changed, after witnessing the film’s in-depth and often emotive subject matter.
While most audience members were already sold on the GM concept and raised green cards at the beginning, there were fewer red and yellow ones held aloft, after the film ended.
Investigating GM papaya in Hawaii
The documentary moved into the GM issue by exploring the emotive politics of a local government debate and subsequent vote to decide whether to allow GMs to be grown in that section of Hawaii, due to fears about the crop’s safety and chemical use.
The vote was preceded by the presentation of evidence to the counsellors by the for and against camps and it succeeded, despite the protestations of farmers who were growing crops safely and successfully and hard evidence presented by plant scientists about its proven safety.
That included plant pathologist Dennis Gonsalves who invented the GM rainbow papaya which is credited with saving the island’s industry from a crippling crop disease through the insertion of a disease resistant gene.
“There’s absolutely no proof to the health hazard,” he tells the council ahead of its vote.
But in highlighting the political contradiction of the GM debate, the councillor at the centre of engineering the ban agrees to a compromise in the new laws to allow the GM papaya to be grown and then provides no adequate explanation on why one form of plant biotechnology was deemed acceptable, while others aren’t.
In politics, and not just in Australia, that’s called a bet each way but farmers aren’t always the beneficiaries of such contradictions where science is sacrificed to appease misinformed populism.
The documentary also looked at the non-use of GM products like bananas in food insecure countries of Africa and the lack of understanding of the politics and frustrations felt by those farmers at being unable to access a practical, proven solution to their growing problems.
The closing scenes highlights a debate, held in New York City, featuring Mr Benbrook facing-off against Monsanto chief technology officer Robert Fraley and Animal Genomics and Biotechnology Cooperative Extension Specialist in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, Dr Alison Van Eenennaam.
Mr Benbrook’s partner in the anti-GM side of the debate was Margaret Mellon - a science consultant for the Center for Food Safety.
In the eyes of some observers, Dr Alison Van Eenennaam - who originates from Melbourne, Australia - stole the show and enhanced the film’s ability to draw empathy from the audience with her humanistic insights and authentic, well-considered scientific voice that cut through the heavy layering of emotive anti-GM babble.
The popular debating format - like the screening of the film in Canberra - saw audience members vote on whether they were for or against GMs, before and after the show.
That saw 30pc of the audience express initial opposition to GMs, while 32pc said they were for it and 38pc were undecided – but in the end of the debate 31pc said they were against the technology and 60pc for it, representing a significant gain.
Other characters of note to appear in the film included high profile GM whistle-blower Mark Lynas who added a touch of irreverence but also credibility to the movie’s central theme of choosing scientific pragmatism, versus the seemingly impenetrable, personally formed bastions of emotional truths, reliant on a diet of misinformation.
“I am also sorry I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment,” he told the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013.
“If you continually scare consumers by spreading misinformation about cropping biotechnology but try and claim the high moral ground on climate change or environmental issues by using evidence provided by the same scientific agencies that declare GM crops safe to human health and the environment, it’s impossible to maintain public or professional credibility.”
Mr Hamilton Kennedy said it was very hard for people to admit that they’d made a mistake and used the analogy of traffic, and drivers cutting others off, but not apologising for it.
He said Mr Lynas was someone who he had a great deal of respect for, for changing his mind on GMs with his public statement in 2013.
The one-time anti-GM activist had “incredible intellect” and a “keen sense of humour” which gave the film maker, “tools to entertain us”, he said.
Another pivotal character who wore an unfamiliar black hat in the film was Moms Across America Founder Zen Honeycutt who has since objected to her use in its promotional clips, claiming to have been misrepresented.
But there was notable laughter from some sections of the audience at the ANU screening when she praised social media as a source of truth, over science.
“I trust the social media more than most medical doctors; more than the CEC (Commission for Environmental Cooperation); more than the FDA (Food and Drug Administration); more than the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency),” she says.
As expected, the film hasn’t been met with universal acclaim with anti-GM critics and those who champion the pro-organic food cause like Ms Honeycutt, expressing displeasure at the shadow cast over some of their brightest public lights and alleged biased presentations, like activist Jeffrey Smith.
Director given “final cut”
Mr Hamilton Kennedy said he’d been accused by critics of taking funding from the IFT and representing the views of “big food” and the agricultural industry but he rejected the notion.
The director said during the question and answer session that he demanded very early on in the production’s life-cycle he had to have creative control and “final cut”.
“There were no promises requested – no results were requested and no results were promised and that’s very important because there’s perceived conflict of interest and then there’s true conflict of interest,” he said.
The IFT is in fact a non-profit organisation of global food scientists.
Mr Hamilton Kennedy said he had “complete creative control” and any if anyone had a problem with the film, he was ultimately responsible.
He said a key lesson he took away from making the film was about the power of confirmation bias, or the way anti-GM proponents ignored scientific evidence in order to maintain their opposing views.
“The term that comes to me is ‘confirmation bias is a bitch’,” he told the ANU audience.
“The extent of peoples’ confirmation bias and seeing the world the way they want to see it - and seeing it from within our bubbles as we tend to say in this day and age - it’s just so strong.
“I learned about confirmation bias in the making of the film and it was very revealing to look at my own confirmation bias and really see it in others.
“Facts don’t persuade as they say, but it’s amazing how you can present somebody with evidence that goes counter to their world view and even if it’s supported by, as we know with GMO, thousands of scientific organisations, that doesn’t mean they’ll change their mind.
“But as we have seen the film has helped change minds so it’s been a great honour.”
Mr Hamilton Kennedy said he’d been accused of over-focusing on GM safety in the film and it didn’t deal with some other issues to do with the technology like costs and ownership.
But he said food safety was “the biggest issue that was scaring people into how to determine if they were going to use or avoid GM technology”, as was the case in places like Hawaii.
Asked about the quandary of Greenpeace’s opposition to GMs and activism, despite proven environmental benefits like reduced harmful pesticide use, he said it was “an excellent question and a frustrating one”.
Mr Hamilton Kennedy referred to film’s ending and use of Rich Roberts, the Nobel Laureate scientist who started a campaign that now has 125 Nobel Laureates signed onto an open letter asking Greenpeace to stop spreading fear on GMOs.
“They didn’t say ‘shut Greenpeace down’,” he said.
“It’s very important, the respect that was there and the nuance that was there, because it’s not saying that we shouldn’t have organisations that are being sceptical of situations and we shouldn’t have organisations that are looking out for the environment - but if they get it wrong they need to be called out, just like we would call anybody out.”
Mr Hamilton Kennedy said Greenpeace was asked to do interviews for ‘Food Evolution’ but turned down the offer once they heard it had a pro-GM stance.
“It’s hard to not point to the fact that they (Greenpeace) get funding by sort of feeding this fear to people that have given them money for a long time and it’s really a shame because I wish they’d take that energy and put it towards more correct concerns and maybe they will – we’ll have to see,” he said.
“But I’ve had people - all, from what I would call ‘Greenpeace’s side of the argument’ - call the film propaganda and many of them calling it propaganda without having seen it and if that’s not an obvious fail, I don’t know what is.
“And I’d like to have a public debate with them and say, ‘you’re calling me a propagandist and I’m calling you an ideologue and let’s see who wins’ and I feel pretty confident of how I’d do in that debate.”
But one audience member said they felt the move’s subject matter had glossed over ‘scientific determinism’ and the belief that “science gives us the answer” but history had shown science wasn’t always right.
Science sceptics vs GM denialists
In response, Mr Hamilton Kennedy quoted the film’s narrator, respected science-communicator Neil de Grasse Tyson, who said being sceptical of science was a good thing.
“But if you’re presented with overwhelming consensus of the science, the repeatability of hundreds and thousands of studies, but you keep denying it, you’re not a sceptic anymore, you’re a denialist - that’s what we saw in Hawaii,” he said.
He said building trust could not be done with statistics alone.
“Don’t lead with the science; lead with the connection,” he said.
Mr de Grasse Tyson also says, “the good thing about science is that it’s true, whether you believe it or not”.
While the film may not convince everyone GMs are safe, or move those at the extreme ends of the debate, it will prove to be a ground-breaking body of work to help demystify the issue for the silent majority in the middle ground, who are open to learning.
Asked how he’d measure the film’s success, Mr Hamilton Kennedy said tongue-in-cheek “if I win an Oscar”.
But he said its success was already happening with audiences watching throughout the world and in turn changing their views on GMs.
He said he’d just done a screening in the US capital before politicians and influencers and was about to go to Europe to screen it to the European parliament in Belgium and then the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome.
“And I’m sitting here 5.30 in the morning talking to you across the other side of planet,” he said.
“People say we’re living in a time of chaos and a time of distrust and I’d love to lower that stress.
“The question is can we increase the amount of clarity on the real danger and push aside the ones that are fake, to help us make real decisions – this is the success of the film that has travelled to you all.”
Given Greenpeace’s destruction of CSIRO GM crops trials in Canberra in 2011, which led to a court trial and conviction against two activists, questions were also asked by the audience about the difference between their activism pursuits in Australia and other places like the UK and Europe and subsequent impact of that anti-GM public campaigning on the regulatory costs of bringing biotech products to market.
Professor Furbank said the “interesting” aspect of Greenpeace’s protest activities in Australia was “a complete misunderstanding” of how much public support it would have for “that act” on the CSIRO trials.
“There was an assumption there would be a huge amount of public opinion supporting these acts – but in fact they were generally viewed as some kind of eco vandalism to the point where people were phoning up the TV station saying ‘I recognise some of those people, they live down the road from me’,” he said.
“I thought that was quite a fairly curious situation and quite different to the situation in Europe and the UK.
“There is a basic difference between the views held more broadly in Australia on GM technologies and those that may be held more broadly in Europe – perhaps it’s a vocal minority, I don’t know.”
Professor Furbank said Australia was “quite conservative” about the approval process for GMs but as the film had demonstrated, “safety is paramount”.
He said the registration process for a GM crop was also “quite long and involved and expensive”.
When the GM trials were whipper-snippered by Greenpeace in 2011, it was anticipated a biotech wheat variety that possibly had drought tolerance or other agronomic benefits suitable for Australian farming conditions, was seven to 10 years away.
But no commercial varieties have yet eventuated.
“The amount of feeding trials and tests that are done on a GM product, far exceed anything that’s done, through traditional plant breeding,” Professor Furbank said.
“I’m not saying that’s wrong and we certainly should protect the safety of our food.
“But in terms of bringing these things to market at the moment it’s a very long and expensive and involved process – that’s even limiting our capacity to do research.
“For example the Grains (Research and Development) Corporation is not happy to fund projects involving wheat because the cost of registration is so high and the cost of getting a GM wheat crop out there is not considered a good investment.
“We’ve got to strike some sort of a happy medium in terms of our risk analysis.
“This is something that came through to me in the movie - what is an acceptable risk?”
Public opinion on GM stuck despite the evidence
Asked about her role in the documentary, Dr Van Eenennaam pointed to an opinion article responding to its predictable critics where she said “perhaps nowhere is food fear-mongering more prevalent than in the toxic debate around genetic engineering and GMOs”.
“The 51pc gap in perception between the public’s feelings on the safety of GMOs and the understanding of the scientific community (37pc of the public think GE products are safe versus 88pc of scientists) is greater than the gap for any other topic, including anthropogenic climate change,” she said.
“For 20 years, thousands of studies, eleven National Academies reports, and indeed every major scientific society in the world have attempted to interject objective evidence of GMO safety into the debate without making much progress.
“The fear-mongering, however, has been relentless – and often – disingenuous, as evidenced by the ‘non-GMO’ labeled rock salt that has popped up in the grocery store (spoiler alert – salt doesn’t contain DNA so salt cannot be genetically engineered – all salt is ‘non-GMO’ salt).
“But, it is much easier to sell fear than science.”
Dr Van Eenennaam said as frustrating as it is to logic-driven scientists, people often don’t make decisions on facts alone and instead they base them on a mixture of gut instinct, world view and trust.
“And in this age of widespread suspicion and distrust, it seems many marketers stand willing and ready to monetize distrust by providing “natural” food and “absence” labels for attributes that were never present in that product in the first place. “Gluten free” water comes to mind,” she said.
“The GMO safety narrative is seemingly chock full of villains (corporations), victims (public health), and heroes (activists) – the necessities of a great story.
“And although this narrative has been accurate in the past – think tobacco or PCBs and may be again on for some new product - in this case the data do not square with the frightening health claims that have been associated with genetic engineering.
“Betting against the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence on any topic, be it GMOs, vaccines or climate change, on the basis of a single study or a conspiracy theory is a very high stakes wager.”
Dr Van Eenennaam said at the end of the day, ‘Food Evolution’ was really a movie about how people make decisions in the face of uncertainty.
She said it was also about the importance, and difficulty, of changing your mind based on new evidence and objective truths.
“At this juncture in history, it is an opportune time to consider one of the key questions posed in the movie – when considering a matter of substance: When was the last time you changed your mind, or perhaps as importantly when is the last time you opened your mind?,” she said.
But where can you see it?
Mr Hamilton Kennedy said the film had gone from being theatrically released in the US to being streamed on digital platforms like iTunes, Amazon and YouTube and also subscription video streaming.