In BriefThe controversy around genetically modified foods has been raging for decades. Scott Hamilton Kennedy, the director of documentary Food Evolution, talks with Futurism about why the GMO debate deserved to be revisited, and what his film does differently.
You’ve probably heard the same conversation, in one way or another, for years: Some say genetically modified organisms (GMO) are harmful, while others say they’ll help us feed the growing billions of humans that populate our planet. People’s positions on the subject seem cemented, bound by the hard stays of emotion, and nearly impossible to change. It’s even more resonant at this intractable moment in the United States, where the division between the two sides on issues from the economy, to gun control, to healthcare — really, just politics in general — seems insurmountable. The further we move from facts and the truth, the harder it is to come to rational conclusions on these subjects.
But to Academy Award-nominated documentary director Scott Hamilton Kennedy, there’s a way to dislodge even the most dogged opponent in these conversations: with science.
Kennedy’s latest film, Food Evolution, revisits the GMO conversation, imbuing it with science and revealing the truth through a haze of propaganda and misinformation. He recently sat down with Futurism to talk about the film, what it tells us about other controversial subjects in American society today, and what the food of the future will be like.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Futurism: Can you briefly describe what the film is about?
Scott Hamilton Kennedy: On the surface, Food Evolution is a resetting of the controversial conversation around genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It’s an important subject about food — it has issues that are first-world, that are third-world. And it wasn’t being told correctly. We thought this needed to be reset.
At the end of the day, it’s not a movie that’s pro- or anti-GMO. It’s pro-science. It’s really trying to underline the importance of using science to make good decisions and the dangers of not doing so.
F: People have had the GMO conversation in many different ways at different times, and the conclusions from those conversations haven’t been the same. Why is it important to have them now? Why rehash those old arguments, why dig them up and exhume them?
SHK: The GMO conversation has been around for almost 20 years, maybe longer. I was asking our wonderful narrator, Neil Degrasse-Tyson, “How do you think people are going to respond to the film?” He goes, “You don’t get it — no one else is defending GMOs. It’s not happening, and it’s very important and it needs to be done.” That’s why he took the film on, not to defend GMOs, but to defend science.
There are a lot of people that hear the phrase “GMOs” and say, “Oh, Monsanto, bad — GMOs bad, organic good,” and just move on to the next conversation. And it’s just not right, you know? So as a journalist and as a father, I wanted to try and tell the nuance of it.
F: What were some of the things getting in the way of having a real conversation about science?
SHK: Oh boy. So I was introduced to [the concept of] confirmation bias in the making of this film. Confirmation bias is when a scientist only sees evidence that supports their hypothesis. The bad scientist will say, “I want to say that GMOs are bad,” and they’ll look for evidence that will find that GMOs are bad. The good scientist will say, “I want to know what GMOs are, are they unhealthy?” And go through tests to see if they are. “What are they? [that person will ask].” “Are they significantly different than the other version of that product?” So let’s use corn — a good scientist would try to determine the differences between [a genetically modified plant and a conventional one], what are the risks, and where are the benefits.
All of us suffer from confirmation bias because we try to see things in the world that support the way we live our lives. And it’s actually kind of healthy in a way. You want to be able to look out into the world and go, “I’m making good decisions as a citizen, as a parent.” But confirmation bias is also very dangerous because it can lead you to not use your natural thought and see things that go counter to your worldview. You can talk about bubbles and things like that. So we thought it was a very exciting time to be taking on a film that talked about confirmation bias because we are in a time when people have such distrust of people outside of their bubble, of science, of good communication, of even media.
One of the joys of science is that it’s not political, it’s not blue state or red state, it’s not rich or poor. It’s the best system we have for being able to make decisions, and that was one of the other exciting elements of trying to make this film.
F: It does seem like we’re particularly bad at understanding nuance. What is your film doing differently than other conversations about this to, if not change minds, at least loosen them up a little?
SHK: We didn’t make a film to say, “We’re looking forward to changing people’s minds” — we can’t, that wasn’t the goal. We’re trying to communicate the truth about a complicated situation that also made people think about how they are making decisions.
We told a story. That’s really the biggest thing. In 90 minutes, we can take you on a journey. We can peel back what a GMO is, who the people working on GMOs are, who are the people who are against GMOs, and you can really go on a journey. The emotional journey of storytelling makes you experience the truth, and makes you experience life in a different way.
I think the thing that was effective with this film, as with many films, is that we’re telling a story. There’s a term that facts don’t persuade — you can hit somebody in the face with lots and lots of facts and hope it’s going to change their mind, but if they’re already dug in, it’s not going to [work]. If you tell them a story and you connect with them, you get them to see that you actually have very similar goals, and you gain their trust, then you can start to get to a point where maybe they’re going to think about how they made their decisions and possibly change their mind.
F: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in the course of making this film?
SHK: I was very surprised to see how some in the organic and natural foods industries were very ruthless. They use miscommunication to foment fear to sell their products. That makes me very angry and very frustrated. As a parent, life is complicated enough, and fear-mongering does not help. Tell me the truth. Tell me the complicated truth, and then let me make decisions.
I’m very grateful that we had Dr. John Swartzberg from the Berkeley Wellness Center in the film. It’s one of those organizations that’s trying to tell us the scientific truth about things like how we eat. He says very eloquently in the film that we have great data that tells us the types of food we should be eating — whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables. They don’t even need to be fresh — frozen is fine, canned is fine — just eat your fruits and vegetables, along with less fat and less sugar, those kinds of things. But we don’t have any evidence to say that it’s important for those foods to be produced organically.
It’s a really important part of this conversation to say that if you have an organic product that you like, and you want to consume it, or if you want to be an organic farmer, I don’t want to remove anybody’s choice. But it gets into some very dangerous territory for somebody who is producing, selling, or purchasing organic food to say, “I’m doing this and I’m a better person than you. I’m doing better by my family, I’m doing better by the planet,” — that really gets into some tricky judgment, and not scientifically valid territory. So I hope we go forward with a more nuanced and clear conversation about our food.
F: One of the things your film does particularly well is show how distrust of science has been conflated with mistrust of corporations. Those two kind of merge together in people’s minds. How did that happen, and how do you parse them apart?
SHK: People distrust big corporations, which is valid. We’ve seen over and over again that money can lead to power, corruption, and manipulation. We have checks and balances — do we need better checks and balances for that? Of course we do. But in some people’s minds, it’s gotten tied up that big money influences science, so we can’t trust science.
The good news with science is, I don’t actually care who funds the science. I want to see more independent science, but anybody who’s crying out to see more independent science has to remember that it’s going to come from our tax dollars.
I don’t have a problem if Monsanto or Whole Foods funds a study. I have a problem if Monsanto or Whole Foods says, “This is the result we’d like to see from this study.” That’s where the fail happens. The same thing happens with me as a filmmaker. I don’t really care who funds my movies as long as I have the independence to tell the truth as best I can, just like an independent scientist.
So how do we separate [science and corporations]? I’ll go into our two types of thinking. So type one thinking is fight or flight, it’s instinctual. And type two thinking is digging in deeper and really getting analytical. I beg people to think twice. With GMOs, type one thinking might be GMOs are bad. Type two thinking is, well, what is it? It’s a breeding method. How is it being used? So to your point of how do we remove the conflation of science and money, you think twice. What’s the study? Who did the study? Was the study repeatable? That’s one of the most beautiful elements of good science, that it gives you confidence. If a study can’t be repeated, it’s not good science. If it is repeated over and over again, and you still want to doubt it, you’re not skeptical anymore, you’re a denialist. I mean you can look at that with climate change. So, I beg people to think twice and really look at who’s funding [the study], how was the funding taking place, what was the science, who was the scientist, and dig deeper. It takes more effort, but it will give you much more peace of mind in understanding what is real, what is fake, and what’s been manipulated.
F: What does the debate around GMOs tell us about how we as society confront other controversial issues, scientific or otherwise?
SHK: Another reason that the GMO debate was interesting to us is, as Nathanael Johnson, a wonderful journalist from [the online environmental magazine] Grist says in the film, it’s a metaphor for many things. It’s a metaphor for how we look at our food system, it’s a metaphor for how we make decisions, and the dangers of getting caught in our bubbles, or caught in our confirmation bias. Again, that’s why we made the film — it was to use GMOs as a metaphor to say, “Look at how easy it is to get swayed by your own confirmation bias, by others’ marketing tools that might go towards your confirmation bias, and make you not hear what the actual science is telling us. And that’s a very dangerous thing.” To quote Neil Degrasse-Tyson again, “If we are not using science to make political decisions, that’s the beginning of the end of an informed democracy, and we do not want to see that.”
I’m really looking for the glass half full in these very confusing times. I’m looking for the next political movement to be more scientifically-based, to get more scientists involved in politics, to get more politicians to say, “I’m going to try to not spin you — I’m going to try and tell you what the data is telling us about any individual situation, whether it be economic or social or something else.” Do we need a stoplight here? Are charter schools better than public schools? Let’s really look at what the data is telling us about these things. Then we can talk about wrestling with the difficult political situations around that.
There’s a wonderful professor, Jordan Peterson out of the University of Toronto, who says we’re living in a time of chaos. And in a time of chaos, our sword and our shield is to tell the truth. That gives me great comfort.
F: What has the feedback to the film been like?
SHK: So reactions to the film have been really amazing. We knew we had a controversial film. We knew we were going to take some slings and arrows, and we have, but the film is winning. Some of the biggest slings and arrows that we’ve taken are from people who hadn’t seen the film. Things like a letter signed by some professors starting at the University of California, Berkeley and a few other universities in California that said that the film was propaganda. That’s quite a harsh thing to say, isn’t it? One problem: most of them hadn’t seen the film. So if that’s not a fail, I don’t know what is. How do you call something propaganda that you have not even seen? Now, I’ve also asked any of them to debate me publicly — let’s play the film and let’s have a conversation about what propaganda is. I feel very confident we’re going to win that argument.
One of the sad places that we’re in right now is that we are having conversations and disagreeing with each other instead of listening to each other. We need to listen to what another person is communicating and look at the data underneath — do they have something to support what they’re saying? We say, “I don’t agree with they’re saying, so let me try and take a crap on them by calling things propaganda, or racist, or sexist.”
That’s been one of the frustrating elements of some who have tried to negate the film. The good news is, that’s a very small group of people. Overwhelmingly, people who have seen the film have found it to be smart and informative, and really made them think about how they made decisions. We have two-hour Q&As that just go on and on because people are really engaged in the subject, engaged in thinking about how we make decisions. And that’s just been amazing.
One of the other ways that we can look at the effects of the film is we do a poll — a very unscientific poll, but a poll — before and after the film. We just ask people by a show of hands to tell us are they concerned about GMOs for their own safety or the safety of the planet. After the film, we ask the question again. In Seattle, Washington, we had a screening of about 120 people, and we asked, “How many of you fear GMOs for yourself or the environment?” and we had 100 percent of hands in the air. So my producing partner Trace and I looked at each other and said, “Oh boy, this is going to be a spicy Q&A.” We played the film, and in the poll we took afterward, we had zero hands in the air. We had a complete conversion.
Mostly we’ve been averaging about 30 to 50 percent of hands in the air at the start of the film, and we’re converting between 70 and 80 percent. And then even the people whose minds we don’t change, when you start to talk to them, they’re not necessarily saying things about GMOs, it’s these other elements. They’re concerned about monocultures and butterflies, and all these other things that are worthy of having a conversation about, but they’re not inherently related to GMOs and if we should trust them. So it’s been incredible to see the film make people think about how they make decisions in real time, and actually changing their minds. That’s just been a great honor.
F: What does the film tell you about what our food is going to be like in 50 years?
SHK: That’s a very difficult question. I’m definitely on the positive side of this. While we know that agriculture has a huge effect on things like climate change, it does also feed us. So we have to weigh these things. There’s no such thing as zero carbon footprint with what you eat — there’s not a system of food that isn’t going to have an effect. So the question is: How can we have safer food, more nutritious food, more sustainable food? The good news is that we already have incredibly safe and nutritious food. Do we always consume the healthiest food? That’s a different question.
How to make our food more sustainable is really what we’re going to be looking at in the next 50 years. And there’s a lot of smart people doing great things. So does that mean that we do all huge farming? No. We can have a variety of farming, but, done well, large-scale farming is much more efficient and adds much less damage to the soil. Should we communicate with all types of farmers about the best ways to do this? Absolutely. If those tools have been tested and they’re safe, should we give those farmers the choice to use them? Absolutely.
So I’m actually very positive about where we’re going to go with this, because we’ve solved these problems before, and I think we’re going to solve them again.
Food Evolution is now available online at Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, Google Play, and YouTube.