By Sarah Sheppard
I recently had the chance to attend a screening of a new movie about food production, breeding methods and technology at my alma matter, the University of Guelph. It was followed by a panel of a group of scientists and activists who I think I are really cool.
The Food Evolution movie tells the story of how genetically engineered crops are perceived by scientists, activists and the public and the friction between the groups to figure out how to provide enough food for a growing world population. Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, it compares the debate of genetically engineered crop use in Hawaii with the debate in Africa (Kenya and Uganda specifically).
Since I have not yet talked about genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), here is a quick crash course.
Genetically engineered (GE) organisms, also often referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are things that have had a gene from either a different species or a synthetically produced gene added to their DNA to allow the organism to have a trait it would not be able to get through traditional breeding methods or to have a trait appear faster than it would be able to through selective breeding.
This means that organisms can be improved to have more disease resistance, to have more nutrients that humans need in their diets, to have resistance to herbicides that can kill weeds, to maintain genetic diversity, to improve the hardiness of crops in the face of climate change, to improve animal welfare, and to more effectively produce livestock for human consumption.
Some genetically engineered products are already available – corn, soybeans, and cotton all have genetically engineered varieties that are widely used, as well as sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, canola, and potatoes. There are also apples, salmon and eggplant (brinjal) that are starting to come to the market now.
Some consumers and activists are ardently opposed to the use and sale of genetically engineered products for a variety of reasons, including playing God, concerns about effects on the environment, food safety and human health concerns. However, there is no scientific evidence of these concerns being actual problems across thousands of scientific studies and there is a consensus among scientists that GE products are safe. The problems lie in the fact that the people opposed to GE crops are often so passionately opposed to them that they are able to sway politicians into banning these crop and animal varieties and that keeps these products out of the hands of the people who would benefit most from them.
Two resources that I like to point people to when they have more questions about GE technology are the Genetic Literacy Project and GMO Answers. For those of you wondering why I keep using the term GE instead of GMO, Dr. Kevin Folta recently wrote a piece about how use of language matters in the technology debate, although it is generally accepted that the two are interchangeable (you may remember Kevin from my first post as someone who helped me get this blog off the ground).
Food Evolution explains the fear associated with GE products but then goes through the scientific process and allows the research to be explained by renowned scientists. It features skeptics, farmers, politicians and researchers from both America and Africa. It particularly focuses on the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii and bacterial wilt-resistant bananas for Africa, two crops that are able to resist diseases which are crippling to them when the diseases occur. These crops are another tool farmers can use to help produce a viable crop for consumers and they bring in enough money when sold to allow the farmers producing them to make a living.
The movie screening was followed by a panel with Dr. Kevin Folta, Dr. Allison van Eenannaam, Mark Lynas, Adam Kighoma Malima, Robert Wager and Dr. CS Prakash. Prior to the movie screening, the audience was polled to see where they stood on genetically engineered products. 90% of the audience was in favour of the use of GE crops and the rest were opposed or unsure. Personally, I found it interesting how the first 90 minutes of the panel was made up of questions from people who were very opposed to GE technology, even though the made up the minority of the audience. Some had thoughtful, valid concerns, about things like how a neighbour growing GE crops would affect their organic crops, while others had questions that seemed intent on out-foxing the panel and trying to force them into saying something they didn’t mean (the panel handled it much more gracefully than I would have…). By the end of the night though, the tone of the questions changed, and the pro-GE part of the audience started asking more questions, wanting to know how we in the audience could support science, science communication, and bringing the technology into the hands of the people who need it.
I took a lot of notes over the course of the movie and the panel, and true to form, I cannot read a damn word I wrote. As such, some of the more refined points I wanted to bring up are squiggles that I can’t unravel. The title of this piece is a quote I can read though, and I thought it was powerful because everyone who holds an opinion on GE crops (or any other debatable subject) often feels very strongly about the matter. Be it science, politics, religion, it is often hard to change your mind and even harder to admit that you have. That seems to be part of the problem with people in the GE debate, and that is part of what makes panel-speaker Mark Lynas so credible in the GE debate because he was so opposed to the technology for so long.
The other quote that stuck with me (and that I can read!), was one from Dr. Allison van Eenannaam in the panel, where she asked:
“How do we make people evaluate the risks based on what is more likely to be bad? The risks people worry about are the ones they don’t have control over, like the way people are more afraid of flying than they are of driving, even though driving is more dangerous.”
I find this poignant because at this point in time there are quite literally thousands of studies saying that GE crops are safe (including this meta-analysis of 1783 studies from a 10 year period), but because so many people are so far removed from the food system and are really trusting the people growing, processing, auditing and regulating their food to keep it safe, the general public can be wary of GE foods.
I think movies like this help. I think hearing from a panel of experts like I did helps. I think people who support the technology sharing information about it with people who don’t know or are indifferent helps.
Unfortunately, the screening last week was the only Canadian one scheduled so far and no US, Canadian or European broadcasters have picked up the movie to air it. I’m hoping that Netflix will pick it up because then it will likely be accidentally stumbled upon by a person who would not necessarily watch the movie if it was shown on a TV station.
If you get the chance, please go see this movie, it is so worth it.
***This piece originally appeared on Sarah’s personal blog site City Mouse in AG