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Documentary takes off the gloves on GMO debate

GMOs have been a lightning rod for controversy, but documentary 
‘Food Evolution’ argues that science has been the underdog in the debate

Agriculture recently had a red-carpet moment, with twin screening of the documentary “Food Evolution” in Brandon and Winnipeg.

Organized by the Manitoba Canola Growers, Canola Eat Well, the Manitoba Farm Writers and Broadcasters Association, Canadian Agri-Marketing Association and Assiniboine Community College, screening and panel discussion on April 10 aimed to educate the public about the safety and efficacy of genetic modification.

It may have been preaching to the choir, as only about 10 of 200 Winnipeg audience members said they were not involved in agriculture when asked to raise their hands. At least one attendee in Brandon said she’d got plenty to ponder from the event, however.

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“I think I’m definitely challenged in my views,” audience member Milena Lemez said, although she noted a distinct slant on the part of the panel.

Three of four panel members in Brandon were tied to the agriculture industry.

“(I) wish there was maybe more of a diversified panel… but I’ll definitely have to be doing some thinking… I think my opinions of GMOs have expanded,” Lemez said. “Where the presentation and the movie lacked a little bit was looking at other ways of production like polycultures and things like that, like, say, permaculture.”

Much controversy

The film began with Hawaii’s 2014 attempts to ban GMOs, a move that was ultimately overturned by a U.S. federal judge in 2016, but sparked a wave of similar campaigns in other states.

Then, like now, the issue pitted farmers against members of the public.

The film also gave voice to anti-GMO activists and academics like Charles Benbrook, formerly of Washington State University, who have linked GMOs to herbicide resistance. At the same time, the film portrays a long list of organizations that have found no danger when researching GMOs while public personalities have railed against GM foods on shaky scientific ground.

A full house turned up for the Brandon screening of “Food Evolution” April 10.
photo: Alexis Stockford

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there that’s being shared,” Jessica Brady of Okanagan Specialty Fruits and one of the evening’s panellists said. “If you don’t work in this area, how are you to know what’s right and what’s wrong? I don’t know much about my car, but I drive it every day. Yes, there’s emotion, but there’s also just misinformation that’s being shared too much.”

Alison van Eenennaam, animal genomics and biotechnology professor at the University of California-Davis, and one of the major sources of the film, also argued genetic modification could actually decrease pesticide use and produce hardier varieties in the face of climate change, something that could change the landscape for farmers facing food insecurity in poor countries.

Simon Ellis, a local farmer near Wawanesa, has little patience for the anti-GMO movement. One of a growing number of producers with an online presence, Ellis has been caught in the digital crossfire before. His social media posts outlining day-to-day farm operations have earned criticism and accusations that he, as a farmer using genetically modified crops, is a pawn of large GMO companies like Monsanto.

“Some of it is assuming they know our production practices before they’ve talked to us,” the frustrated farmer said. “Assuming that we drench the crops in a herbicide and that we’re only there to make money and we don’t care about anything else than that. I get ‘raping the environment’ a lot. Those sorts of words and imagery really kind of bother me because we’re really not doing that and it’s really hard to convince them otherwise.”

Science does little to sway his most avid detractors, he said. Personal stories and anecdotes have been more effective, something that might be seen as ironic, given the strength the same tactic has given to the anti-GMO movement.

Separate debates?

The debate around GMOs is not just about GMOs, other voices cited in the documentary said. The process of breeding crops through genetic modification has become intertwined with debate around individual companies like Monsanto, as well as arguments that those companies are strong-arming food production through corporate centralization.

News of mergers in those same companies, such as the ongoing talks between Bayer and Monsanto, have only thrown fire on that debate.

Ellis, however, finds little stock in the argument. Farmers still have choices on where to source their seed, he said in the panel discussion.

GMO advocates have argued that the technology does not always track back to large companies, pointing to work like the development of golden rice, a project developed to address vitamin A deficiency by the International Rice Research Institute.

That said, much contact between farms and GM crops does come from seed and chemical companies. So should the argument around genetic modification be separate from the debate around the companies that use the tool? Is it even possible to debate one without the other?

The answer, according to the evening’s panellists, is yes.

“Should it be separated from those things? Yeah, probably, to a point at least,” Brady said.

Byron Irvine, a retired AAFC researcher and fellow panellist, agreed, although he doubts that separation will enter the discussion any time soon.

“In many people’s minds, they will be linked and I don’t think it should be,” he said. “Currently, a lot of the primary production traits that we use are developed by large companies and therefore that debate will not go away… ”

One tool

Panellists may have been largely GMO friendly, but they portrayed it as a single tool among many a farmer might reach for.

For Ellis, management is as much about good practices and rotations as it is about relying on genetics, and planting the same crop in the same field year after year is bound to breed problems, he said.

Instead, he reaches for GMOs to deal with herbicide or insect resistance that other practices might not address.

“It comes down to what’s your weed spectrum in your field,” he said, adding they were recently able to grow a non-GMO herbicide system recently because they’d managed to get the field free of kochia first.

“It’s on a field-by-field basis,” Ellis said. “What’s going to work? What’s going to be economical for the situation?”

He is also not blind to anti-GMO arguments and, in fact, says he shares their concerns when it comes to sustainability.

“We have to be careful about the environment and we don’t want to overuse or have a GMO product be entered into the market that could be dangerous, but I think that’s where really rigorous research is really important and I know the crops that are available today are safe,” he said.

Irvine, meanwhile, stands behind the science, but leaves room for change, having lived through the impact of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the revelations of DDT damage.

“You have to be willing to make that discussion happen over time and with perhaps some patience to not just be jumping on people just because they disagree they may or may not be appreciative of that point of view,” he said. “The majority of scientists have come to the view that GMOs as we’ve been using them are not in and of themselves harmful in terms of health or environment, but you can never say with absolute certainty that at some time it might not happen.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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