The film Food Evolution, despite being narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, has been called “a slick piece of GMO propaganda” by Marion Nestle, a prominent nutrition scientist at NYU who was interviewed for it. In response to Nestle’s tweet on the subject, Michael Pollan, the journalism professor at UC Berkeley who also appears in the film, tweeted: “My experience and take much the same.” And a group of more than 45 “UC Berkeley faculty, students, alums, and community members” have also signed a statement calling this film “a piece of propaganda.”
Why? Especially since ads for the film encourage viewers to “Feast on Facts“?
Because the film neglects to mention some facts that are important for understanding the issues presented in the film, facts that are also important for getting beyond the currently polarized state of the GMO debate.
One revealing example of this cherry-picking is the film’s handling of an article published in The New York Times titled “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” Well over half of this article is devoted to emails linking three academic scientists–Kevin Folta, “chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida,” Bruce M. Chassy, “professor emeritus at the University of Illinois,” and David R. Shaw, “vice president for research and economic development at Mississippi State University”–to Monsanto “and its industry partners.” Less than 20% of the article (by my estimate) is focused on Charles M. Benbrook, “who until recently held a post at Washington State University,” and his ties to the organic foods industry.
But only Benbrook is mentioned in Food Evolution. Viewers of the movie don’t hear anything about Folta, Chassy or Shaw.
In order to have meaningful engagement that will increase understanding of the issues involved in and affected by genetic engineering, and contribute to more informed development of future public policies on regulating the products of this powerful technology, we need all the facts. Not just the ones that zealous GMO proponents cherry-pick to tell us about.
Feasting on propaganda will only further polarize the GMO debate.
I was invited to participate in a panel discussion of the film at the University of San Francisco earlier this month. What follows is a copy of the remarks I made.
Good evening everyone.
As a molecular geneticist and a former genetic engineer, I am so very disappointed in this film…
because I believe that scientists using a new technology, especially one that contributes to our food supply, have a responsibility to be abjectly honest when explaining to the public what we know about how the technology works, how it differs from “traditional” methods, and any possible risks that might be associated with it.
And a film like this one, claiming to be science-based, with iconic public scientists like Neil degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye participating in the project, should bear that same responsibility.
Participants in a recent workshop called “Scientific Uncertainty and Professional Ethics,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), came to a similar conclusion. They came to the conclusion that scientists should aim to “provide all the information needed to help others judge the value of their work, rather than to steer that judgment in a particular direction.”
This film fails on both counts. It doesn’t provide all the information needed to help others judge GMOs and it steers judgement in a particular direction.
The reason scientists need to be abjectly honest when explaining genetic engineering to the public is because… only by considering all the pertinent, available information—the whole truth about crop genetic engineering as we know it—can society at large make good, informed decisions about how to use and control this powerful technology.
Instead, this film leaves out important information that is crucial to an informed public debate about GMOs.
Back in the early ‘90s when I was working for a small start-up ag biotech company called Calgene, I thought we did a pretty good job of being transparent and abjectly honest, with the public and with the FDA and other regulatory agencies, about what we knew about how genetic engineering worked, how it differed from traditional breeding, and its possible risks.
We knew adding foreign genes to plants could cause mutations in the recipient plant, for example, and that sometimes the inserted DNA sequence had been changed from the DNA sequence we had intended to insert. We therefore suggested to FDA ways that we would identify and minimize such unintended effects. And frankly, I was surprised when, in May of 1992, before its scientists had thoroughly examined all the data we had sent them, FDA decided that, with only a couple of exceptions, regulation of GE food and feed crops would not be required by that agency; it put a voluntary consultation process in place instead. It remains a voluntary system to this day. [See my previous blog post for more information on the timing of FDA’s GMO policy in relation to its review of Calgene’s safety data.]
Calgene was also transparent in that it voluntarily labelled its GE tomatoes when they were first sold in grocery stores. And the public’s response to Calgene’s transparency was mostly positive. Our GE tomatoes flew off the shelves.
So I think the agricultural biotech industry got off to a pretty transparent and honest start.
But other companies have not been as transparent as Calgene was. And I believe that the lack of transparency, and the lack of abject honesty about the imperfections inherent in the technology of genetic engineering, has played a big role in the polarization of this issue over the last two decades.
Transparency gets paid a little lip service in this film, but Food Evolution still fails pretty spectacularly at being abjectly honest about genetic engineering.
For example, it leaves out important information pertaining to the safety of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. It neglects to mention the fact that the arm of the World Health Organization that classifies compounds as carcinogenic—or not—the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), has classified glyphosate as an animal carcinogen and a probable human carcinogen. [Since the release of Food Evolution, Monsanto sued California for using IARC’s classification to require warnings of glyphosate exposure; Monsanto lost that law suit and, on April 19, 2018, Monsanto lost its appeal of that decision as well.]
This is important information that must be taken into account in any objective discussion about the safety of glyphosate, especially since glyphosate—due to the many millions of acres of GMOs engineered to be tolerant of it that are grown and sprayed with it throughout the world—is now the most widely used herbicide on the planet.
There is no excuse for this intentional omission, and it calls into question not only the film’s honesty but its objectivity as well.
I was also disappointed with the way the film handled coverage of the safety study by Séralini and co-workers in which rats were fed either glyphosate or the GE corn called NK603 over the course of their lifetimes.
First, let me provide you with a little more information that you will need to judge the value of this study. As I’ve mentioned, unintended, off-target changes can occur in crop plants as a result of the genetic engineering process. Well, it is to check for possible negative consequences of unintended changes that GE crops/foods are fed to animals in studies like Séralini’s. We carried out similar (although not as long term) studies with our tomatoes at Calgene, and scientists at Monsanto and elsewhere also have done the same with their GE products.
Séralini’s study was peer-reviewed and originally published in the respected international journal Food and Chemical Toxicology; it was in print for more than a year when it—very unusually—underwent a thorough review by the journal’s editor-in-chief, who reviewed not only the submitted manuscript and all the reviewers’ comments, but also the raw scientific data from Séralini’s lab. As a result of his review, he [and I quote] “unequivocally…found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data” and deemed Séralini’s results “not incorrect” but “inconclusive.”
And yet, despite the fact that many peer-reviewed scientific papers present results that are not conclusive, and the fact that inconclusiveness is not a benchmark for retraction of a scientific paper, he retracted the paper anyway. The whole episode was highly unusual for a scientific community.
I say that Séralini’s original study should never have been retracted. And Professor Fred Gould, who was the chairman of the committee that put together the most recent National Academy of Sciences report on GMOs, told me [during the “on the record” Scientific Uncertainty and Professional Ethics panel discussion of GMOs and scientific uncertainty that I mentioned above] that he agreed that the paper should never have been retracted.
In the aftermath of this highly unusual Séralini retraction, I have read, in an article in Nature and elsewhere, that the inconclusiveness of the study stems from the number of control rats used, which has been deemed inadequate for attaining statistically significant conclusions. The statistician quoted in the Nature article said that, and I quote, “The study needs replicating by a truly independent laboratory using appropriate sample sizes.”
This suggested course of action is the more normal scientific response to a controversial paper…i.e., repeat the study and see if you get the same results the second time around.
Since Séralini’s results have been deemed inconclusive, we don’t fully understand what may, or may not, be unintendedly going on in rats that consume GE NK603 corn or glyphosate over the course of their lifetimes. And especially in this case, when the original study suggested—albeit inconclusively—that consuming glyphosate or GE NK603 might cause ill effects in rats, the study should definitely be repeated, and with more control rats. And frankly, I am surprised that the FDA has not required Monsanto to do so. [See this blog post for information on the unintended molecular discrepancies in NK603.]
The Séralini controversy illustrates why each GMO should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, the way GMOs are currently “regulated” in the United States, some GMOs can slip through loopholes without pre-market regulation.
The Séralini controversy also illustrates why, as the World Health Organization has stated, and I quote: “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” That is because they should be assessed on a case-by-case basis to look for any that may prove problematic.
There have been several examples of problematic GMOs, a couple of which have been commercialized. And then there is NK603 [which is still on the market and] for which the jury is still out in my opinion.
I don’t believe that we should throw the genetic engineering baby out with the bath water. But we need to keep in mind that technologies can be used in many different ways: carefully or carelessly, in service to the less fortunate or for profit, or even—as Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said—for good or for evil.
GMO foods have been on the market now for nearly 25 years. It is long past time to have an abjectly honest and truly informed public debate about how to use and control the powerful technology crop genetic engineering.
Unfortunately, this film, with its cherry-picked information, will not help us do that.
Thank you for your attention.
[I received a $300 honorarium for participating in this University of San Francisco event.]