Food Evolution: The FAFDL Interview

Food Evolution - The FAFDL Interview
Food Evolution: The FAFDL Interview

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[ 5000 words – 20-25 minutes]

The FAFDL Food Evolution Interview

The film Food Evolution is the first documentary that has put science at the center of the GMO debate. It has stirred up controversy in some quarters while bringing welcome balance and reason to what has been a lopsided and unreasonable debate in others.

Alison Van Eenennaam in Food EvolutionThe film is narrated by science communicator extraordinaire, Neil deGrasse Tyson and weaves together three different stories with interviews of relevant experts and participants to help the average citizen separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the safety and value of biotech crop breeding. It begins with the political battle in Hawaii over a GMO ban on the island, a fight in which evidence and reason were over run by pseudoscience and fear mongering. The story then turns to Uganda where bacterial wilt is devastating the harvests of subsistence banana farmers despite the fact that there is a wilt resistant banana tree on the shelves and ready to go, held up by a government bureaucracy stifled by the fear mongering of Western “environmentalists”.

It finally follows UC Davis researcher Alison Van Eenannaam through to her participation in the 2014 Intelligence Squared GMO debate in New York City, where the motion in favor of geneticially engineered foods swayed the votes of the most audience members.

Mark Lynas in Food EvolutionThe film features two members of the FAFDL community, Alison Van Eenennaam, a genomics and biotechnology researcher at UC Davis, and environmentalist Mark Lynas whose 180 on biotech crops at the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013 turned heads around the world. A number of other FAFDL community members play a part in the documentary – Missouri farmer Blake Hurst, plant scientist and science communicator Karl Haro von Mogel, science writer Kavin Senapathy, David Sutherland of March Against Myths and Vegan GMO, Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, and Nathanael Johnson of Grist all make appearances.

Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and producer Trace Sheehan

So it seemed fitting to reach out to the film makers – writer/producer Trace Sheehan and writer/director Scott Hamilton Kennedy for a Q&A with the community, and it turned out that they were both members of the group and had been lurking around for quite some time.

This conversation took place yesterday and has been edited for flow and grammar. The questions come from different members of the FAFDL community, but individuals are only identified here in a few instances when discussion broke out among different members. The full conversation can be found here.

“Yes, but what about … “

FAFDL: Guys, I liked the film a lot, but as I was watching, I couldn’t help but want to see more answers to the predictable “Yes, but what about … ” questions.

There was a decent section with Blake Hurst on the decrease in insecticide use and the decreased toxicity of herbicide use, but it glossed pretty heavily over things like resistant weeds, “patenting life”, farmers getting sued, and glyphosate safety.

I changed my opinion about my reservations after dwelling on it a bit, but I’d like to hear you guys address those issues.

Trace Sheehan: My main response to a lot of these issues (as it relates particularly to Marion Nestle’s and Michael Pollan’s concerns– monocultures, patents, or even issues of corporate control) is that they are not unique to GMOs. What I mean by that is, take away GMO and we still have all these issues.

And further, remove one specific GMO – RoundUp Ready – and none of these issues really apply. Especially when considering humanitarian-focused, next-gen GMOs with traits like disease-resistance, vitamin-fortification and drought-tolerance. (as the film tried to show)

That is not to say that these issues aren’t still extremely important in the context of our entire food and ag system.

It’s just that when diving into the GMO debate from a civilian’s perspective, with no dog in the fight, it’s the safety concerns that come up first and loudest, whether from a simple google search or as the arguments made for banning this technology, whether in Hawaii or across Africa.

And thus, we felt that these safety issues, particularly the scientific consensus around this particular seed breeding technology was unequivocally the first thing that needed to be addressed to gain a better understanding of what’s happening in this debate from the point of view of peer-reviewed, independently-repeatable science. The first question on the mind of any newcomer to the debate is: Are there any human health or environmental safety concerns as a result of using or consuming GMOs? (i.e. should we or shouldn’t we use this tool?) And further, from my perspective, the film is not so much pro-GMO (whatever that actually means, emphasizing it’s a process, not a single, monolithic product) as it is anti-anti-GMO. (And pro-sound-science and pro-sound-decision-making).

For the record, there were lines in the film about weed resistance, patents and glyphosate safety… But at a certain point, you just have to say GMO is not Monsanto (i.e. it is a technology not owned by any one company) and move on. And that I feel is the biggest issue with the debate is that one particular GM crop (which prompts all the questions) is keeping all these other solutions stuck on the shelf.

Getting to a better understanding on safety issues (and confirmation bias) took up a lot of real estate, and while no film is perfect (perhaps we could have snipped a little from here and there), we just didn’t feel there was enough room in the final edit to include every tangential issue (no matter how valid overall in the greater food/ag system) without breaking the film itself. In that respect, I’m a little jealous of someone like Nathanael Johnson, who can do a 26 part series on GMOs until ‘running out of things to worry about,’ where if we had tried to do that in a documentary, it would have either been 13 hours long and/or become too dense to be enjoyable / accessible to watch.

FAFDL: I was wondering if you knew a lot about GMOs before making the film? Were you surprised by something you learned along the making of it?

Trace Sheehan: Personally speaking, not really. I had heard of it but really was a ‘civilian’ in terms of food and ag science. I think what surprised me the most was the depth of discord between those loudest in this debate. (Ask Keith Kloor how he feels about the debate itself; or Dan Kahan for some crazy cognitive bias discussions, i.e. the science of science communication)

That said, having screened the film around the country many times, I do think there’s a silent majority in the middle who are open to the nuance, and if given the information (peer-reviewed, independently repeatable science) can rationally and reasonably weigh out the pros and cons of each application on a case by case basis and make the best decisions. Or at least have a little more trust in independent public sector scientists who have dedicated their lives to this.

FAFDL (Russ Parsons): This is my experience. When I talk to hard-core farmers market “foodie” type groups, they are (at best) cool to any pro-GMO arguments, or even questioning sanctity of organic farming. However, when I talk to the more general public, there is almost a sense of relief from them that somebody is addressing these things and telling them that – No, you are not being poisoned.

What’s the deal with Neil deGrasse Tyson?

FAFDL: I’ve previously run into the criticism that Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t a biologist and therefore doesn’t have any special authority on biotechnology. This is true, but irrelevant as long as his arguments are correct on the topic. I can certainly understand the need to have a recognizable and well-liked voice narrating. Did you have to deal with any of these criticisms of NdTs role?

We’re in a larger crisis of social trust, and I think Neil deGrasse Tyson lost some trust among certain friends I have who oppose GMOs. You could almost use this issue as a magnifying glass.…

Trace Sheehan:Neil deGrasse Tyson chose to participate because as a science communicator he saw that our film is in accordance with the scientific consensus, that this process is as safe as any other breeding technique, with this consensus coming from every major scientific institution in the world, the same ones who we cite when talking about vaccines, climate change, the dangers of tobacco, etc. And he felt it important to communicate this science. That said, he is very aware that it is not his place to be at the front of this debate. He is a conduit for sound science and fact-based information. But geneticists should be leading the charge, answering these questions globally.

What have you learned about public attitudes towards biotech?

FAFDL: After this documentary, where do you think that the “GMO” debate will go? Do you think that the majority of the population will embrace it? Or do you think it will continue to be a contentious topic?

Trace Sheehan: Well, that’s the 64k question… There’s a great Jack Bobo quote, ‘People love innovation almost as much as they fear change.’ And I do think there’s a lot of truth to that, but at some point, the benefits of (and need for) specific GMOs will be too great to ignore. Then people will come around on the technology. (Hopefully by that point, GMO 1.0, i.e. RoundUp, debates will have become moot, replaced by more ecologically-based weed control solutions).

Just as a post – 4th of July aside, I listened to Walter Isaacson’s podcast TRAILBLAZERS yesterday about the music industry and John Philip Souza testified before Congress on many occasions advocating for the ban of recorded music… Food for thought.

FAFDL: Why do you think we have had such a virulent reaction against GMOs while techniques like mutation breeding don’t seem to cause the same reaction on people?

Trace Sheehan: Good question. Maybe because that technique got ‘grandfathered’ in by virtue of taking place before people took such an interest (albeit, often misinformed interest) in our food system. But couldn’t agree more the irony of having so many foods, which can even be certified organic, created by those less precise (but also still safe) breeding techniques. Short answer, folks just don’t know.

FAFDL: I’d be interested to know a bit more about your relations with the Institute of Food Technologists. They are not in the agriculture business yet they funded a film on GMOs. How did that happen?

Trace Sheehan: We had partnered up after working on a previous documentary together and were pitching various projects when the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) contacted us looking for filmmakers to help them bring to life a documentary that would inform a fact-based public dialogue about our food system.

And before our first call, not having heard of this group before, we have to admit that we were inherently skeptical that they were looking for nothing more than advice from a “Hollywood lefty” who was nominated for an Oscar® for a documentary about a community garden in Compton to help them along their way.

So, we did our due diligence and what we found was that IFT is a non-profit, scientific society that publishes peer-reviewed scientific journals and consists of over 17,000 food scientists around the world, spanning across academia, the public sector and the private sector. Despite not having found any “smoking guns” online or in conversations with experts in food and agriculture, it was the last group, the private sector, that still presented concerns as we set the initial call. But during that first conversation, we learned three important things that would ultimately make it possible for us to make this movie with funding from IFT.

First, as scientists they understood the importance of an independent investigation into a topic as polarizing as the science behind how we grow and produce food, and as such, when we insisted on complete creative control and final cut before we could participate in the project, they willingly granted that control to us.

Second, IFT is not a trade association, they do not represent industry and amongst their members who work in the private sector, many work for the natural and organic food industry as well and not just for what many have come to call “Big Food” or “Big Ag.” They represent science, scientists and the body of scientific knowledge that continues to evolve, as science does. As with nearly all scientific societies, they charge companies that wish to advertise, sponsor or exhibit in their publications or annual food exhibition to help finance their operations as a non-profit. But, most importantly, neither the motivation nor the funding for this film would come from any grants or from any particular company or industry group, but solely from the scientific society itself on behalf of its diverse membership.

And third, as food scientists who were tired of seeing their work denigrated and diminished by less detail-oriented, if often well-intentioned, media and activists that focused on fear-mongering over facts, their overarching goal for this project was to promote a more science-based conversation about food, and not to advance any particular agenda.

From that moment on, we felt total freedom to research ideas for a film on a subject that we, as foodies and filmmakers, were already intrigued by.

In the beginning, we thought it would be interesting to look at the challenges of feeding a growing population sustainably — from different points of view all along the supply chain — and what role science and technology play in getting food to the table, particularly as it relates to controversial topics like nanotech, irradiation and GMOs, amongst others. And IFT agreed — they heard several pitches and ultimately selected us to take a sweeping look at the food system from soup to nuts, or in this case, from seed to table.

But as we started filming, we quickly realized that, on the one hand, the question of feeding the growing world sustainably is incredibly important and merits a full exploration… But on the other hand, it was clearly much too dense a topic for one feature length documentary and also came with the baggage of being perceived as an “industry frame,” the oversimplified version of which is — “We need more food, thus we need more production, and that’s good for business.” In any case, while filming, we had become more and more intrigued by the ever-present and ever-polarizing debate around GMOs. And it was at this point that we pivoted the story to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of genetic engineering.

IFT was somewhat concerned about this change, because they, as food scientists, did not see genetic engineering, technically considered an agricultural science, as an issue relevant to their members. Essentially, they didn’t want to get involved because they didn’t see it as their fight — “Leave that to the ag scientists.” They were also concerned that the GMO debate was so controversial that it just about burned all who touched it and could become a distraction from the larger conversation they wanted to have about the role of science and technology in food. But, we, as storytellers, showed them, in the words of writer Nathanael Johnson of Grist that “The GMO debate is not about GMOs at all at this point.” GMOs had become a metaphor for almost every issue we have with food and our food system and we wanted to explore if that metaphor had any merit or scientific truth to it. And perhaps, by better understanding the GMO debate, we would be able to make more informed decisions about science and technology in general. No matter the topic.

And that was the film we made — a fully independent investigation into the topic of GMOs every step of the way, interviewing experts on both sides of the aisle and including all points of view. Some say our film is “pro-GMO” but we would counter we are simply “pro-Science” because currently every major scientific institution and all the data and peer-reviewed science tells us, as a process, it is as safe, if not safer, than any other seed breeding technique available. And though there are still important issues with our food and food systems that can and should be better addressed now and in the future, GMOs (shorthand for the process of genetic engineering) are a process that can help make our food system more secure and sustainable in the face of major challenges like climate change, disease (both in terms of plant and human health), and malnutrition, amongst others.

[Please consider supporting Food and Farm Discussion Lab with an  ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon. All contributors receive a subscription to our email newsletter the FAFDL Dispatch. ]

Marion Nestle on GMOs in Food Evolution

The Nestle / Pollan Controversy

FAFDL: Some of the people in the film indicated that they were taken out of context, such as Marion Nestle. What is your take on this. Sour grapes? From what I gather in Nestle’s case it would appear that what she said was pertinent in the context of safety.

Trace Sheehan: Absolutely in context regarding Nestle and anyone else. We were talking about safety and she said/knows the process is safe. Same goes for Pollan. Which is not a comment one way or the other on other concerns. As stated above in my first response, her issues go beyond anything specific to GMO and are rather issues that pertain to farming in general. Important, but ultimately too much for one movie to handle.

Subsequently, we’ve asked both Marion and Michael to help us find a forum to discuss these other issues, but they have declined to participate in anything and everything.

Lastly, I think there is a double standard / impossible bar for our film as it relates to 10 years of ‘Food Movement’ docs that don’t seem to be held accountable to any fact checking or to fully deal with the nuance of complicated issues. So frankly, there’s only so much that one movie can do to respond to the litany of whack-a-mole issues.

FAFDL (Marc Brazeau): Still, including the comment from Nestle seemed a bit gratuitous to me, knowing that to her the salient issues on biotech in ag isn’t the safety, but her opinions on how it relates to industrial ag. If you know who she is, her comment is obviously an out of context preface to her critique. And if you don’t know who she is, the same affirmation by an biotech advocate would have served just as well.

OTH, I think comments by Michael Pollan were more fair game, in that people know who he is and his comments on the fear mongering really contribute something important, even if he didn’t get to say anything about corn or superweeds.

Scott Hamilton Kennedy: As Trace sort mentioned a bit earlier, the conversation has been out of balance for too long and probably the top of that imbalance is misunderstandings around fear and safety. And hearing from big names like Pollan and Marion that safety isn’t the concern can move the conversation toward what are the concerns. We would be honored if the film continued to reset the conversation. Everything is available to be talked about. But please do it with respect and data.

I’ve written this to Marion and Michael as politely as my sometimes-spicey-Irish self can muster: We are available to talk about anything, what we are not available to is questioning our integrity or calling the film propaganda. That is an insult to the hard work that all of us have been doing for years.

FAFDL:On the topic of funding…I saw a few tweets (not from you guys) suggesting several other food documentaries have received funding from organic associations or companies. Do you or anyone else know if that’s true and, if so, which ones?

 I’ve seen and heard that as well. Center for Food Safety and OCA are the orgs that I would be cautious of when looking at the credits… Andrew Kimbrell and Elizabeth Kucinich are the main two behind a lot of films. But have said it before and will say it again, show me the data. Just because something had funding does not ipso facto make it wrong. Follow the scientific method and evaluate the arguments on their own merits (or lack thereof).

FAFDL – Jenny Splitter: Interesting. I agree regarding the funding, but was just curious. I wasn’t aware that those organizations were also funding films, to be honest.

FAFDL- Janice Person: I think some may also fund through third parties… donate to something that is listed as a funder. Stonyfield seemed to have a large role in getting Food Inc. out there. I think Dr. Oz’s wife was a producer and she’s also on the board of some groups…. it is a tangled web.

Scott Hamilton Kennedy: And yet, while we do need to look closely at funding, perceived conflict of interest is not the issue. The issue is what Charles Benbrook failed at: Was he asked to promise results? Did he promise results? That’s a failure in science and journalism. We were never asked to nor did we promise results. We let the research and data lead us. I would’ve taken money from Whole Foods to make this movie if I had creative control like I had on this one.

FAFDL: Were you expecting or prepared for the backlash and accusations of being a propaganda piece?

Trace Sheehan: Sure. Take a look at most anyone who’s been through the GMO wringer. Basically, it’s impossible to say anything nuanced on the topic without being slapped with the shill card. That said, still think getting clarity on what this tech really is and how it can be used to solve problems, now and in the future, makes it worth it.

One note about the middle ground…


Shitty #SciComm cuts both ways… I think ‘pro’ folks who play the ‘anti-science’ card are in many ways the same as the other side playing the ‘shill’ card. Neither ‘argument’ (if we can even call it that) is particularly helpful. And certainly doesn’t add any civility or respect to the debate. And THAT IS WHAT WE NEED MORE OF.

FAFDL: What section of the film / topic covered has gotten the biggest reaction from the average person on the street? Which do you feel is the most important section or topic to get into the public discourse?

Francis Nanzin - Ugandan subsistence banana farmer - Food Evolution

Trace Sheehan: Personally I think the banana wilt story in Uganda is the most impactful. When you see subsistence farmers like Frances and see the need they have for a solution to this problem (where there are no other solutions available), then I think it’s hard for anyone, even the most skeptical, to say that these farmers shouldn’t even have the choice to grow this disease-resistant banana.

On the second question, I think the idea of ‘When was the last time you changed your mind?’ (no matter the subject) is the most important idea we’re all wrestling with these days… and extremely topical. Both Scott and I have been known to say, ‘Confirmation bias is a bitch.’

Tamar Haspel - "When is the last time you changed your mind?"

FAFDL – Janice Person: I was on a panel a few years ago where Tamar Haspel not only asked us that question but then asked the audience…. the amount of thought provoked was amazing.

FAFDL: I think you guys did a great job in weaving narrative thru-lines with the Uganda, Hawaii and Intelligence Squared stories. Were there other story lines you were exploring and were abandoned as those three came into focus? Of the cutting floor clips which one was the most painful to leave out?

Trace Sheehan: Thank you. I think the scene(s) that we really loved that just didn’t find a home was the exchange (and back stories) of John Nzira and Motlatsi Musi in South Africa. John is a very successful agroecology based farmer while Musi grows GM crops. At first, they were skeptical of one another, but after one lunch… well, see yourself …

[part one]

[part two]

And of course, would have loved to explored more of the ‘Grown Up Critique’ of GMOs as you call it, because I do respect the opinions of people like Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan, but it just felt like a different film at the end of the day. And to that end, we also had many more scenes with George Naylor (farmer featured in Omnivore’s Dilemma) and the Hurst Family farm, both of whom combine to give a first-hand look at what it means to be a farmer, and how they deal with these issues.

Scott Hamilton Kennedy: We can never make a film that deals with every aspect of food and agriculture or even every aspect of just the GMO conversation. We leaned heavily on resetting the safety concerns because that was the biggest piece that was out of balance. And the biggest piece that was ignoring valid science. Because, as we said many times, this film is in defense of using science to help us make decisions more than it is in defense of GMO’s. We might not be talking about GMO’s five years from now, but we will be talking about how we are or are not using science to make decisions.

Food Evolution film makers Trace Sheehan and Scott Kennedy Hamiltion in Uganda with farmers and scientists.
Food Evolution film makers Trace Sheehan and Scott Kennedy Hamilton in Uganda with farmers and scientists.

FAFDL – Brian Rustle: At IFT 2017, one of the biggest criticisms my anti-GMO co-workers had was:

“In the film people keep saying the science is relatively settled on the safety … but little time was spent actually referencing or explaining the science or how GE tech works. Rather, the film just asserted that it’s generally safe and the range of potential outcomes are well understood.”

Has this been an issue for other audiences?

Trace Sheehan: This actually has not come up much with other audiences, but I do understand it. And I think it gets at the fundamental ‘rub’ with #SciComm… In that, these things get very technical very quickly and in defining what GMO is so early in the film, we risked losing the audience from the get-go if the explanation gets too wonky. So where we focused our attention was: How do you know novel genes in the food are safe to eat? Explain what genetic engineering actually is, and how the process of moving genes between species has been used for more than 40 years in wines, in medicine, in plants, in cheeses.

In all that time, there hasn’t been a single case of harm to human health or the environment. And it’s not introducing anything novel that would cause it to be harmful. But then we say, look, we’re not asking you to believe us. Science is not a belief system. Our opinions don’t matter. Let’s look at the evidence. After 20 years of careful study and rigorous peer review by thousands of independent scientists, every major scientific organization in the world has concluded that the crops currently on the market are safe to eat and that the process of genetic engineering is no more risky than older methods of genetic modification. These are precisely the same organizations that most of us trust when it comes to other important scientific issues such as global climate change or the safety of vaccines.

FAFDL: Have you considered doing a part two?

Trace Sheehan: I’ve joked recently about Food Evolution 2: Nuance Strikes Back… And while I think there’s certainly more ground to cover in this debate… sequels are never as good as the original. (Godfather II as one of the lone exceptions)… Beyond GMO, we’ve definitely been interested in tackling vaccines as well… But honestly not sure if we could do it better than John Oliver just did.

I think a deeper dive would be great… But that would probably need the support of a Nat Geo / Science / Discovery / Netflix / etc to make it happen… Not to mention it’s taken us 3+ years to get part 1 done.

But maybe a ‘web extra’ that goes into more detail of the science behind the safety could be useful…

FAFDL: Maybe cute cartoons!? Like the gene-splicing cartoon from the Original Jurassic Park?
Anyhow, time to wrap it up. Final thoughts?

Trace Sheehan: I think restoring civility to this (and frankly any) debate should be the primary goal. We’re going to disagree. Food is personal, cultural, tribal, etc. But we need to be engaging in each other in good-faith conversations, hearing out each others’ concerns and arguments (bonus if supported by objective data and repeatable science). (FWIW I think your guidelines for this Food and Farm Discussion Lab should be posted everywhere people engage each other on any issue – real life and digital platforms..)

Similarly, we hope to keep the lines of communication open and help advance a respectful, fact-based dialogue on not just GMO issues but larger food and farming questions as well.

Because at the end of the day, there is only so much that one documentary can cover when it comes to a topic as multifaceted as the science behind GMOs and our food, let alone the politics, values, affiliations, identities, philosophies and everything else that goes into decision making. It is complex stuff and the best we can do is have an open mind and discuss the important nuances of each specific issue rationally and respectfully.

[Please consider supporting Food and Farm Discussion Lab with an  ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon. All contributors receive a subscription to our email newsletter the FAFDL Dispatch. ]


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