Commentary by Farm and Dairy Reporter Catie Noyes
“When was the last time you changed your mind?”
No, I’m not referring to the fifth outfit you tried on this morning before leaving for work or the last-minute decision to get McDonald’s instead of Subway for lunch.
But when was the last time you really challenged yourself to consider another side of an opinion or viewpoint that you hold dearly.
A new documentary, Food Evolution, challenges you to do just that — to think critically about the food industry, step out of your comfort zone and ask questions.
The Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute, in Wooster, held a free screening of the movie Nov. 7, inviting area farmers, foodies and anyone remotely interested in learning more about a controversial topic, GMOs.
Following the screening, a panel of industry professionals led a discussion on the movie and answered questions from the audience.
What is a GMO?
So what is a Genetically Modified Organism or GMO? In our society, the three-letter acronym has become somewhat frightening and polarizing.
In the movie, a clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live shows a camera crew asking random men and women on the street that very question: What is a GMO? Some tried to stumble through the acronym, while others simply said “I don’t know, but I know it’s bad.”
Early in the documentary, one protester explains to the camera that GMOs are a “thoughtless invasive species” that are created by mad scientists. But the scientists behind genetically engineered (GE) crops are not mad — other than possibly mad at the way they are portrayed by activists. Their mission is to find ways to make crops better.
Genetic engineering allows plant breeders to take desirable traits, like disease resistance, and transfer that trait to a plant or organism they want to improve, or make a change to an existing trait in a plant they are developing, according to gmoanswers.org.
This creates a crop, like Hawaii’s Rainbow papaya, which is resistant to diseases, such as the papaya ringspot virus. Hawaii’s papaya production was halted in the 1990s when papaya ringspot virus decimated almost all of the $11 million industry.
Dennis Gonsalves, a plant pathologist from Cornell University, was credited with developing the disease-resistant Rainbow papaya that restored production.
But even though Hawaiians were enjoying a healthy crop once again, activists started to challenge how healthy they really were.
Food Evolution portrays how fear tactics have cast a negative light on GMOs and biotechnology. GMO opponents latch on to the most dramatic images and pieces of evidence that can persuade others to join their ranks without considering the science behind them.
I think one of the scariest comments was made by Zen Honeycutt, an activist and founder of Moms Across America, who said, “I trust the social media more than most medical doctors, more than the CDC, more than FDA, more than the EPA. I don’t need a scientific study.”
“GMOS signify a loss of people who are in touch with their food system,” said Wayne County veterinarian Gabe Middleton during the post-movie panel discussion.
In the case of Hawaii’s papayas, American consumer activist and self-published author Jeffery Smith told Hawaiians GMOs could lead to health hazards such as developing more colds, cancer, birth defects and autism.
Even though Gonsalves tried to defend this point with science, stating there is no proof that GMOs cause health hazards, the public had made up its mind and Hawaii became one of the first states to ban GMO products in 2013.
This caused a ripple effect, causing more people to develop their own concerns about GMOs and causing more counties, states and countries to enact bans of their own.
“We live in a world that is presented to us,” said Glenn Mott, vice president of compliance at Gerber Poultry Inc., in Kidron, Ohio, during the panel discussion. He described the power of technology in spreading powerful messages and how consumers are ready to suck in all that information and take it at face value without digging deeper.
During the panel discussion, Dr. Cathann Kress, dean of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and vice president for agricultural administration, commented on the transition she saw in the movie when activists were presented with facts.
Consumers are looking for that easy and simple answer to their questions about food and GMOs, she said. Unfortunately, there is no one simple, right answer.
I personally enjoyed seeing an activist start to question her own reasons for being against GMOs when a scientists informed her the information she was using was not credible. I appreciated the civil conversation they shared and that the activists were interested in learning more.
I think one of the other notable points in Food Evolution was watching how a few of the states and countries that had placed a ban on GMOs out of fear started to reconsider the benefits of GMO technology once they heard the research and saw the capability of a GMO plant.
Food Evolution was not intended to tell you how you should raise your crops or what food you should and shouldn’t eat. It was intended to address the science of GMOs and help consumers make informed decisions about the food they eat.
“I hope this movie makes you ask more questions and indulge in discussions,” said Kress, adding it doesn’t matter what your perspective is, you should ask those questions and start conversations.
“There is an absolute need for critical thinking,” said Dr. Jarrod Tudor, dean of University of Akron Wayne College. “You need to read outside of your comfort zone.”
In the movie “you see a lot of investment in GMO and you see a lot of robust discussion. In the end, the world does have a food problem,” said Tudor. A lot of us are blessed with food to eat, but we all have a responsibility to look after one another, he added.
In the end, all sides, whether pro-GMO, non-GMO, organic or conventional, want a safe and sustainable food supply. It’s the path that gets us there that is going to continue to be the challenge.
I encourage anyone to watch Food Evolution. Whether you are a traditional or organic farmer, a foodie or someone who just likes to eat, I think the movie helps get those discussions started.
It may not have all the answers, but if it encourages you to dig deeper, to ask questions, or even changes your mind on a preconceived notion about agriculture or GM technology, well, then we are already a step in the right direction.
A trailer for Food Evolution, streaming options and more information about the making of the movie can be found here.
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