GMO Film Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Blatant Case of Monsanto Corporate Propaganda
By Stacy Malkan
Some industry messaging efforts are so heavy-handed they end up highlighting their own PR tactics more than the message they are trying to convey. That's the problem with Food Evolution, a new documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The film, opening in theaters June 23, claims to offer an objective look at the debate over genetically engineered foods, but with its skewed presentation of science and data, it comes off looking more like a textbook case of corporate propaganda for the agrichemical industry and its GMO crops.
That the film's intended purpose was to serve as an industry-messaging vehicle is no secret. Food Evolution was planned in 2014 and funded by the Institute for Food Technologists, a trade group, to culminate a multi-year messaging effort.
IFT is partly funded by big food corporations, and the group's president at the time was Janet Collins, a former DuPont and Monsanto executive who now works for CropLife America, the pesticide trade association. IFT's president-elect Cindy Stewart works for DuPont.
IFT chose Kennedy to direct the film, but he and producer Trace Sheehan say they had complete control over the film they describe as a fully independent investigation into the topic of GMOs including all points of view. The film's credibility suffers from their choice to embrace only the scientists who side with the chemical industry players who profit from GMOs and the chemicals used on them, while ignoring science and data that doesn't fit that agenda.
The 'Monsanto science treatment'
The clearest example of scientific dishonesty in Food Evolution is the way the film deals with glyphosate. The weedkiller chemical is at the heart of the GMO story, since 80-90 percent of GMO crops are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate.
Food Evolution reports that the increase in glyphosate use due to GMOs is not a problem, because glyphosate is safe. Two sources establish this claim in the film: A farmer says glyphosate has "very, very low toxicity; lower than coffee, lower than salt," and Monsanto's Robb Fraley—in response to a woman in an audience who asks him about science linking glyphosate to birth defects and cancer—tells her that's all just "pseudoscience."
There is no mention of the carcinogenicity concerns that are engulfing Monsanto in an international science scandal, or the many farmers who are suing Monsanto alleging they got cancer from the company's glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide. There is no mention of the 2015 report by the World Health Organization's cancer agency that classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, or California's decision to add glyphosate to the Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer, or the peer-reviewed studies that have linked various adverse health outcomes to glyphosate and Roundup.
Instead of an objective look at the evidence, Food Evolution gives viewers the full "Monsanto science treatment": Any science that raises concerns about the possible health risks of agrichemical products should be ignored, while studies that put those products in a favorable light is the only science worth discussing.
Double standards in science and transparency
Equal treatment of interview subjects with different points of view would have helped the credibility of Food Evolution. Instead, the film paints the GMO critics it features as dishonest or out to make a buck off the organic industry, while leaving out key details about its pro-industry sources.
In one scene, the film's main character, UC Davis professor Alison van Eenennaam, frets that appearing onstage with a Monsanto executive at a debate could sully her independent reputation. Viewers never learn that she used to work for Monsanto, or that she holds several GE patents which suggest a financial interest in the topic at hand.
Pro-industry scientist Pamela Ronald, another key science source, gets the hero treatment with no mention that two of her studies have been retracted. Yet viewers are hammered with news that a study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini—which found kidney problems and tumors in rats fed GMO corn—was "retracted, retracted, retracted!"
The film leaves out the fact that the study was subsequently republished, and was retracted in the first place after a former Monsanto employee took an editorial position with the journal where it was originally published.
The 'Africa needs GMOs' narrative
In another neatly spun narrative, Food Evolution takes viewers on an emotional journey to the developing world, and along another favorite industry messaging track: rather than focus on how genetic engineering is used in our food system now—primarily to convey herbicide tolerance—we should focus on how it might possibly be used in the future.
With plenty of airtime and dramatic tension, the film examines the problem of banana wilt, a disease killing staple crops in Africa, and leads viewers to believe that genetic engineering will save the crop, the farmers and the community.
Maybe. But the film neglects to mention that the savior GE technology is not yet available and might not even work. According to a paper in Plant Biotechnology Journal, the resistance shown in the lab is robust but may not be durable in open fields.
Meanwhile, a low-tech solution is working well and looks like it could use some investment. According to a 2012 paper in the Journal of Development and Agricultural Economics, farmer field schools, which help growers acquire hands-on knowledge of techniques to prevent banana wilt, led to lower infection rates and high crop recovery in Uganda. Results from farmer field schools "have been remarkable," according to the United Nations.
Yet the solution doesn't even warrant a mention in Food Evolution.
"It's fundamentally dishonest of the film to tout a GE solution that may not even work, as the scientists themselves acknowledge," said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, "while failing to point out another way to control the problem that works very well, but doesn't involve selling a product to make money."
Did Monsanto have anything to do with Food Evolution?
Monsanto and allies were discussing plans for a documentary in late 2013, according to emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know. The emails do not contain evidence linking those discussions to Food Evolution, but they do establish Monsanto's desire for a film that sounds surprisingly similar to the one Kennedy created.
Monsanto's Eric Sachs wrote in December 2013 to a group of PR advisors: "There is clearly a lot of interest to pursue a documentary film. Importantly, the consensus was [that] Monsanto's participation was welcome, particularly in the planning phase."
He recommended a January 2014 planning call. Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project stepped up to take the lead, and mentioned he had "gotten a personal pledge of $100,000 from a private business person if we can get" (the rest of the line is cut off). Entine also has a connection to the Institute for Food Technologists; he spoke about "anti-food activism" at IFT's 2012 annual meeting.
Another person mentioned in the Monsanto emails, Karl Haro von Mogel—who had discussed with Sachs "the downsides of a film funded by the 'Big 6'" and suggested "what would matter more than their money is their participation"—was interviewed in Food Evolution, and was also involved in filming one scene, which suggests some behind the scenes coordination with the filmmakers.
He said in an interview, "that email exchange had absolutely nothing to do with our project whatsoever … we hadn't even committed to making the film with IFT at that date in 2013."
The people in the email exchange were not involved in filming or advising, he said, and Karl Haro von Mogel "was a subject in the film and had no involvement or influence on any creative/editorial decisions on the film at any point in the production. Also it may be useful to point out that the email conversation you reference occurred long before we ever even knew Karl or any of these people."
Sneak peek behind the scenes
Another email exchange obtained by U.S. Right to Know offers a peek behind the scenes at the narrative development in Food Evolution. The exchange depicts Kennedy's search for examples to feature for "us/developing world need GMO."
"Any other 'us/developing world need GMO' you can give me names of aside from oranges? Shintikus lettuce?" Kennedy asked. Producer Trace Sheehan responded with a list of GMO products including drought-tolerant rice, allergy-free peanuts, carcinogen-free potatoes … "and then button with Golden Rice."
When Kennedy pushed for "the top GMO crops currently in use, and what countries," Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science wrote, "Really Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is the only one that is truly GMO in and is in widespread operation."
The film's frame-driven reporting ignores that detail about the lack of operational GMO solutions, and doesn't mention that the closer example, vitamin-A enhanced Golden Rice, still isn't available despite huge investments and years of trials, because it doesn't work as well in the field as existing rice strains.
What is propaganda?
In a scene that is supposed to convey scientific credibility, Food Evolution flashes the logo of the American Council on Science and Health at the very moment Neil deGrasse Tyson says there is a global consensus on the safety of GMOs. It's a fitting slip. ASCH is a corporate front group closely aligned with Monsanto.
The ACSH logo scene also appears in the background in a two-minute clip from a recent Climate One debate, as Kennedy pushed back against the suggestion that his film is propaganda.
"How do we determine what is propaganda?" Kennedy asked. "I say one of the ways we do it is (to ask), are results asked for, or results promised? I was not asked for results and I did not promise results. If you have a problem with the film, the problem lies with me."
Stacy Malkan is co-director of U.S. Right to Know.