GMO Food

Interview with 'Food Evolution' Filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy

An extraordinary new documentary on genetically modified foods, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, pushes back against GMO fearmongering.


Earlier this week I had the opportunity to watch Food Evolution, an exciting, new, science-based documentary on genetically modified (oftentimes abbreviated "GMO" or "GE") food. Food Evolution, currently being screened nationwide, is narrated by celebrated astrophysicist and science commentator Neil deGrasse Tyson. While GMO supporters will find much to love about the film, I sincerely commend Food Evolution to anyone who believes GMOs are unsafe, or who's on the fence about GMO safety. Food Evolution might just change your mind.

On Thursday, I spoke by phone with Scott Hamilton Kennedy, who co-produced, co-wrote, and directed the film. What follows below is a condensed transcript of my interview with Kennedy.

Reason: Why did you make Food Evolution?

Scott Hamilton Kennedy: We were approached by the Institute of Food Technologists. They approached several filmmakers to pitch them a movie that would deal with science and food and the daunting task of feeding 9 billion people by the year 2050. And we went away—myself and my producing partner Trace Sheehan—and researched different topics and the GMO story was just waving its hand as being a story about food, science, [and] sustainability. And most importantly it's a huge controversy, and there was a lot of distrust, and it hadn't been told. So we were really excited the story was not being told correctly and maybe we could reset it.

Reason: How do you describe Food Evolution? Is it a pro-GMO film?

SHK: Excellent question. Yeah. I go to Neil deGrasse Tyson for this answer. He gets cornered sometimes asking if he's still pro-GMO. And he says "I'm not pro-GMO. I'm pro-science." And the science currently says that all GMOs on the market are safe for ourselves and safe for the environment. The rest can be taken on a case-by-case basis.

So the film is clearly trying to reset the conversation on GMOs that is out of balance just in terms of safety and understanding. But it's a pro-science movie at its core. That's why Neil took the film and that's really the bigger reason why I wanted to make the film—is that it was defending the importance of science in how we make decisions.

Reason: What is the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), which provided funding for Food Evolution?

SHK: The Institute of Food Technologists is a group of food scientists from around the world—about 18,000 members, and is a nonprofit organization…. Food science—versus "ag" science, which I learned about on this film—starts at the farm gate all the way through food waste and recycling. So all these boring things that we kind of take for granted like pasteurization and food safety to flavoring and all sorts of different things[.] A Snickers bar is even food science. They're an organization that wanted to celebrate their seventy-fifth anniversary with a documentary, and that led to Food Evolution.

Most importantly—with the subtext of that question, I always get asked—is "Did [IFT] have any creative input on the film?" And I asked from the beginning that I would have to have final cut if I was going to consider the film and they agreed to that completely that I would have final cut and complete creative control. It's kind of beautiful that it's a science film and they respected the fact that as scientists they knew they had to do that. They could not ask for results, nor could I promise results. And I'm very proud of the result.

Reason: Why did you choose to begin Food Evolution with the example of the Hawaiian papaya?

SHK: I have to give props to another wonderful science writer, Amy Harmon, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New York Times, who introduced me to the papaya story. I didn't know it even existed. And it was the irony of the fact that GMO technology which most people—sadly a large percentage of the population see as being dangerous—saved the papaya industry in Hawaii. And furthering that irony was that some politicians in Hawaii were trying to be the first state to ban the cultivation of all GMOs, but then they grandfathered in that same papaya. And, as Amy Harmon pointed out—and made my eyebrows go up—what are they actually trying to say? If they're saying they want to ban all GMOs, but this one's [papayas] okay, you're not really saying anything. So I wanted to look further into that.

Reason: You highlight the challenges of growing GMO crops in Uganda. What's the conflict, and what benefits did you find Ugandans have missed out on because of the anti-GMO climate there?

SHK: In Uganda there's a terrible banana blight that's wiped out almost fifty percent of bananas. [It's] nothing we in our privileged life of abundant food in the United States can relate to. Bananas are thirty percent of the caloric intake of most Ugandans—especially most who have the least. And this terrible virus has wiped out fifty percent of [bananas].

They've tried all sorts of fixes. Traditional fixes. Organic fixes. Toxic fixes. [All] to fend off this spread. Nothing was working. And they had a GE fix, actually inspired and very similar to the papaya, where they inoculate the bananas to this virus. And it's working in field trials. But there's not a process in place for it to be considered [by the government] as a fix yet. There's two stages of legality it would have to go through…. They need to pass a bill to consider a GE fix, and then they can consider this [specific] GE fix…. There are people trying to get the film to the parliament in Uganda for them to consider the film, to help push through that [GE] bill, which we're pretty excited about.

Reason: Some critics of the film have argued that Food Evolution is scientifically accurate but that the film misses what they claim is a larger point: that the debate over GMOs isn't really about science at all. They say it's about values. And they argue for that reason that the film is unlikely to change people's minds. But toward the end of Food Evolution you highlight a debate in New York City between the pro- and anti-GMO sides in which the pro-GMO side—simply by presenting scientific facts and consensus—slaughters the anti-GMO side, based on data showing a dramatic change in the perception of GMOs among debate attendees. The debate even helped change Bill "The Science Guy" Nye's mind about GMOs. So who's missing the point: you or your critics?

SHK: We are seeing the film change people's minds. I agree with you that pointing out the debate in New York is very important. We had no idea who was going to win that debate. And it was impressive to see, in New York City, that people could change their minds based on a calm, intellectual debate. It was very inspiring for us to give that same approach to the film.

With the film—before screenings—we do a before and after, where we ask by a show of hands how many people fear GMOs for themselves and the environment. And then we ask the same question afterwards. And we have a couple clips on Facebook… where we have thirty hands in the air before the screening and zero after. In Seattle we had a screening of 120 people. All 120 of them have their hands in the air before the screening. Zero after.

So we're seeing the film change people's minds. That doesn't mean it's not going to get even more complicated as we continue down the road. But we've been very proud of how the film has changed people's minds.

Reason: Critics have come up with a laundry list of things you don't discuss in the film—such as, say, the impact of GMO drift on organic farmers. How do you respond?

SHK: Oh boy. I can't make a film about everything. And we tried to tell the most important parts that were specifically related to GMOs.

The biggest piece that was out of balance was the safety concerns. You could look at the study we referenced [in the film], where 88% of scientists concluded that GMOs are safe [while 37 percent of the general public believe they're safe.] Why is there that huge gap? That's what [we wanted to] reset.

And now after resetting that, if somebody wants to say there's other things to talk about, too—you know, we tried to get in as much as we could—but if there's other things to talk about, wonderful. Let's continue that conversation. But let's continue it respectfully. And using data. And not using ideology.

Reason: Which type of foods do you think government (federal, state, and local) policies should favor? GMO foods? Conventional foods? Organic foods? All? None? Why?

SHK: That's a good question. I'll definitely open by saying I'm not an expert [on policies]. I've done research around them… I don't want to take anyone's choices away. I just want to know—are they safe? are they nutritious?—and not be told I'm a bad parent if I don't buy organic, or I'm a bad parent if I do feed my kids GMOs. Because there isn't science to support either of those [arguments]. There's plenty of science to say eat your fruits and veggies, be they organic or not organic. And don't eat too much sugar, salt, and fat… I want a system in place to tell me what's safe and what is nutritious. And I can make the decision myself.

Reason: Do you eat organic food? GMO food? Some combination? Why?

SHK: Excellent question. I eat lots of different types of food. I mostly don't eat organic because of my frustration with the way it's been oversold as magical food. And some in the industry have used fear to say if you don't buy organic foods, you're harming children. So I buy lots of fresh fruits and vegetables—mostly non-organic. I buy some foods—fresh fruits and vegetables—from my farmers market. I buy lots of frozen vegetables… So, yeah, I eat a variety of stuff.

Reason: From the New York Times to the L.A. Times to the Village Voice, the media has praised Food Evolution. It's currently got a 100 percent fresh critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To put that in perspective, a 100 percent fresh rating would tie Food Evolution with Man on Wire for best-reviewed documentary of all time. What do you think the media's love for Food Evolution says about the film and its ability to impact the GMO debate going forward?

SHK: Holy cow. The reviews have just been wonderful and an incredible honor. And not just because it's nice to get good reviews and that 100 percent thing. It's that they've gotten the film.

We worked really hard to make a film that was smart and funny and complicated and truthful and respectful of the complexities of our food and ag system. And it's been wonderful to see that people are getting that. So if Food Evolution could be seen as an iconic food movie—furthering the conversation around food and agriculture going forward—we would be so honored.

Reason: What is the ultimate goal of Food Evolution?

SHK: I would hope the ultimate goal of Food Evolution is that it is going to be a turning point in the conversation around food and ag, and how we make decisions beyond food and agriculture. We need to use science and data, not emotion and ideology, to make these important decisions from how we feed our children to what policies we put in place to make good decisions about what food we have available to feed our children.