What’s so bad about making food easier to produce?

By Lenore Skenazy

It all began when a neighbor of filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy sent a text asking if she could borrow some organic milk.

Kennedy texted back, “You can borrow some milk, but I don’t have organic.”

The friend politely declined, which set Kennedy to thinking. His family drank conventional milk. Did that make him a dad who didn’t care about his kids’ safety, or the environment?

That would be odd, since he was nominated for an Oscar for his film about a community garden blooming in South Central Los Angeles. So it’s not like he didn’t care about food, or farming, or bettering the world.

It was fortuitous, then, that just as he was processing these ideas about how organic produce had become almost like a secret handshake among his “well-educated and well-intentioned” friends — something they all shared, and trusted — he was approached by the Institute of Food Technologists, a group of 18,000 food scientists. They wanted him to make a movie celebrating their 75th anniversary.

The idea was to somehow illustrate the intersection of food and science. Eventually Kennedy and his fellow producer, Trace Sheehan, a Brooklynite, decided to delve into a single issue: GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. This is done when a geneticist has taken DNA from one organism and inserted it another to make a food easier to grow, or hardier.

Like Kennedy’s organic-only neighbor, many folks consider GMOs “Frankenfood.” The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart called G-M-O the three scariest letters in the language. With emotions running so high, Kennedy made sure he and Sheehan would have complete control over the movie. And then they started wading into the debate.

What they found was an ongoing war.

“People were losing their minds on both sides and I didn’t know that much about it,” said Kennedy.

As he began interviewing scientists, he realized something quickly: There’s a huge disconnect between the science world, which overwhelmingly believes that GMOs are safe, and the public, which does not.

GMOs are also sort of a placeholder for a lot of other issues the public has with food.

“I feel like so many people who are skeptical of [GMOs] sort of lump together a hodgepodge of arguments as if it’s one monolithic entity,” said Sheehan in a phone interview. There are the people who think we’re growing too much corn, and the people who hate the company Monsanto (ignoring that farmers choose to buy the results of Monsanto’s research). There are the people who want sustainable agriculture but don’t take into account the fact that organic farming can sometimes require more land, water, or pesticides than GMOs.

To see the debate in action, Kennedy’s crew flew to Uganda where the banana crop is dying due to a rotting disease. A genetically modified banana plant is being developed by public sector scientists there, and the farmers are desperate to start growing it. In the movie we meet a mom and her children who all survive on the banana crop grown on her small farm. When the trees die, we grimly understand, so might her kids.

The tree-saving modification has nothing to do with profit, America or big agriculture. It is simply a scientific advance.

“We’ve been screening our film a while, and we ask before and after the film: ‘Who has concern about the safety of GMOs?’ And we see time and again, [the film] is changing minds,” said Sheehan. “No one says the farmers in Africa shouldn’t have the right to grow that genetically modified banana.”

And no one thinks it is going to hurt them, or should be shunned in favor of organic bananas.

And now that audiences agree that there’s at least one beneficial use of genetic modification, said Sheehan, “That’s a new place to start the conversation from.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson narrates the film, “Food Evolution,” and having such a prominent scientist on board underscores the filmmakers’ message. When people ask Kennedy, “Are you really pro-GMO?’” he responds: “I am pro-science.”

After the movie, I tried having a pro-science conversation, myself. My husband and I saw the film in Manhattan. There were precisely four people in the theater. As we were leaving, I saw two young men going up the stairs and said, “Wasn’t that amazing?”

“What?” they asked.

“The GMO movie.”

“We didn’t see that! GMOs are terrible! Monsanto! Cancer! Only organic…”

So I quickly mentioned just one fact I’d learned from the film: If we want to have enough food to feed the 30 billion people soon to inhabit the planet and we only grow organically, we’ll have to chop down the rain forest to turn it into farmland.

“But if we grow GMO crops that need less space and less water, the rain forest is safe.”

That started a conversation.

Let’s hear it for more of those.

Skenazy is founder of Free-Range Kids, a contributor to Reason.com and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”

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