Amidst a brutally polarized debate marked by passion, suspicion, and confusion, Food Evolution, by Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy (The Garden, Fame High, OT: Our Town) explores the controversy surrounding GMOs and food. Traveling from Hawaiian papaya groves to banana farms in Uganda to the cornfields of Iowa, the film, narrated by esteemed science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, wrestles with the emotions and the science driving one of the most heated arguments of our time. In the GMO debate, both pro and anti camps claim science is on their side. Who’s right?
This riveting documentary shows how easily misinformation, confusion, and fear can overwhelm objective analysis. How do we ensure that our food supply is safe, and that everyone has enough to eat? How do we feed the world while also protecting the planet? Has genetic engineering increased or decreased pesticide use? Are GMO foods bad for your health? And, most importantly, what data, evidence, and sources are we using to approach these important questions? Enlisting experts from around the world, this documentary separates the hype and emotion from the science and data to unravel the debate around food, and help audiences reach their own conclusions. I spoke to Scott Hamilton Kennedy about this very informative film.
Danny Miller: This is the documentary I was hoping someone would make. As liberal as I am, I’ve long worrid that the anti-GMO people were painting with too broad of a brush. It seemed like there were situations where the science of genetic modification could help immeasurably with certain problems facing the world.
Scott Hamilton Kennedy: I’m happy to hear you say that. Look, I live in Silverlake and in my circles, if you don’t follow the word “Monsanto” with the phrase “evil motherfuckers,” the conversation is over — and it gets worse from there!
Yeah, Silverlake is probably Ground Zero for the anti-GMO movment.
It is! But luckily, it’s also full of amazingly smart, creative people who want to have intelligent conversations — people who love data and science — and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Now that we’re in this age of Trump, there are so many parts of the conversation that seem even trickier.
It’s true. But we can’t have our kale, and eat it too! We can’t say “Oh, those bastards with their alternative facts” when we’re promoting our own alternative facts in this area.
Yeah. I know that some of the same people who attended the recent March for Science here, as I did, who were screaming about the Trump administration’s denial of global warming, are refusing to engage with the scientific community on this subject. I think the research you present in your film is very compelling.
It’s not like I’m trying to present it as a matter of “sides,” like a “GMO side” and an “organic side.” It’s way more nuanced than that. This film is about food and science and the very daunting task of trying to feel a world population that will soon be up to nine billion people. I’ve seen so many very smart people yelling at each other while the facts getting swept up in controversy. I’m just trying to present a pro-science approach to the topic.
I get how complex it is. It’s not that I put my trust in companies like Monsanto or think they only have our best interests in mind, I don’t believe that for a second. On the other hand, I can’t discount the work that many people are doing around the world to help really serious problems, like the amazing work you show that’s happening with farmers of bananas and papayas. I mean, talk about “white privilege,” how dare we not allow people in developing countries to take advantage of the latest scientific research if it would really help them.
As we discuss in the film, we all know that we have “confirmation bias,” the tendency to only use data that confirms our existing beliefs, but we really need to check that. I’m all for questioning authority, speaking truth to power, I love those things, they’ve given me passion and purpose every day of my life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to tread carefully to not go too far. Of course there are things to worry about in this area. Greed is a bitch, money and power can be very dangerous, we have to have checks and balances, but we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater or just engage in fearmongering.
Having Neil deGrasse Tyson is a big deal for a film like this. He has such credibility that it almost made me listen to the information in a different way.
He’s earned that trust! Neil is an amazing science communicator, an amazing researcher, and he knows and respects the scientific method. I’m very honored to have him in the film and it’s been such a pleasure to work with somebody that smart and funny.
Of course you have to know that this film will probably get a lot of criticism in certain quarters. Are you already girding yourself for attack? For people who question your motives or who’s funding you?
Oh, it’s happening, they’re definitely coming after us. But again, it’s very interesting in the time of Trump. You don’t just get to call me a shill, you don’t just get to say that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a shill, you’ve got to show your data. You can’t just say, “I saw something on the Internet so I know what is true,” you need to have repeatable data and multiple sources. There are some people in the food movement who are already aligning themselves against this film and by doing that they’re aligning themselves with the fringe. I know they don’t agree with a lot of those people but they’re so troubled by their confirmation bias that they just can’t accept some of this research. They can’t accept any world view that goes against their beliefs.
It reminds me of the left equivalent of some of the Republicans who are selling their souls down the river because they’re afraid to come out against Trump. And then they find themselves in bed with people with whom they really do not agree.
It’s true. But if you look at the spectrum, the extremes on both the left and the right have a lot in common. There’s very little dialogue, it’s all “my way” or “fuck you.” We’re living in a time of a lot of chaos.
Like all the controversy and strange bedfellows among people who are wary of vaccines.
Totally, it’s the same thing. I can see how easy it is to have someone or something to blame for challenging situations, to have some kind of “answer.” But sometimes there isn’t a simple answer and there is real science to look at.
Well, even if some extremists think you’re on a corporate payroll somewhere, I think a film like this can really move the conversation forward in a big way.
Fingers crossed! I am encouraged by the screenings we’ve had so far. I usually do this very unscientific poll where I ask the crowd before the screening, “How many people fear GMOs for themselves and their families?” We tend to get a lot of hands in the air. In New York, about 25% of the hands went up. After the screening, when I asked that question again, only a few hands went up. That’s really exciting to me, even though in some cities it’s not that big of a change. But after the film, when I ask “How many people feel that farmers in Africa should have the right to use some of these fixes to solve their banana problem,” almost all of the hands go up.
It’s such a tricky issue and the conversations I’ve seen get heated very fast.
Bill Maher said some horrible things about GMOs on his show a few years back and Neil deGrasse Tyson called him on it. “Why are you so against GMOs? They are doing amazing things to help starving people in Africa.” Maher’s response was, “Well, I’m not a starving person in Africa.” I mean, come on, we need to better than that!
And what’s up with Dr. Oz? I used to respect that guy but now he seems like such a crackpot. I was shocked by some of the clips you showed in the film.
Yeah, and the clip of John Oliver taking him down is fantastic. I don’t know Dr. Oz and I certainly don’t want to discount him as a human being, he seems like a kind enough soul, but clearly there’s a lot of evidence that the man has used alternative facts to sell his TV show.