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.

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  1. Crap, Saint Neil sold out to the evil Monsanto Corporation? The proggie head explosions are like the Fourth of July over here!

    1. Meh – so far I’ve noticed a completely fluid transition to deciding that the anti-vaxxing thing was only ever an Alex Jones right-wing anti-science conspiracy theory. I predict that this will be the same.

      1. Not the point. What motivates the anti-vaxxers or the anti-GMO folk is irrelevant. It is about voluntary choices. Both sides need to respect the other side and not force their values on them or coerce them through government action.

        1. Get hungry enough, anybody will eat a huge steaming pile of GMOs. Fuck, they’ll eat human flesh for crissakes. I bet my firstborn child and all of my grandchildren on this proposition. Anti-GMO folks ain’t hungry enough. But a whole lotta people are or will be.

          1. “…Anti-GMO folks ain’t hungry enough. But a whole lotta people are or will be.”

            Problem is, the antis can get the government to make sure those hungry people stay hungry. Or dead. See Chipper Morning, above.

        2. Thank you

        3. Not the point either. A Canadian court awarded some Frankenstein corporation a farmer’s hard-earned cash because bees carried patented pollen across the fence to his field. THAT is robbery, expropriation, usurpation, initiation of force, fraud, entrapment and WRONG. It is also the reason people seek to ban–not the plants–but the absurd stretching of patent and copyright laws till they deform into yet another avenue for men with guns to come beating on your door. Surely there’s enough of that already!

          1. It is also the reason people seek to ban–not the plants–but the absurd stretching of patent and copyright laws till they deform into yet another avenue for men with guns to come beating on your door. Surely there’s enough of that already!

            Oh, IP law is in desperate need of MASSIVE reform.

            It’s not the food that is the issue. It is legal systems that allow such massive abuses because the abusers have tons of cash.

  2. Let’s continue that conversation. But let’s continue it respectfully. And using data. And not using ideology.

    That’s a nice concept, using data instead of ideology. But at some point, you get tired of proving that everything falls down and decide to believe that yes, gravity is a real thing, Newton was on to something, and the burden of proof for doubters is on the doubters.

    At some point, you get tired of proving that governments mess things up, you get tired of seeing government incompetence and coercion at the core of so many mistakes, you get tired of trying to give coercive government the benefit of the doubt, and you decide it’s time for statists to bear the burden of proof that government can actually do something right. Well, other than grow and expand its incompetency, I mean.

    And Bill Nye the sciency guy? Sorry, bud. It only takes 5 minutes reading to find out how safe GMO foods are. He waded into the debate on pure feelz, no thinking involved, and if that’s typical of how he makes decisions, he’s no more engineer than he is scientist. He’s just another fucking elite pushing his agenda on the ignorant masses.

  3. Then there’s this. After producing this documentary, bragging aboout how it’s changed people’s minds, he comes up with this whopper:

    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.

    Go ahead, reduce your sugar consumption if it makes you too hyper, if it shovels too many empty calories into your system and screws up your eating habits. I can understand that. But salt and fat? You still believe government dietary recommendations after all the volatility they’ve shown, and after all the recent research showing they’re bunk?

    Well at least he doesn’t claim to be the sciency guy. And I suppose you could let him off the hook because he said “don’t eat too much” without specifying that “too much” is what the government defines it as, instead of whatever you feel is too much.

    Contrary mood this morning. Feels good!

  4. More like Neil deGrasse Lie-son. Am I right?

    1. Yeah, he is going to from being celebrated by all the right people to seeing the underside of the bus. “NDT is a corporate shill!” in 3, 2…

  5. GMOs and You

    GMOs are bad. People who advocate GMOs are bad.
    You shouldn’t do GMOs. If you do them, you’re bad.
    Because GMOs are bad, mkay? It’s a bad thing to do GMOs.
    So don’t do GMOs. GMOs are bad, mkay?

  6. I would be happy if the OMG!! GMO!! we’re all gonna die!! Freaks would just realize all hybrid crops are GMO, just the slow old fashioned way.

    Some crop plants are hybrids from different genera (intergeneric hybrids), such as Triticale, ? Triticosecale, a wheat?rye hybrid.[69] Most modern and ancient wheat breeds are themselves hybrids; bread wheat, Triticum aestivum, is a hexaploid hybrid of three wild grasses.[30] Several commercial fruits including loganberry (Rubus ? loganobaccus)[70] and grapefruit (Citrus ? paradisi)[71] are hybrids, as are garden herbs such as peppermint (Mentha ? piperita),[72] and trees such as the London plane (Platanus ? acerifolia).

    1. Don’t forget quadrotriticale…

    2. Mendel didn’t send the jackbooted minions of the political state to beat money out of his next door neighbor. THAT is what this is all about, not some idiotic recycled superstition about LSD, scratch that, GMOs making your kids come out with extra eyeballs or goat horns. Look up GMO patent infringement, the one relevant thing missing from this moronic brainwashing vid. Nobody with half a brain is against the science. But the abuse of the violence of law is a problem that persists even if you struggle to ignore it.

  7. One thing that makes me a bit sad about this is that the market is working, with consumer sovereignty, to do something dumb. I listen to Jerry Hickey’s weekly paid program on WOR for Invite Health, always saying their products are non-GMO. Apparently their customers want non-GMO, so he’s giving them what they want. I know Hickey knows there’s nothing wrong w GMO, & it bothers me that although he’ll go to lengths to explain the research behind his supplements, apparently selling products that may be partly GMO is not worth it to the biz. They’d rather go to the lengths to assure absence of GMO materials than to risk Hickey’s reputation w certain people by tying him to lack of concern (or even to favor) for GMO in consumables. For that reason, he’d probably avoid going on the record as to his opinion on the subject. He doesn’t have to sell the meme that GMO is bad, he’s just stuck w it because so many of the people who buy dietary supplements are anti-GMO.

    1. The market is always working to optimize efficiency. However it is always seeking the optimal, but never actually reaching it. The pathway to constant improvement is creative destruction, as “dumb” ideas of all sorts are played out. This particular dead end overvalues safety against GMO disasters.

      Anyway food is so cheap in the developed world that the premium people pay for such “safety” is actually in the noise of money they waste on other recreational stuff anyway. People don’t just buy the cheapest seller’s commodity when they have money to spare, they make purchases which make them feel good about themselves too. So it kinda overlaps into other markets.

    2. The market also supplies seal penis pills and 4 million different shampoos. Dumb consumers can provide infinite bizarro demand.

  8. There’s a difference between being pro-science and being pro-Monsanto.

    Google Monsanto Arkansas dicamba.

    short version, They genetically engineered crops to withstand dicamba, the EPA rolls over, and then the dicamba “drift” ends up killing off the crops of the competition. How is that the free market in action? It’s not. They aren’t try to compete in the free market, they are trying to monopolize the market so they don’t have to compete.

    1. john_bunyan|7.15.17 @ 10:50PM|#
      “There’s a difference between being pro-science and being pro-Monsanto.”

      Yes there is.
      Just as there is a difference between being a sentient human being and some imbecilic asshole with a handle of john_bunyan.
      Short version: I hope you die before you reproduce; such stupidity should really be bred out of the human gene pool
      Please go die in a fire.

      1. I’m not sure you explained what was wrong or stupid about his statement. It’s the same sentiment of the fact you should be pro-capitalism and anti-crony.

        The only one who appears stupid is someone who takes the time to craft a colorful indult without bother to make a counter-argument. If you have one I’d love to hear it.

        1. Insult* (love mobile keyboards dontcha)

      2. You name call like a liberal. Did I nail you?

    2. Finally! I knew there had to be SOME Reason subscriber who knows ordure from Oreos. The rest of you come-mierdas might care to look into the shocking jurisprudence these mixed-economy (to put it mildly) artificial people (as FDR described them) are generating with their looter politician puppets. Recall that a right is a moral claim to freedom of action, and the ethical standard at the base of the thing is the value of an individual human life. All those manipulators need do is list their potions as public domain and the controversy (and men with guns) will be gone and forgotten. Robots and conspiracies against the public have no rights. The same principle could defang Big Pharma, eliminating two dangerous parasitical infestations in one fell swoop.

  9. I prefer watching Taleb bullycide GMO shills on Twitter.

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  11. While I don’t have a direct problem with GMO’s, I do have a problem with Monsanto and their monopily ways. I still have not been convinced that GMO plants are not invasive or that GMO weed killers and fertilizers don’t have after effects. I also don’t believe a word out of Tysons mouth. He is much too interested in his own career and likes to talk on subjects which are not his specialty.

    1. These poison-encouraging mutants have sold briskly along the seaward plains of Texas as native flounder quickly became an endangered enough species to attract government concern (e.g. coercion). True, this may be pure coincidence, overfishing or whatnot, but those fish swim inwards into brackish lagoons nearest cropland to spawn, and their numbers have dropped precipitously enough to merit a closer look at possible causes. In the meantime, frustrated eco-terrorists could vent their fury against the myrmidons of Mammon by strategic dissemination of Palmer Amaranth seeds in soil used to grow patent-protected mutants. The battle could then go–not to the largest legal and lobbying staff–but to hewers of Woodstock and drawers of water.

      1. OK, I am/was with you on the dicamba drift issue. Herbicide drifting has been an issue for decades and property rights and responsibility should be enforced equivalently and without regard for GMOs or scientific progress specifically.

        However, this flounder issue is complete hokum. The whole idea of herbicides is that they stay in/on plants and the whole idea of resistant plants is that you have to use less herbicide to kill as effectively. More importantly, the idea that farmers, and Monstanto by proxy, should curtail their behavior one way or the other based on the whims of “frustrated eco-terrorists” is suggesting that the cart go in front and the horse roll on the ground behind it.

  12. GMO is a STAPLE food of a lot of societies.

    Corn — that shit has been genetically modified for a long time.

    I don’t care if morons want to say they won’t do it. But they freak out countries who both desperately need the food and don’t have the strongest of scientific communities. That is where problems occur.

    1. I won’t hear you talking about Freehold, Iowa that way!

      1. You really need to knock it off you’re shooting your own issue in the foot.

        Herbicide/Pesticide drift is a known issue and property rights will get play around here. Willfully conflating that with GMOs in the abstract only makes you look like an idiot.

      2. Hey, I’m all for slicing the shit out of IP laws. Reduce the length of enforcement and massively reduce what can be copyrighted or trademarked in the first place.

        The GMO food isn’t your enemy.

        1. Or just eliminate IP altogether…

  13. Big science is biased in favor of GMO’s because there’s a bias. And it’s really biased. There was an article retracted on GMO’s before. You can’t get grants unless you first issue a disclaimer that GMO’s are yuck.

    Oh wait that’s climate change. My apologies.

  14. Does not fit progressive world view that science is bad. Must decry as anti-science.

  15. It is cool when seeing this campaign. I will check for my business of best electric smoker to get things done.

  16. Here’s the thing. GMO’s are winning. Overwhelmingly. Most food at your grocery and average restuarant is or is made with GMO foods. I dont mind people advertising for their brand but it’s disengenuious to claim there is a war on GMO’s. A brief glimpse at farming industry and all the regulation that affects farming makes it clear that there is a war on small farmers and organic growers. And it is funded by government and backed by scientism darlings like Tyson. But sure, keep growing your product you poor browbeaten industrial farmers!

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