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Photo courtesy of Black Valley Films.

This Documentary Wants to Teach People About GMOs, But Experts Call It Propaganda

Alex Swerdloff

“We’re pro-science and we’re anti-fringe,” says ‘Food Evolution’ director Scott Hamilton Kennedy—but his critics are calling him a corporate shill.

Photo courtesy of Black Valley Films.

Food Evolution, which opened in theaters earlier this month, was something of a departure for director Scott Hamilton Kennedy, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his film The Garden in 2008. Unlike his earlier documentaries, which have largely examined social justice issues in impoverished communities, Food Evolution is a deep dive into the world of genetically engineered food. With an eye toward the "9 billion 2050" conundrum—when the world population is predicted to explode—the film examines whether GMOs, despite their controversial reputation, are actually a safe and reasonable answer to the inevitable problem of feeding an overpopulated planet.

As it turned out, the reception that Food Evolution is receiving is unlike anything Kennedy has ever faced before. Although the film garnered many positive reviews, some well-respected experts in the field of GMOs are calling Kennedy a shill for corporate interests.

Earlier this month, 45 prominent scientists, academics, and writers—many from UC Berkeley—signed a statement that blasted the film as a "piece of propaganda." The eminent nutritionist and academic Marion Nestle wrote her own refutation of the film, dubbing it "a slick piece of GMO industry propaganda." Then, a second backlash followed, with many of the signatories of the letter suddenly receiving Freedom of Information Act requests asking for their emails about the film. Nestle's blog was so overrun by trolls and she had to shut the comments section down.

What the hell is going on here?

When we spoke with him recently, Kennedy said he didn't know all that much about GMOs before he decided to tackle the topic. He told MUNCHIES he wanted to take a novel approach—one no filmmakers seemed to be taking—and just stick to the data about genetic engineering, thereby arriving at a rational, evidence-based assessment of what may be the future of our food system. He said, "If somebody is fear-mongering, I wanna out them. If somebody is manipulating facts and not using data, I wanna out them. And if they're denying data from the other side—like saying there's no room for any GMO anywhere in the universe because that's gonna only further this quote-unquote agro-industrial system, that just an oversimplification of a very complicated conversation."

So here's roughly what Food Evolution concludes: GMOs are not, in fact, the devil. Instead, they appear to be a safe and viable solution to feeding a world population that will be exploding in the very near future. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the iconic astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York—the man whom the New York Times calls "perhaps the most credible public scientist on the planet"—saw eye-to-eye with Hamilton and decided to lend his services as narrator of Food Evolution. Bill Nye also appears in the film, as do many other prominent scientists and experts.

"My answer is zero money came from Monsanto. But how do you know who to trust? [My critics] or me? Go to the evidence. Go to the evidence."

But following some early screenings of the film—and despite some very favorable reviews in the mainstream press—critics of GMOs began to state their opposition to Food Revolution's treatment of the issue. And now some of the luminaries who were interviewed in the film—including Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan—are disavowing any association with it. Nestle wrote on her blog, "I have asked repeatedly to have my short interview clip removed from this film. The director refuses. He believes his film is fair and balanced. I do not. I am often interviewed and hardly ever quoted incorrectly or out of context. This film is one of those rare exceptions. In my 10-second clip, I say that I am unaware of convincing evidence that eating GM foods is unsafe—this is what I said, but it is hugely out of context."

Critics have also questioned how the film was bankrolled. They say that by receiving funding from the Institute of Food Technologists, a professional association of food scientists and technologists from the processed food industry, Kennedy is in the back pocket of the agrichemical interests. (IFT's previous president is a former DuPont and Monsanto executive who now works for a pesticide trade association, and the current president-elect works for DuPont.) Nestle speculated in her blog post, "I can't help but think Monsanto or the Biotechnology Innovation Organization must have given IFT a grant for this purpose," although she acknowledges that "IFT takes complete takes complete responsibility for commissioning the film."

Timothy Wise, a Senior Research Fellow at Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute and a senior researcher on the Small Planet Institute's Land and Food Rights Program, told MUNCHIES, "I withdrew my consent to be in the film when the filmmakers finally admitted, after much prodding, that the film had been commissioned by an industry-affiliated group with biotechnology professionals in leadership."

"I have asked repeatedly to have my short interview clip removed from this film. The director refuses. He believes his film is fair and balanced. I do not."

MUNCHIES asked IFT just how much funding they provided for the film, but the organization declined to give specifics; its website says all funding for the film came from "revenue generated primarily through membership dues, scientific publishing, events and advertising, and without contribution from any other organization or company."

When MUNCHIES initially spoke with Kennedy, he insisted that although IFT set the film in motion by actively seeking out a filmmaker to make a documentary about the future of food, he had full creative control and final cut on the film: "I requested it from the first day. And if we're going to say that any funding that leads [back] to any industry means that you can't listen to anybody, then I can't listen to the New York Times, I can't listen to VICE. Is the Washington Post in the pocket of Amazon? Or are they doing good work?"

Kennedy further stated, "My answer is zero money came from Monsanto. But how do you know who to trust? [My critics] or me? Go to the evidence. Go to the evidence. I have written documentation that I have final cut on the movie. And even more important than that—go to the data in the movie. The data in the movie is the thing. It's very, very founded. We worked our asses off to be sure our data was clean."

But how to interpret that data, and in what context, is very much at issue, critics say. While the data presented in the film may be correct, many have assailed its narrow scope, arguing that it focuses specifically on safety issues rather than the complex impact GMO crops have on the planet. As Nestle said in her blog post, there's no discussing genetic engineering without also discussing crop "monoculture; the effects of industrial agriculture on the environment and climate change; the possible carcinogenicity of glyphosate (Roundup); this herbicide's well documented induction of weed resistance; and the how aggressively this industry protects its self-interest and attacks critics, as this film demonstrates."

Likewise, the Berkeley statement argues that genetic engineering "can't be understood in isolation, we now know, as it co-produces a complex industrialized agri-food system that damages landscapes, water systems, biodiversity, worker health, traditional seed systems, and rural livelihoods globally."

"If you go and look at the list of things that they find to be probable carcinogens, it's like 90 percent of everything that they study. So that's my frustration with IARC."

Alastair Iles, associate professor and faculty co-director at the Berkeley Food Institute, told MUNCHIES, "Of course Kennedy cannot cover everything in a debate as complex as GM crops," adding, "it is this systematic ignorance of the larger technological and agricultural context that I'm worried about."

A closer look at just one of the data points that didn't make it into the film is illuminating. While the film does highlight glyphosate, it fails to discuss a study about the herbicide that hit the headlines by storm in 2015. Glyphosate, which is marketed as Roundup by Monsanto, is essential to the discussion of GMOs because a vast majority of genetically engineered crops are bred to withstand the application of Roundup and other herbicides. Monsanto insists that decades of scientific studies prove that Roundup is safe in the amounts to which humans are likely to be exposed, but a 2015 World Health Organization/ International Agency on Research for Cancer (IARC) study found glyphosate to be a "probable carcinogen." The study was all over the news—but, much to the consternation of his critics, Food Evolution is suspiciously silent about it.

When asked about the omission, Kennedy stated, "The IARC report was a non-starter for me; the movie was very long." What's more, he said a top scientist at IARC ignored important data that glyphosate is not toxic and the IARC evaluation was flawed because it failed to address how much glyphosate is required to reach toxic levels: "If you go and look at the list of things that they find to be probable carcinogens, it's like 90 percent of everything that they study. So that's my frustration with IARC."

The film's critics aren't buying this argument and are also wondering why California's decision to add glyphosate to its Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer was also omitted from the film. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network North America, told MUNCHIES this is a "glaring omission" given that the widespread adoption of GMOs has "driven up herbicide use by over 500 million pounds over the first 16 years of their cultivation" and "ninety-nine percent of GMOs on the market today are designed to contain an insecticide or tolerate indiscriminate use of herbicides."

"At this point, I think the less said about this film, the better."

Regardless of Kennedy's intentions, however, one thing is certain: The film is now being used as a weapon in the GMO wars. Almost immediately after the Berkeley statement was published, many of the signatories were hit with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for any and all emails containing the words "Food Evolution." The requests were all made by Stephan Neidenbach, a middle school teacher who runs an organization called "We Love GMOs and Vaccines." Neidenbach told MUNCHIES that he made the FOIA requests simply to "look for hypocrisy."

There's no doubt that en masse FOIA requests are becoming a tool that can be wielded to suppress academic thought and bully experts. Phil Howard, an associate professor at Michigan State who was one of the Berkeley statement signatories who were targeted by the FOIA requests, told us, "Neidenbach's FOIA requests are intended as harassment, but they are also attacks on free speech and intellectual freedom. The burdens of responding to such trolls may discourage other researchers from speaking up in the future. I hope this is not the case, however, because these tactics suggest that zealous promoters of genetic engineering are increasingly desperate in their efforts to overcome public resistance."

Neidenbach disagrees. He told MUNCHIES, "The anti-GMO movement often screams about propaganda and outside influence, while ignoring their own. This [Berkeley] letter showed up real quick by people who have admitted to not even watching the film. I was looking into the coordination."

The FOIA requests appear to have caused a chilling effect already. MUNCHIES reached out to many of the scientists who signed the Berkeley statement and the majority refused to comment or did not respond. One professor, who wished to remain anonymous, told MUNCHIES he wasn't "at the point in his career" when he felt he could "stick his neck out."

But Maywa Montenegro, a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley who signed the statement, told MUNCHIES, "I am frustrated that the Food Evolution film is pretending that science is unilateral instead of a multifaceted story." She agrees that one of the biggest problems with the film is its "narrow framing," which she sees as a hallmark of Big-Ag public relations: "The framing is very familiar—safety is again whittled down to 'consumer food safety' rather than allowing for a scientifically robust analysis of environmental health, worker health, biodiversity health, and long-term health of agricultural production and consumption systems," Montenegro said.

In the end, Kennedy maintains that he was just doing his job in an objective manner: "I didn't make the movie saying I'm making a pro-GMO movie. I'm a filmmaker. I'm a journalist. And I love the complexities of this life journey—it's really, really hard to be a decent frickin' citizen. It's just hard. That fascinates the hell out of me. That's why I make films."

Marion Nestle's response? "At this point, I think the less said about this film, the better."


Editor's note: Since publishing, Kennedy has provided MUNCHIES with the following statement: "I did not take this film on lightly. I did not decide to make this film without very careful consideration. Would I really want to take on a thorny topic like GMOs, and thus risk breaking from my tribe and risk my reputation as a filmmaker that I've worked on for over 25 years, would I risk all that if I didn't think there was something very very important to reset here?The conversation around food and agriculture was out of balance, and we hope we might help start to get it back in balance. I hope you and the public will consider all of that when considering me and Food Evolution."