“Food Evolution” is a documentary written by award winning director Scott Hamilton Kennedy and Trace Sheehan. Featuring real scientists, the movie proposes that genetic engineering isn’t the evil technology that it’s been made out to be, and that “GMOs,” or genetically modified organisms, are safe to eat.
Critics complain that the film focuses on the safety of genetic engineering, while ignoring other issues critics attribute to these crops. While safety is not the only contentious issue in the “GMO debate,” it is the one that largely drives public concerns. Those of us who have seen the movie commend the producers for digging into the food fight to highlight what scientific institutions around the world have repeated time and time again: the method used to generate a crop in the lab does not determine whether it is safe (summary from the National Academy of Sciences, Q&A from the Royal Academy, summary from the EU).
Despite numerous statements that the producers had creative control over the film and that funding came from the Institute of Food Technologists, accusations of “propaganda” continue to come in fast and furious. Zen Honeycutt, founder of Moms Across America, penned the most recent allegation, which sparked our interest as moms who embrace the evidence supporting the safety of genetic engineering.
Honeycutt claims that the movie “fails to acknowledge the reality of American mothers.” That reality, she believes, is that “our families are sick and struggling.” Her angle puts a mother’s intuition above empiricism. “I trust the mothers who are seeing their children get sick after consuming GMOs and related toxins and are courageously sharing their new reality on social media, more than the scientists who are conducting isolated experiments funded by Big Ag.”
We understand this perspective because we’re mothers too. We understand the anxiety of parenthood. There is nothing more challenging than seeing your child sick. We know how powerless it feels when your child’s ailments don’t have a clear cause or a standardized treatment. But we also know that spreading false claims does more harm than good.
We are mothers, and we are also science communicators and scientists. Honeycutt’s claim that the movie “fails to acknowledge the reality of American mothers” ignores the experience of parents like us. We feel that false claims about GMOs and parenting drown out facts and evidence. We’re proud to be part of the upcoming Science Moms documentary (coming fall 2017), which gives a voice to parents who value science and evidence in our decision making for our families.
What are GMOs?
The term GMO describes varieties of crops that have one or more genes added for characteristics (or traits) that farmers or consumers desire. Examples include non-browning, used with apples and potatoes to reduce food waste, virus- or disease-resistance, used to save the Hawaiian papaya (an important story in the movie), and blight-resistance, which can greatly reduce the amount of pesticide used in potato farming.
The film focuses on the largely untold stories of papaya in Hawaii and banana in Uganda. Critics say the film ignores corn and soy — crops that the anti-GMO movement loves to hate because they’re used with the herbicide glyphosate (the herbicide in Monsanto’s RoundUp). The movie actually spends considerable time on claims of glyphosate’s toxicity, and there’s no reason to lump glyphosate-resistant corn and disease-resistant bananas together based solely on the method used to create them.
Glyphosate has become a proxy argument for the debate over GMOs. For years, anti-GMO activists have intentionally conflated genetic engineering with pesticides to demonize the entire technology instead of considering the nuances of each trait. The film attempts to decouple the issues by showing how the spread of non-GMO labels in western grocery stores threatens the future of disease-resistant crops like the Hawaiian papaya and the Ugandan banana.
Honeycutt tells her followers that non-GMO labeled foods are safer, healthier, and less toxic. However, scientists from both the public sector and from industry, have failed to find any health impacts from GMOs. Some publicly funded scientists, who are themselves parents, are featured in “Food Evolution.”
Despite the fact that we are living longer than ever and cancer incidence and mortality rates are down, we agree that we face pressing public health epidemics, particularly obesity and diabetes. We face these challenges in our own families too. But claiming that switching to a non-GMO diet will cure what ails us is misleading at best. The evidence shows that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, low in added sugar and salt, and plenty of physical activity can help us combat these challenges. There is no mention of non-GMO diets in these guidelines because there is no evidence to support a link between crop breeding techniques and human health.
If switching to a non-GMO or organic diet helps you swap fried chips for vegetables or sugary cereals for fruit, then more power to you. But we’ve noticed that as non-GMO and organic foods grow in market share, the choice of unhealthy organic and non-GMO snacks also grows. Organic cupcakes are still cupcakes. Non-GMO sugar is still sugar. These are just as unhealthy as genetically engineered counterparts despite their labels. What’s more, GMOs designed for consumers, such as non-browning apples or pink pineapples, may increase fruit consumption. Telling people that GMOs are harmful regardless of trait does not empower parents to improve their health or the health of their children.
GMOs and regulations
When Zen Honeycutt tells people that we are in an environment surrounded by toxins that are slowly killing our children, she ignores thousands of scientists working to protect our environment and our food. She does a disservice to children, who could grow up believing that there is no acceptable level of toxin, when the truth is we accept the small toxicity risks of caffeine in chocolate, capsaicin in peppers, cucurbitacin in zucchini, and solanine in potatoes without thinking twice. Her statement brushes aside the progress made by the EPA in regulating the use of chemicals, and ignores extensive testing and regulation that genetically engineered crops, but not other types of crops, are required to go through.
Our scientists and regulatory institutions provide guidance so we can live healthier lives without unsubstantiated fear. They help determine what chemicals and toxins we should regulate and avoid (such as lead), how to take proper precautions regarding risks in our environment (such as guidelines on wearing sunscreen and vaccinating), how to stay protected if we work with hazardous compounds (such as work-safety equipment), and how much of a given chemical can be used safely in our food supply (such as organic or non-organic pesticides).
This discussion comes at a crucial point. Ideology is jeopardizing our regulatory institutions’ evidence-based policies. Although there is always room for improvement, with these policies under threat, maybe now we can appreciate just how privileged we have been. We have a safe, abundant food supply that offers plenty of choices for consumers, and for that we should be thankful.
Last April, over a million people across the world marched for science. We marched with them, because we’re concerned for the future of our planet. We marched because we feel that expertise has been ignored. We marched because we want policies to be rooted in facts and evidence. We marched because we all deserve facts and evidence to guide our decisions. No matter what a movie says, or what activists say, we should ask: what do our scientific institutions say? What data and evidence supports them? What policies are they trying to guide? We ask these questions not only as scientists and communicators, but as moms.