Why are we still debating GMOs?

A new film has reignited the controversy over what we eat.

Why are we still debating GMOs?

A new film has reignited the controversy over what we eat.

When I saw the new documentary Food Evolution at the D.C. Environmental Film Festival in March, I was surprised to see Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, two giants of food advocacy, take a clear stance in favor of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, since the two have previously been critical of these controversial foods. The film, which purports to explore “the good, the bad and the ugly of genetic engineering,” is unusual in that it’s unabashedly pro-GMO, using science to debunk the myth that GMOs are harmful and portraying the activists who oppose them as the food-world equivalent of flat-earthers.

But now the food world is fighting back. Pollan, the bestselling author of In Defense of Food and a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Nestle, the bestselling author of What to Eat and a professor of nutrition and food studies at NYU, are now distancing themselves from the film, saying it’s GMO propaganda. What happened?

First, a bit about the dreaded GMOs. The foods we lump together as “GMOs” don’t have much in common besides being enhanced by scientists using the same technique. These many different crops include high-yield corn and soy, disease-resistant papaya, and non-browning apples. Certain modified foods are designed to withstand herbicides and viruses, others to provide more nutrition. Seems innocent enough, but genetic modification does not come without the specter of danger. A “right-to-know” movement, focused on labeling foods that do or do not contain GMOs, has blossomed, supported by a diverse group of powerful people including Gwyneth Paltrow, Barack Obama, who signed a bill mandating that all GMO foods be labeled last year, and Hillary Clinton, whose campaign had ties to a major backer of GMO-labeling laws.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with consumers having more information about what they eat. But there’s also no proof that GMOs are dangerous to consumers. In the U.S., new GMOs are reviewed by regulators at the Food and Drug Administration, and in some cases, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency as well. The FDA has declared them safe, as has major study after major study. Which is great news, because they’re present in nearly 80 percent of all food. Despite this, a 2015 Pew study found that 57 percent of the general public think GMOs are unsafe.

The foods we lump together as “GMOs” don’t have much in common besides being enhanced by scientists using the same technique.

The filmmakers behind Food Evolution set out to change this. And from watching the film, which is narrated by the beloved public scientist Neil Degrasse Tyson, you wouldn’t suspect that Pollan or Nestle had any doubts about GMO foods. “I have always been careful not to say ‘This is dangerous food,’ and I don’t believe the fear-mongering has helped,” Pollan says. Nestle is more straightforward. “I don’t think genetically modified organisms are dangerous to consume,” she says. “We don’t have any evidence that the products on the market have caused particular harm.”

So it was strange when Pollan and Nestle decided to distance themselves from the film just prior to its theatrical premiere on June 23. In a June 21 post on her blog, Nestle called the film “GMO industry propaganda.” She even put forth a strange conspiracy theory. “I can’t help but think Monsanto or the Biotechnology Innovation Organization must have given IFT [the Institute of Food Technologists] a grant for this purpose, but IFT takes complete responsibility for commissioning the film (if you have any information about this, please let me know),” she wrote. (The filmmakers have said repeatedly that the movie was commissioned by the Institute of Food Technologists, a nonprofit organization, and that they retained full creative control.)

Pollan, for his part, signed a letter with a group of fellow academics (including Nestle) on June 16 to protest UC Berkeley’s screening of the film (let’s pause here to note: they are protesting the mere fact that this film was even shown). Those who signed the letter attested that the movie was nothing more than an advertisement for GMOs, and said it “marginalizes the lived experiences of farmers and eaters.”

So why would Pollan or Nestle agree to take part in the film in the first place? Pollan did not respond to a request for comment, but Nestle told The Outline that her comments in the film were taken “out of context” because its narrow focus on the safety of GMOs obscures other criticisms of them, like herbicide resistance, pesticide safety, and the power of the corporations that produce them. In response, filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy told The Outline that “that’s not the definition of ‘out of context.’”

Nestle is, perhaps, making a fair criticism of the film, but one that is not unique to GMOs. What is clear from this debacle is that the GMO debate continues to be hopelessly and confoundingly polarized, provoking heated emotions about a universally sensitive topic: what, and how, we eat. Pollan and Nestle, it seems, don’t want to be seen on the wrong side of the fight, siding with the big businesses that are so reviled by some food advocates.

Still, this is a turning point in the GMO debate. Neither Pollan nor Nestle dispute the primary scientific claim of the film, the well-documented scientific consensus that GMO foods are safe, which is supported not only by the FDA, but the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The GMO debate continues to be hopelessly and confoundingly polarized.

And yet, that evidence has never been enough to deter the anti-GMO activists who insist that GMOs are dangerous. These activists claim, with absolutely no evidence, that GMOs cause food allergies, obesity, cancer, and autism. One of the most outspoken anti-GMO activists, Zen Honeycutt, has a brief appearance in Food Evolution, saying that parents can cure their children’s medical conditions by switching to a non-GMO diet (she has since called the film anti-mom).

Thanks to these widespread myths, an entire industry has been built on the scientifically meaningless GMO-free label. GMO-free foods, as well as the “Non-GMO Project Verified” butterfly seal of sanctity that you see on nearly every product in Whole Foods, have proliferated because people have been led to believe that a GMO-free diet is safer and more nutritious. As the movie illustrates, fear-mongering about GMO foods has had an impact in other countries as well, as countries like Russia and Venezuela have banned GMOs entirely. So even though Pollan and Nestle don’t want to be seen as pro-GMO, they aren’t refuting their proven safety.

But the nut of their criticism — that the film doesn’t sufficiently explore issues with GMOs beyond safety — also serves to highlight a crucial takeaway from the larger debate: it doesn’t make sense to judge GMOs as a monolithic entity. GMOs are not an ingredient, and demonizing them threatens the technology needed to save some of these crops, and the people who grow them. GMO food should instead be judged on an individual basis. “Roundup Ready” soy, a glyphosate-resistant variety of soybean produced by Monsanto, isn’t the same thing as disease-resistant papaya, which saved and revived Hawaii’s multimillion-dollar papaya industry.

Our agricultural system is far from perfect, and things like pesticides and herbicide-resistant weeds are a real issue. Our food system should absolutely be questioned at every opportunity. But what Food Evolution and the resulting debate shows is that whether something is GMO doesn’t tell you anything about its health risk, environmental impact, or the responsibility of the corporation that may or may not be behind it. Pollan and Nestle’s criticism of the film raises valid food system issues, but dismissing it as industry propaganda is just another way to get hung up on those three terrifying letters.

Jenny Splitter is a food, science, and health writer in Washington, D.C.