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Neil deGrasse Tyson Fans Deserve More Than Twisted Tale on GMOs
By Stacy Malkan
Neil deGrasse Tyson has inspired millions of people to care about science and imagine themselves as participants in the scientific process. What a hopeful sign it is to see young girls wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Forget princess, I want to be an astrophysicist."
His devoted fan base, as I've discovered in the past few days, includes my mom, my best friend and closest colleagues. All of them, and especially the young people who trust Tyson to lead with integrity in matters of science, deserve better than the twisted tale dished out by Food Evolution, the new documentary film about genetically modified foods (GMOs) that is driving its promotion on the coattails of Tyson's narration and kicking up controversy for its biased approach.
Already, two of the best-known experts interviewed for the film, Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan, have complained that their views were misrepresented and their comments taken out of context.
My review of Food Evolution describes the film as a textbook case of corporate propaganda, and offers clear-cut examples of how the film selectively and unfairly presents science. The review explains how a trade group, whose leadership hails from the agrichemical industry, funded Food Evolution as part of a multi-year messaging project and hand-picked its director, Scott Hamilton Kennedy.
This is an unusual scenario for a science documentary, but it wouldn't matter if the film reported fairly and honestly about the topic it purports to objectively explore. The film does not deliver on that promise, and making matters worse, the filmmakers are facing a series of embarrassing revelations about their unfair treatment of interview subjects.
Two days before the film's official release, which opens today in New York City, NYU Professor Marion Nestle, Ph.D., wrote a harsh review about the film's many biases, and said she has repeatedly asked the filmmakers to remove her short interview clip. "The director refuses. He believes his film is fair and balanced. I do not," Nestle wrote.
"I am often interviewed (see media) and hardly ever quoted incorrectly or out of context. This film is one of those rare exceptions."
Her take on Food Evolution concluded, "I view it as a slick piece of GMO industry propaganda. If you want a thoughtful discussion of the real issues raised by food biotechnology, you will need to look elsewhere."
UC Berkeley Professor Michael Pollan—who also appears in Food Evolution and whose name the filmmakers have been dropping in their promotional efforts—said his experience and take on the film were "much the same" as Nestle's, and that the filmmakers have misrepresented his views.
Interviews with several other GMO critics who appeared in the film, or were asked to be in it, corroborate the picture of a strange process involving sneaky filming, selective editing, misrepresentation and lack of disclosure about the film's funding.
Eric Holt-Giménez, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First), an agroecologist with 30 years of experience in the developing world, said he spent four hours in an interview with the filmmakers discussing research from the institute's books and trying to raise issues related to the structural aspects of hunger and how GMOs have exacerbated rural poverty and decreased environmental resilience. His interview was left out of the film entirely.
Holt-Giménez said that no matter what information he provided, the director Scott Kennedy focused on the health and safety discussion and replied that he just didn't see what was wrong with GMOs. Holt-Giménez also said the filmmakers refused to answer his questions about who was funding them.
Tufts researcher Timothy Wise, an agricultural development expert, withdrew his consent to be included in the film after asking repeatedly for more information about the funding.
Why the evasions and deceptions?
One possible explanation is that the film was not an objective investigation into the science of GMOs but rather a messaging project to advance the agenda of the agrichemical industry.
The positive publicity from a pro-GMO/pesticide movie—such as the puff review written by Daniel M. Gold in the New York Times—could prove useful at a crucial political moment as the seed/chemical corporations face lawsuits and regulatory threats and pursue mega mergers to consolidate control over our food supply.
As Dr. Tyson has famously said, "The good thing about science is that it's true, whether or not you believe in it." But Dr. Tyson seems to forget that history is also true, whether or not you believe in it.
It is true, whether or not we like it, that corporations such as Monsanto have a history of manipulating science, academia and the media to manufacture doubt and confusion about science in order to keep regulations and public scrutiny to a minimum as they do whatever they need to do to maximize profits.
Now that he is in the middle of the contentious GMO debate, Tyson owes it to his fans to broker a more honest conversation—one that involves not just the views of genetic engineers who have a financial stake in public acceptance of the technology that provides their livelihood, but also considers the broader cultural, political and scientific realities relevant to genetic engineering and the future of our food system.
A more honest conversation about GMOs would include information about the complex and contradictory nature of the science; the proprietary controls over research; the legitimate concerns about the health risks of glyphosate and the worsening pesticide treadmill problem.
It would consider the environmental, social justice and economic issues at stake, and the political context in which decisions about science—and big-budget movies that purport to document science—are made.
As Tyson has so eloquently explained, "the cross pollination of disciplines is fundamental to truly revolutionary advances in our culture."
Stacy Malkan is co-director of U.S. Right to Know.
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Global Banks, Led by JPMorgan Chase, Invested $1.9 Trillion in Fossil Fuels Since Paris Climate Pact
By Sharon Kelly
A report published Wednesday names the banks that have played the biggest recent role in funding fossil fuel projects, finding that since 2016, immediately following the Paris agreement's adoption, 33 global banks have poured $1.9 trillion into financing climate-changing projects worldwide.
By Patti Lynn
2018 was a groundbreaking year in the public conversation about climate change. Last February, The New York Times reported that a record percentage of Americans now believe that climate change is caused by humans, and there was a 20 percentage point rise in "the number of Americans who say they worry 'a great deal' about climate change."
England faces an "existential threat" if it does not change how it manages its water, the head of the country's Environment Agency warned Tuesday.
By Jessica Corbett
A new analysis revealed Tuesday that over the past two decades heat records across the U.S. have been broken twice as often as cold ones—underscoring experts' warnings about the increasingly dangerous consequences of failing to dramatically curb planet-warming emissions.
By Madison Dapcevich
Ask any resident of San Francisco about the waterfront parrots, and they will surely tell you a story of red-faced conures squawking or dive-bombing between building peaks. Ask a team of researchers from the University of Georgia, however, and they will tell you of a mysterious string of neurological poisonings impacting the naturalized flock for decades.
The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.
"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."
Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.
However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.
"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.
Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.
Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.
"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.
Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.