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“Food Evolution” movie is shifting perceptions on GMOs

By Joan Conrow

Plant breeding doesn’t generally inspire filmmakers. But genetic engineering — the process that creates “GMO” crops — has already sparked a couple of dozen documentaries, typically with alarmist titles and questionable content. They’re often well-made, and frequently well-promoted, especially when they’re backed by a professional surfer, or a famous movie star.

Hawaii, my home of three decades, has been the source of numerous such productions, due to its cultivation of both a virus-resistant transgenic papaya and hybrid GE parent seeds for corn and other crops. In recent years, watching a steady stream of videographers churn out anti-GMO films that gave a false image of the situation in the Islands. I despaired that a more truthful side of a controversy I had witnessed first hand would ever be told. In response, Alliance for Science videographer Bob Hazen and I produced a 30-minute documentary —“Hawaii GMO Papaya: Real Solutions, Real Lives” — about the virus-resistant papaya. It gives voice to family farmers trying to make a living while caught in the raging debate over GE crops.

Still, it was just one piece of a bigger story.

“Food Evolution,” which makes its theatrical debut in New York on Friday, fills in the gaps. Moving from Hawaii to Iowa to Uganda, and many points in between, this engaging and informative full-length documentary humanizes agricultural biotechnology and the conflict that swirls around it. In the process, it gently challenges us to question our attitudes about food, and explore the global implications of our beliefs about agricultural practices.

Notably, it manages to present both the pro and anti points of view, though — spoiler alert — by the end it’s apparent that producer Trace Sheehan and director Scott Hamilton Kennedy clearly see agricultural benefits in genetic engineering. 

Equally notable, “Food Evolution” is fact-based, with the science presented by actual scientists, including sci-celeb Neil deGrasse Tyson, who narrates. It’s also fun, with the science — and myth-busting — delivered in an engaging, entertaining way. (You can watch a trailer here.)

My favorite scene was a Manhattan debate between pro and anti forces. Though a majority of the audience came in with negative views about genetic engineering, by the end they had reversed them — simply because they’d had a chance to consider and evaluate data presented by two opposing sides.

That’s really the gist here. It’s not about trying to convince people to accept GMOs. It’s about giving them accurate, credible information, so they can make good decisions on their own.

“Food Evolution” does that, and more, providing valuable context for how this social-scientific conflict is playing out in real people’s lives, be they a food activist rallying others in a demonstration or a scientist seeking to stop a plant disease from destroying her country’s staple crop.

The stakes are high in the GMO debate, and for too long, filmmakers have heavily weighted one side. “Food Evolution,” with its balance, depth and credibility, serves to correct the scales.

If you’re in New York, check out the Friday night opening at the Village East Cinema, where Tyson, Kennedy, Sheehan and Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam, a University of California-Davis livestock geneticist who is featured in the film, will conduct a Q&A session after the 7 p.m. screening. Kennedy and Van Eenennaam will be back to host a Q&A following the 4:30 p.m. show on Saturday. The film will remain at that venue for a week, with five shows daily. Tickets are available here.

Additional screenings are planned through the summer at numerous US locales. Or schedule your own. 

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