“Food Evolution” sparks debate

Johnny Myers


On Oct. 23, the Parlee Center for Science and Common Good (CSCG) hosted a screening of the documentary “Food Evolution” produced by filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy in collaboration with the Institute for Food Technologists. According to the Ursinus College website’s announcement on the event, Kennedy described “Food Evolution” as a “fully independent investigation into the topic of GMOs every step of the way, interviewing experts on both sides of the aisle and including all points of view.”

Some attendees found the film to be disappointing in relaying issues facing GMOs. Dr. Robert Dawley, coordinator of the CSCG, explained some the film’s problems. Dawley found that “the reaction to the documentary itself was rather negative. The documentary makers had advertised it as strictly scientific and just the facts, which is why we showed it. There wasn’t that much actual science in it, and the science that was present wasn’t as complete as it might be.”

He added, “There [was] a great deal of science on the safety and efficacy of GMOs, but we’ve now heard [from] guest speakers that are more skeptical of GMOs. Also, and maybe this is the nature of documentaries, it made a deliberate effort to use music and cinematography to present some of the characters in a favorable and unfavorable light, which is attempting to manipulate the audience rather than present facts. It had a clear agenda to make GMOs seem beneficial without question, and that didn’t fit my agenda of allowing our students to evaluate the benefits and the dangers of GMOs.”

Additionally, Dawley summarized the evidence found throughout the speaker series. He said, “Beyond that, what we learned is that no one on the panel had seen . . . any evidence that genetically engineered plants are unsafe to consume. On the other hand, we’ve seen evidence that genetically modified plants could be beneficial: the one [genetically modified papaya] that’s resistant to the papaya blight [and saved the papaya] industry, and the [genetically modified] banana that could resist the plight in Uganda that could keep Ugandans from starving. [However] there are other examples that the benefits of GMOs may have been initial and fleeting.”

For example, one of the primary crops that is genetically modified is corn, which is used to produce high fructose corn syrup and a number of derivatives. Dawley mentioned that “there exists a corn that can resist herbicide that allows you to spray RoundUp [Monsanto’s largest-selling pesticide] on it. There was a short-term benefit to it, that using RoundUp reduced the amount of much more dangerous pesticides. Now, however, as resistance to RoundUp has built up, farmers are returning to having to use the pesticides, plus with the added difficulty to grow any other kind of corn seed, because farmers have become locked in to using this kind of corn seed.”

Dawley also pointed out some flaws in the CSCG series this semester. “The talks in the series largely lacked on the political and economic implications of using GMOs. What we learned in the panel that we hadn’t learned enough of in the series is the political and economic forces behind using GMOs, in particular, Monsanto. We didn’t learn enough about the political and economic forces behind using GMOs that might drive its use when it’s not in the public interest. I think that could have been focused on more.”

The issue of GMOs is politically divisive and there are no set conclusions on the debate regarding their safety. However, junior Jake Lachowicz, a member of CSCG, believes in the future of GMOs in the United States and thinks that the benefits outweigh the costs.

“As of right now, they do much more good for our society than harm. They increase yields and allow for better crop survival. Although this is true, there has not been extensive studies on the long term implications of GMOs. However, more studies need to be published to have a concrete answer on the GMO debate,” he said.

Lachowicz also mentioned the usefulness of programs like CSCG. “[The CSCG speaker series has] allowed me to listen to a variety of unique speakers and their perspectives. From their discussions, it has opened my eyes more about how science can be used in a variety of ways for the good of society.”