Science, if used correctly, has no political affiliation: director Scott Hamilton Kennedy on the new documentary ... - Salon
Show us your data and well show you ours. Thats the stance of Scott Hamilton Kennedy, the director of the new documentary Food Evolution, which takes the gasp! position that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the agriculture industry might well be the best thing to happen to the planet since solar panels. And hes not alone he enlisted two of the nations most beloved scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who narrates, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, who appears in the film. Incredibly, both affable, smart guys have come to the same conclusion as Kennedy that the science demonstrates that genetically engineered food isnt as damaging as popularly believed, and, in fact, can lead to downright sustainable farming practices.
Kennedy goes deep here with his answers to Salons questions, judiciously explaining what others might consider blasphemy. Still, pardon us for maintaining some journalistic skepticism, especially considering his film was financed by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a food science society the includes academics from the public and private sectors. Note that the president-elect, Cindy Stewart, hails from DuPont and before that, Pepsi. But Kennedy sure does sound reasonable and level-headed (which is reflected in the film) in the following answers. Also, check out the filmmakers statement regarding the IFT.
Keeping an open mind is a key to scientific inquiry, after all. The exclusive clip below (which actually didnt make it to the final cut of the film), in which anti-GMO scholar and activist Vandana Shiva equates writer Mark Lynas pro-GMO stance with being pro-rape, clearly indicates the issue has become way too muddied.
If we all agree that the planet is in a perilous state, its time to consider some radically evolved thinking. Food Evolution opened onJune 23.
How did you maintain objectivity?
Curiosity, skepticism, seemingly endless research, and data, data, data. We tried to never take someones word for something, check their data and check it again. And a great rule we learned from the wonderful science journalist Tamar Haspel: Talk to the smartest people on both sides of any argument.
Through the course of this film, one of the ways I came to determine the legitimacy of a person or organization, a shill metric if you like, was to look at their endgame. What were they really trying to achieve as a scientist, activist, farmer, politician, business person, etc.?
In creating the GMO Rainbow Papaya, scientist Dennis Gonsalves endgame was very clear: Can he find a safe and affordable way to save the papaya industry from a terrible virus, without losing any of the quality of their beloved papaya? And he succeeded by using GMO technology.
But often the inverse wasnt as clear; with many people and organizations who were opposed to GMOs including Dennis papaya I often struggle with what their endgame truly is. While they often say its about things like safety, sustainability and transparency, their actions and inability to accept information that goes counter to their ideologies seems to contradict those goals. Is their endgame about safety or to get an ideological victory no matter what the data says? Are they trying to have their kale and eat it too?
Though we as filmmakers are far from perfect at this, the goal is to always remain skeptical yet humble. Skepticism as a scientist, journalist or documentary filmmaker is pretty obvious: Dont take things at face value (also includes, beware of the Single Study Syndrome); triangulate your position based on the information out there; look for and be aware of your own financial or ideological dogs in the fight; but ultimately be led and anchored by those things that have been objectively proven to be true while recognizing that science is just a snapshot at any given time of the current body of scientific knowledge. Which leads into the second goal: Have some humility, because it is essential to being able to admit when you are wrong. Theres a really interesting graph we came across during our journey that essentially shows that the less expertise you have in a given subject, the more likely you are to be certain that your views are right, whereas the more expertise you have, the more comfortable you are with the notion you might be wrong. That really brought into focus the whole debate and critical thinking in general.
Whats the strongest argument for the positive development of GMO foods?
In figuring out the core communications of the film we came to a few must-have tenets: 1) GMO, or more correctly, GE (genetic engineering) is a process, not a product. It is a breeding method, similar to the ways farmers have been manipulating and improving plants for the last ten thousand years, but now it is done in a lab. 2) GMO is not owned by any one company or industry. So the strongest argument for using GMO technology is that it works. Then the question becomes: Is it the correct fix for the given situation, and that is another of our core tenets: 3) take all future GMOs on a case-by-case basis, just like any other technology. Is it safe, is it helping, is there a better way to solve the problem? And in many situations, like the papaya in Hawaii and the bananas in Uganda, no other method could stop the devastation of that crop except for GE.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson has said, Weve been doing this for 10thousand years but now that were doing it in a lab, now you have a problem with it? And while that might be oversimplifying the difference between genetic engineering and previous seed breeding techniques, it really does capture the spirit of and motivation behind what scientists are trying to do with this technology.
The problem is GMO has become such a catch-all for all the issues in our food system that not a lot people actually know what it is. And part of that is because a GMO, a genetically modified organism, is not only a really terrible name that instantly makes average consumers a bit suspicious, but it is scientifically meaningless because at its essence every living thing in our world has been genetically modified relative to their ancestors.
So what are we talking about? I think the term GMO needs to be better defined so average people can be better educated on this issue. OK, so here we go, a GMO is simply the product that results from the process of genetic engineering, which at its core is the latest, much more precise method of breeding better seeds, which is generally undertaken when 1) a specific problem needs to be addressed (climate change-resilience, disease-resistance, vitamin-fortified, etc.) and 2) there is not a conventional breeding alternative.
So with that in mind, the strongest argument for genetically modifying foods is that it provides scientists and farmers with a tool to fight major food and agricultural problems that in most instances cannot be fought any other way. Are there some GMOs, notably RoundUp-Ready, that are a bit more complicated? Because theyre part of a more complicated debate over pesticide use and farm production systems in general? Yes, but dont throw the baby out with the bathwater. Debate that specific GMO, not the process of genetic engineering itself. Because if we follow the lead of the antis, and use their arguments against RoundUp-Ready to ban the entire technology, which they advocate globally, then not only will we be trying to take on the specific global challenges facing farming with one arm tied behind our back, but it will cause suffering around the world.
Is it fair to call you and the film pro GMO?
I can see why some people would call the film pro GMO, but we always saw it as pro-science, pro-data, pro-scientific method to help all of us make the best decisions we can. And the GMO controversy was just a metaphor for what can happen if people allow their ideologies to lead their decision making over using the scientific method.