Food Evolution: Putting science at the heart of the GMO debate

Few subjects in food have proved as divisive as genetically modified organisms, but many who work with them think consumer mistrust is based on poorly understood science – even though the debate around GMOs is often highly emotive.

The food documentary Food Evolution, which will be screened at Hi Europe 2018 in Frankfurt, Germany on 29th November, tackles both the science and the larger topic of misinformation in discussions about food.

Free of charge for attendees of Hi Europe 2018. Free registration required.

Released in 2016, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) funded Food Evolution, an independently made film explaining the science behind genetic modification, and how it differs from what many people believe about GM technology. The film’s impact is difficult to measure, but the question remains: is it even possible to have a rational conversation about such an emotionally charged topic?

Beyond GMO science

Food Evolution focuses on how legislators, campaigners and consumers have routinely ignored thousands of studies supporting the usefulness, efficacy and safety of GMOs. It examines the effects of ongoing debate about GMOs around the world, including in Hawaii, where legislators backtracked on a GMO ban to allow a loophole for GM papaya, which had effectively saved the state’s papaya industry. The filmmakers also visited Uganda, where a ban on GM crops had deprived farmers of a proven solution for banana wilt, a disease that has devastated one the nation’s main food crops. The ban has since been overturned, in October 2017, stoking both hopes and fears about GM technology among Ugandans.

Among others, it also unpicks the notorious Séralini study, a retracted and thoroughly debunked piece of research that became stuck in consumers’ minds with its shocking pictures of tumour-ridden rats. (Never mind that these rats were specifically bred to develop cancers and half the control group developed tumours too.)

“As Food Evolution illustrates, there are misunderstandings and misperceptions around science of food,” said Colin Dennis, past IFT president and chair of the UK’s Agri-Food Training Partnership. “…I believe that a more open dialogue around science and technology and their use with respect to food is needed to change people’s views. Only by explaining the science and the rationale for its use can we hope to reduce the emotion and help correct the misunderstandings and misperceptions which exist.”

However, while many scientists find such misperceptions exasperating, often they miss the point that much of the debate for GMO sceptics is centred on other issues.

“A recent survey found that the top three main reasons people reject GM food are concerns around corporate control of the food system, GM supporting unsustainable industrial and factory farming, and environmental damage from GM crops,” said Laura Mackenzie, head of policy at the UK’s organic certification body, The Soil Association.

The film does attempt to address some of these concerns, particularly consumers’ suspicions about Monsanto. However, it wins few friends when it pits GMOs against the organic industry, and claims that organic farming could not reach the required scale to feed the world without cutting down rainforests. As Mackenzie points out, there is considerable wastage to be tackled in the global food supply chain, as a third of food goes to waste, and 40% of all crops go to feeding livestock.

“The main threat to rainforests and other precious global habitats is intensive industrial agriculture – particularly livestock – not ecological food production systems such as organic,” she said. “…Organic cows, for example, eat mainly grass, not imported feed.”

Organic and GMO not compatible

For a film that aims to use science to reach an objective conclusion, its dismissal of organic farming’s potential based on a contentious estimate is unfortunate, especially because it acknowledges that both organic and GM proponents seem to be fighting for the same things: safe, abundant foods for all with fewer toxic pesticides.

On the other hand, many organic institutions – including The Soil Association – dismiss the idea that GM seeds could be combined with organic practices. Of course, there is no reason that farmers using many types of GM seeds could not also grow them without herbicides or pesticides, but the meaning of ‘organic’ has expanded to mean much more than that.

“Organic and GM are not compatible but the more important point is that GM food is not something that would benefit either UK consumers or the vast majority of farmers,” Mackenzie said.

When given the examples of papaya, Ugandan bananas or Golden Rice to prevent vitamin A deficiency, she said: “Such promises made by the GM industry fail to come to fruition. In the real world, GM has not helped the environment nor farmers nor wider challenges such as food security.”

It is true that these three GM applications have faced hurdles, especially due to regulatory bans, but these do not necessarily mean the technology itself is at fault. Food Evolution asserts that technology does not have a moral valence – although it can be used in ways that could be considered moral or immoral.

Dennis notes that despite opposition to GM crops, farmers have continued to take them up. The global area planted with GM crops has increased 110-fold since they were first commercialised in 1996, suggesting that many farmers do see them as beneficial. But that doesn’t mean that GM crops are the only answer to global farming challenges.

“If we are to respond to the future challenges of providing safe, nutritious and sustainable food supplies for an expanding and more urbanised world population, then a range of technologies and combinations will be needed and should be adopted in accordance with scientific understanding and consensus, now and in the future,” Dennis said.

Free of charge for attendees of Hi Europe 2018. Free registration required.

 

May 16, 2018