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.
Santa Barbara Becomes First California City to Pass Resolution Against Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling
The Santa Barbara City Council approved a resolution Tuesday opposing new drilling off the California coast and fracking in existing offshore oil and gas wells. The resolution is the first in a new statewide campaign to rally local governments against proposals to expand offshore fossil fuel extraction in federal waters.
The vote—which makes Santa Barbara the first California city to oppose both fracking and new offshore drilling—follows President Trump's April 28 executive order urging federal agencies to expand oil and gas leasing in federal waters. The order could expose the Pacific Ocean to new oil leasing for the first time in more than 30 years.
Starting Wednesday, the vast majority of Americans can learn about every potentially harmful chemical in their drinking water and what scientists say are the safe levels of those contaminants. The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) new national Tap Water Database is the most complete source available on the quality of U.S. drinking water, aggregating and analyzing data from almost 50,000 public water systems in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The organization has earned a reputation for ambitious data-mining research projects that shake up policy debates and consumer markets. EWG's online Farm Subsidy Database, listing millions of subsidy recipients, and its Skin Deep guide to more than 70,000 personal care products, draw tens of millions of visitors every year.
By Stacy Malkan
Ever since they classified the world's most widely used herbicide as "probably carcinogenic to humans," a team of international scientists at the World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer research group have been under withering attack by the agrichemical industry and its surrogates.
In a front-page series, The Monsanto Papers, the French newspaper Le Monde described the attacks as "the pesticide giant's war on science," and reported, "to save glyphosate, the firm [Monsanto] undertook to harm the United Nations agency against cancer by all means."
The lengthy report from the Energy and Policy Institute uses reams of archival documents to demonstrate that utility industry representatives knew as far back as 1968 that burning fossil fuels could trigger "catastrophic effects" on the climate.
By Sharon Kelly
The Pennsylvania's Environmental Hearing Board ordered Sunoco Pipeline LP Tuesday to temporarily halt some types of work on a $2.5 billion pipeline project designed to carry 275,000 barrels a day of butane, propane and other liquid fossil fuels from Ohio and West Virginia, across Pennsylvania, to the Atlantic coast.
On July 19, three environmental groups presented Judge Bernard Labuskes, Jr. with documentation showing that the project had caused dozens of drilling fluid spills and other accidents between April and mid-June.
By Andy Rowell
The UK has followed France in banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, as part of its plan to tackle chronic air pollution in cities. The government has been coming under intense pressure to act, with an estimated 40,000 people dying prematurely a year from air pollution.
By Colleen Curry
People traveling across America today can, if they're lucky, pitch a tent in the same exact spot that early American explorers and map-makers Lewis and Clark did, amid the jagged rocks and sweeping plains of the Upper Missouri River Breaks in central Montana.
Brent Rose, a journalist and filmmaker who has been traveling around the U.S. in a van for two years, was one of the lucky ones.
Kyara, a killer whale born at SeaWorld San Antonio just three months ago, died Monday at the park, as reported in this video from Newsy. Kyara is the last orca to be born in captivity under the SeaWorld breeding program, which shut down in 2016.
In a statement, SeaWorld said the cause of death was "likely pneumonia" and that "Kyara had faced some very serious and progressive health issues over the last week."