Is the GMO Scare a Marketing Scam? (Audio and Transcript)
Listen to the full interview in the player above and read the transcript below. Find past editions of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence hopefully comes from my guests. In this case, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, an Oscar-nominated director and the director of a—I want to say controversial; that doesn’t quite capture it—explosive film with not an explosive title, Food Evolution. Most of us think evolution’s OK, brings progress and so forth. But really, what your documentary is, you dare to defend genetically modified organisms, the GMOs that when I go to Whole Foods later today—some people think of it as Whole Paycheck—but the cost of it is justified because in addition to getting something called natural food and organic food, we’re also protected against these nasty GMOs. You’ve directed a film in which you dare to suggest that there’s nothing wrong with genetically modified organisms in our food chain.
SHK: Ah, it’s true.
RS: Is that fair?
SHK: That’s fair enough. I would adjust that a little bit and say we made a film that defended the scientific process that tells us if a GMO is safe or not safe, and tells us if organic food is more nutritious or more safe. So we’re really defending the scientific method, but at the same time, yes, we are resetting the conversation on GMOs and food that we felt was really, really out of bounds.
RS: I want to start out with your having time to state what this is all about. And without my interrupting, because frankly, until I watched your movie, I am one of those who thought, well, I don’t want any genetically modified organisms in my food chain. So why don’t you just state the case as you see it, and as your film presents it?
SHK: Sure. So we wanted to make a film that reset the conversation on GMOs because we felt the conversation was out of balance. Many people, when they hear GMOs, they might not even know what it is; it’s a genetically modified organism, and even that is the, is not even a fully scientific term. The real, the correct term is genetic engineering or GE. Which is a modern form of breeding; it’s really a seed-breeding method, and we’ve been manipulating seeds and manipulating plants since the beginning of modern agriculture, call it about 10,000 years. So out of the gate, even using the term natural—as we attempt to reset in the film, there’s really, if you go to any grocery store, including Whole Paycheck—if you go to any grocery store, there’s nothing that is quote unquote natural in that grocery store. Everything has been manipulated by mankind trying to make it better, tastier, bigger; a ruby red grapefruit did not exist in nature. But even something as simple as corn started as teosinte, which was an inedible, you know, weed with like four hard kernels of corn that we’ve turned into these delicious, beautiful ears of corn. So that was the goal, was to reset the conversation. And there’s a lot of people out there spreading fear about GMOs that’s completely unfounded and has no science behind it. And at the same time, to give them credit, the reasons many of them have spread fear about GMOs is that they want to have the safest, most nutritious food available for themselves and hopefully around the world. Now the question is, how are we making those decisions? And the current GMOs that are on the market have been tested possibly more than any other food product in our history to determine that they are safe for ourselves and safe for the planet. Going forward, case-by-case basis, let’s take each product on its own. So one more piece, if I can get in there before your next question, is GMO is a process, not a product. A lot of people think GMO and they immediately think of this horrible, think of the company Monsanto, and they are one of the most hated companies on the planet; I’ve never quite witnessed a company, outside of maybe Philip Morris, who was more hated. And I don’t work for Monsanto, I got no money from Monsanto, Monsanto can fight their, can fight their own fight. But it was very important to us to make sure that you understand that Monsanto does not own this technology. And this technology can be used to do things like save the papaya in Hawaii, and is available to save a very devastating banana disease in Uganda that’s wiped out 50 percent of bananas.
RS: There’s no question that this is a subject worth debating, which is why I’ve asked you to do this today, and I appreciate that. And I do think the film deserves credit for stating a case in a very convincing way. However, when you say “spreading fear,” you know, about the people who warn about that, you’re also spreading cheer.
RS: OK, I understand that, and you’re telling us, really, because it’s safe we have nothing to worry about. And I want to just raise a few questions, as—and I’m not at all expert on this—but the title of your movie, just for—and it’s available now, will be available in digitized form and so forth, and it should encourage a big debate; that’s what we want. And we want to know whether this allows more people to be fed well, whether it works against, you know, insects that are dangerous to crops and so forth. But your title—Food Evolution—that tripped me off. Because evolution suggests some sort of natural process of accommodation to the world, and evolving to something better and more resilient and so forth. And much of the changes in agriculture could fall safely under that rubric, even grafting and so forth; there would seem to be kind of an organic connection. What you’re talking about here, now, is certainly the word revolution in a disruptive sense, is more appropriate than evolution. In that you’re taking different species—I mean, the extreme would be pigs that could fly, right?—you know, you’re messing with the DNA; you’re introducing new elements, you’re playing God. Not you, but the people doing this bioengineering. And that produces results that can be quite disturbing, at least aesthetically and then in what results. So I do really wonder whether that evolution word was fair—
SHK: Was the correct one. Absolutely. So, let’s go back a little bit. So I would say that genetic engineering is seed manipulation, is a seed-breeding technique that’s now being done in the lab. Neil deGrasse Tyson, our esteemed narrator, has a video online that you can go see him talking about GMO, where he said we’ve been manipulating plants for thousands of years, and now we do in the lab, and it scares you—chill out. Those are Neil’s words, not mine. So to say that this is invasive, or I can’t remember all the words that you used, to say that this one is a bit more shocking, is your, I guess is your opinion. I don’t find it to be shocking until I find out if somebody did something shocking with the technique. So we’ve been manipulating, as I keep saying, these seeds. And have you ever heard of mutagenesis? So mutagenesis is an organically approved seed manipulation, where you are blasting seeds, actually, with radiation until you get a mutant and then decide if that mutant is good or not. And I’m not saying you should be scared of those seeds, either, because they go through safety precautions as well. But it’s not as easy to say that organic seeds are natural and good and pure, and not playing God, and these seeds are playing God. You really have to look at the details.
RS: OK, so let me cut to the chase here as far as the Monsanto argument. I mean, the argument against, all the concern about GMOs is we have frankenfood. We have big corporations that can control the regulatory process through lobbying, through the money they give to politicians and so forth. And that it’s very difficult to regulate them and their impact. And what you do in your movie is you suggest a different villain. And let’s really cut to the chase. You say that there’s a whole food industry based on natural, organic, and most recently informed by anti-GMO that you say is trafficking in fear. Right?
SHK: For sure. Some. Again, let’s be very clear—
RS: You’re putting Whole Foods as an example—and they’re not alone, of course—you’re putting the whole—and by the way, Whole Foods is now owned by—
RS: —Jeff Bezos and Amazon, who’s also the richest man in the world. So we get villains on all sides of this; if we think of unbridled power, he certainly has his measure. And so the organic food industry is not a little mom and pop thing of making your own jams in your backyard.
RS: And so it’s a big business, as you correctly point out. But your movie is very provocative—that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it’s very provocative in saying the good guys and the bad guys are not the way you think when you think about agriculture, right?
SHK: That’s fair enough, that yeah, we really have to think twice, right, when we look at these situations. I don’t know how many of your listeners know the wonderful book, Thinking Fast and Slow, that Type I thinking is fight-or-flight; that we make very quick decisions, that organic is pure and good and corporations are evil, and greed leads to evil things. Type II is—let’s dig in a little bit deeper.
RS: Well, but you say that in your book, too—no, but you say that in the movie, I mean.
RS: You do say that these organic product sales people have grown to be very powerful, have been able to set the agenda. And you now, you know, hold them up really as villains manipulating the discussion to make more profit, right? Isn’t that basically the argument of the film
SHK: I would—yeah—I would let you use the word villain, but am I—are we the first film to point out the fact that some in the organic and natural foods industry have benefited from using fear, not just of GMOs, but fear of big food to sell their product? And that’s a shame. Because the organic farming, as a system, has done a lot of good to help us be aware of the inputs—so the inputs in our farming systems are pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, things like that—are we using too much, are they toxic, are they nontoxic? And some in the organic industry sort of rode a perfect storm, I like to say, of distrust, right? You described some of it; we have it in the film, that big equals greed and equals manipulation of power, manipulation of government. And we’ve seen examples of that over and over and over again, and we have to have checks and balances in place to try and protect us from that. But they, people, the organic industry got to say, look, big food is evil, big food is poisonous, here is pure and natural food—which, it isn’t natural, ‘cause it’s a manipulation as well—and they rode that. Instead of saying, this is an alternative, some in the industry said: this is the only way to go. If you want to keep your children safe, if you want to not destroy the planet, organic is the way to go. And that is a drastic oversimplification of the data. Again, this film is about trying to use data to make decisions as a parent or a politician.
RS: The film has been very controversial. And one of the people that’s taken objection is used in the film, Marion Nestle, somebody I first met when she was a graduate student at UC Berkeley a long time ago. She’s probably the, you know, arguably one of the top experts on food safety, and has written very important books and very important studies. And she’s in your film making the statement that there’s no evidence that GMO products are unsafe. And you use that—
SHK: A correct statement, yeah.
RS: —yeah, as a validation. However, she wrote a piece in June, and she said—I’m quoting from it—”I have asked repeatedly to have my short interview clip removed from this film. The director refuses. He believes his film is fair and balanced. I do not.” And, and she says she was quoted out of context. She said that “In my 10-second clip, I say that I am unaware of convincing evidence that eating GM foods is unsafe—this is what I said, but it is hugely out of context.
Safety is the industry’s talking point. In the view of the GMO industry and this film, if GMOs are safe, they ought to be fully acceptable and nothing else is relevant.” And then she goes through a whole list of arguments about the development of monoculture, the effects of industrial agriculture on the environment and climate, carcinogenics as with Roundup, the possibility of developing problems where you need more pesticide, and so forth. And she ends with saying, “This is another example of how aggressively this industry protects its self-interests and attacks critics,” exactly the opposite of what you were just saying. Why wouldn’t you take her 10-second thing out if that’s the way she feels?
SHK: OK. It’s a few pieces here. I have great respect for Marion Nestle; I’m grateful that she was in the film. Let’s start at the beginning. What does out of context mean? Right? So you tell me; you saw the film. Do you think her statement is out of context? Out of context, to me, would mean that she said GMOs are unsafe and I made her say GMOs are safe; she said the words, GMOs—she is not scared of GMOs, she does not see a reason that GMOs should be determined to be unsafe, the current ones on the market. So that’s not out of context. The other elements that she brought up—in our huge agricultural system, clearly one film cannot take on all of those things—are valid things to talk about. And they don’t, are not inherently, related to GMOs. If you removed GMO technology from the conversation, those things would still exist. What I hoped she would have done, would have said, I agree with the statement that I made in the film; I wish the film also dealt with x, y, and z. And we can have that conversation, and other films can be made, and we can go on and on. What I will not accept is her calling me a propagandist, her saying that I’m working for industry, because I’m not working for an industry. I’m an independent contractor, just like her. I’m an independent journalist, just like her. And you can hear the defensiveness in my voice, because it’s a very frustrating time to be called, you know, her version of calling me fake news. And I think that’s a shame that she’s lowering to that, because I’m asking to have a respectful conversation around data, and she’s lowering it to, you know, he-said she-said kind of stuff that’s, again, not founded. So I ask her, where is she drawing the line in the sand? If she’s saying that my film is propaganda, and on my side of the aisle I have Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, the top scientific organizations around the world that we’ve come to respect on issues like climate change, and she’s got on her side of the fence people like Food Babe and Zen Honeycutt and Dr. Mercola and Mike Adams—your listeners can look all these people up—who are using her letter to support their point of view. And she’s saying she’s in line with people who are saying things like GMOs give people HIV? And where’s the line in the sand?
RS: I’m talking to Scott Hamilton Kennedy, the director of Food Evolution, a very controversial, provocative documentary basically defending genetically modified organisms in the food chain. [omission] We’ve been having a very good discussion [laughter] about GMOs, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to watch your movie; I’m glad that we can have a debate about this. And I did tip you in advance to it. I was very much influenced by Marion Nestle, because I really respect her work. And in her book, what she makes clear is that you can’t trust the process; the whole thing is, you have not an evolution, you have a revolution, OK? This is not the same as what was done for 10,000 years; that the use of DNA and the intrusion of different species, one into the other, is a fundamental altering of the whole process. That’s what she’s arguing. And in her book she points out the terrible risky course that we’ve had with government regulation. I mean, for instance, you mentioned Philip Morris, but Philip Morris ended up owning Kraft, right? The food company—the same people that gave us the tobacco problem. And she says if you actually look at regulation—that’s her main thing—we can’t be certain that these things are safe, because we’re trusting agencies that are bought, that are controlled. That’s the nub of the argument—
SHK: So we can’t trust the USDA, so we can’t trust the USDA to determine what’s organic?
RS: Yes. She’s raising serious questions about—and that’s why I said I think the operative word here, and this doesn’t mean that your film is not accurate or fair, but I do say there’s a difference from an evolutionary process to a revolutionary one. Something very dramatic—
SHK: So—so this is where—sorry, go ahead.
RS: —no, something very dramatic has occurred because of advances in science, and the question is whether our political system can really control that and make sure the damage is not there. And she uses Roundup as an example of having unintended consequences, right? And possible, you know, carcinogens and so forth. And so you know, your basic—when I say there are fearmongers you accuse, but you’re a cheermonger, in the sense that you say we don’t have anything to worry about.
SHK: Again: I am saying that the scientific method that was used to determine if climate change exists was also used by the same agencies we respect about climate change, to determine that the current GMOs on the market are safe for ourselves and safe for the environment. So I wouldn’t call myself a cheermonger, and I like the cleverness of that statement, but I want to make sure that people like Marion Nestle and many in the foodie, whatever you want to call it, the organic foodie movement, aren’t trying to have their kale and eat it too, in the way that they approach some of these arguments. That she wants to say that she believes that they are safe, but still doesn’t think that I’ve dealt enough with other elements. Let’s talk about those other elements. But what it comes down to, Bob, is how do we distinguish between how we decide who is an honest broker and who is a dishonest one. And if Marion Nestle is calling me a dishonest broker, she’s got to come with a lot more evidence with that. And come and debate me publicly. Come and debate me anytime, anyplace publicly, and let’s talk about what she thinks will make me a dishonest broker. Because that’s a heck of a, that’s a heck of a thing to call somebody. I’m not calling her a dishonest broker. So if you’d ask her to debate me publicly, I think your listeners would be really interested in that.
RS: Well, I think her—her issue, I mean if we’re going—I don’t know, I didn’t want to be the referee of this; I’ll let listeners, they should read her book and they should watch your film. Her objection is that you have this 10-second clip where she seems to endorse your approach. So she wrote this very brief thing saying: I don’t, and the reason I don’t is because your film regards safety, food safety, in three out-of-context points, she says: GMOs are safe; anyone who thinks otherwise is anti-science, ignorant, and stupid; organic foods are bad and proponents of organic foods are deceitful. Those are three points that your film makes—
SHK: I never said organic food was bad. Never, ever said organic food was bad. Organic is a choice. Never, ever said that. See, this is where we got to peel it back. I never said organic—nothing in the film says organic food is bad. Some marketers—some marketers—
RS: Well, you’re saying it’s overpriced, it’s used for profit—
SHK: —I never said it was overpriced, but that’s a separate conversation. I said some marketers of organic food have used fear to sell their product. So let’s go to the science. Bob, I have two kids. You have kids? Sorry I don’t know that. But I have two daughters, seven and 11 years old. As a parent, I have to try and feed them well. So I need to use people—like Marion Nestle, I’ve used in the past—to help me make these decisions. I also use the Berkeley Wellness Letter, a wonderful organization out of Berkeley, to tell me, what should I—help me decide what I should feed my kids. And there is plenty of science to tell me that I should try to feed my kids lots and lots of fruits and vegetables. Not necessarily even fresh; frozen’s fantastic. Canned is OK. You know, it’s not poison; it’s important to eat the fruits and vegetables. There is not science to support the fact that I should be feeding them organic, to determine if that is safer or more nutritious for my children. And that’s a very, very important thing to distinguish. Again, going back to the having my kale and eat it too—my wife teaches high school in Compton, California; she’s been there for 20 years. And some of those families have become friends of ours, and come and visit us in our privileged neighborhood of Silverlake, and see other families—not ours, because we buy very limited organic, because the science doesn’t tell us to do that—but they’ll see other families of privilege buying organic, and they have to wonder: Am I a bad parent if I don’t buy organic? And that’s a very dangerous thing to do, and I wish Marion Nestle would talk about the nuance of the organic conversation instead of telling me that I’m saying organic food is bad. I’ve never said organic food is bad. It’s a choice, sometimes a very delicious one, but it is not, by the data, a safer and more nutritious choice.
RS: Let me raise one question with you, because I think it’s critical and we’re going to run out of time. But I do urge people to both read Marion Nestle’s book and to watch your film—
SHK: Appreciate it.
RS: —I’m not trying to cut off debate, I’m trying to—
SHK: Yes, absolutely, I couldn’t agree with you more.
RS: OK. And so what she’s concerned about is this, that she doesn’t think government can regulate this agricultural industry. And by extension, by the way, that probably will end up being true of Whole Foods or what have you
SHK: That’s right, yeah. I don’t know, I can’t get on that bus.
RS: —after all, the person who owns Whole Foods now owns the Washington Post. So maybe [laughs] he’s got a different stake. But the fact of the matter is, she’s suggesting that what she doesn’t like about your film is it ignores that this dramatic engineering—that’s why I use the revolution rather than evolution—is an unfettered process that makes other efforts, that undermines other efforts. It, in fact, produces a monoculture. That’s what happened to corn and soybeans, right? We lost the ability to have corn and soybeans, and some would argue tomatoes no longer taste the same. We lost the ability to remember what these things once tasted like, and so forth. And in fact, one of the things that she goes into in great detail in her book is that we’ve lost control over where the seeds are. So even people who thought they were doing organic farming were actually—right?—involved, through the wind and through the mills and everything else, of the stuff getting all mixed up. And that we don’t even know what is genetically altered, and we don’t know what has been grown with pesticides, and so forth. And I think the fundamental disagreement between your film and your critics is they don’t trust the government to regulate in the interests of the American people in terms of health. Because they think the power is distorted. Right? That’s the—yes.
SHK: Sure. So let’s look at that. So let’s look at that. So if we don’t trust—there’s two problems with that for me. One, I don’t want to get, I don’t like getting on the bus of the unknown—the unknown unknowns. Right? If I believed in all of the unknown unknowns, and I can’t trust the government—
RS: Is that a Donald Rumsfeld statement? [Laughs]
SHK: It’s a half of one. If I—I can’t deal, I don’t know how we’d get out from under our beds if we didn’t, if we ran down and said that we don’t believe in government. That is pre the Trump administration. So we are in a very, very different time. So let’s put the Trump administration to the side for a minute. But if you looked at the batting average, pre-Trump, of the USDA, the FDA, the EPA, on how much they’re attempting to do their job, which is to keep us and the environment safe—they’re doing a very good job. The second part is if Marion Nestle says we can’t trust the government, and she really cares for organic food, the USDA approves the organic methods. So I’m totally confused what I should trust and not trust.
RS: She does say that she really sees that you’re an outgrowth of an industry—
SHK: That’s a shame, that’s a shame she says that.
RS: I understand that. But then she does raise the question, who paid for this film? And she mentions the Institute of Food Technologists, which is a sponsor of your film—
SHK: She’s a member, she’s a member of IFT, yeah. Yeah.
RS: —yeah, she said she is, and they’ve done useful work. But they’ve never supported a film before.
RS: -And so did the funding actually come from those members, or, as she implies, did it come from the industry in any way?
SHK: IFT, the Institute of Food Technologists, funded the film. I said immediately that we can stop the conversation about considering me to do this film if I don’t have complete creative control in final cut. As scientists, they understood that. They knew that if they made a film that looked like, in any way, they were asking for results and I was promising results, that that defeats the purpose of the scientific method and defeats the purpose of good journalism. So if she wants to go through the film and show any place where I have said something that’s false, I’d like to see it. She’s talking about things that are left out—she’s not saying anything in the film that is false, that is a lie, that isn’t scientifically valid. And if you’re going to talk to her, I would love to hear her respond to that, because we’ve asked her to respond to that. So she’s really taking pot shots to try and put, to try and say that the film is invalid. And I thank you for saying, at least see the film. That’s all I can ask. See the film and further the conversation.
RS: Yeah, and by the way, there are other films also that people should see. I—look. Let me just be clear about where I’m coming from. I’m doing this interview with you because I think this is a debate we should have.
SHK: Thank you, yes.
RS: And I’m not saying that I have the expertise to settle this debate at all. But it’s a debate we should have. And since you did raise questions, in your film, about the motives of even, say, Whole Foods and others—because they profit from what you say is a fear campaign, and they get people to spend money on this—she, then, or anyone gets the right to say, well, doesn’t this go the other way? And she picks one particular example which I did check out, that I did find disturbing, so maybe that’s a good way of kind of cutting to the case at the end here. She said, “For example” — I’m quoting from her statement — “in arguing that proponents of organic agriculture are paid by the organic industry, the film refers to an article on the front page of the New York Times. But most of that article was about how the GMO industry recruits and pays academic researchers to front for it. The film fails to mention that.” Is that a fair criticism?
SHK: That’s a fair—that’s a fact; I don’t know if that’s a criticism, because again, if you say—if her criticism of my film is all the things I didn’t put in my film—[laughs]. We could go on and on. And again, I’d love—
RS: No, no, no, she’s saying you’re citing—no, no, this is very specific—
SHK: No, I get it, I get it. Let me get right to it—the article she’s saying—
RS: —she’s saying—well, let me just say, she’s saying you cited an article, I went and read the article. And she says you cited an article to show that somehow the proponents of organic agriculture have lost their objectivity because they’re paid by an organic industry. And you used as your source an article on the front page of the New York Times. But she says, quote, “but most of that article was about how the GMO industry recruits and pays academic researchers to front for it; the film fails to mention that.”
SHK: So, yes—
RS: That would seem to me to be a serious distortion, no?
SHK: It’s not a distortion, it’s something that was left out. So calling it a distortion is a stretch. I have the right to decide what goes in and out of the film. Let’s be very specific about the article. The article, the two main people that they talk about in the article are Charles Benbrook from the organic side, who was a person that we interviewed in the film and was in several scenes in the film. And he, by the evidence that we present in the film, has been somebody who has been paid to give results that are beneficial to the organic industry. I can’t put it any more simply than that. She’s talking about, on the other half of the article, Kevin Folta, who is a scientist, who is a geneticist, who is a science communicator, very pro-GMO, who failed at disclosing that he got $20,000 from Monsanto for his lab. That was a huge mistake by Kevin Folta. He should have done that. But that was for his lab, and he’s never changed his position on the science. The science is there. Right? Charles Benbrook’s entire career has been paid by these examples. And she doesn’t—no one, I’m not hearing Marion Nestle saying she’s embarrassed about Charles Benbrook; she’s only trying to say that I’m invalid because I didn’t point out the other side. So what is she really trying to communicate? Is the trying to communicate the full picture? Or is she trying to say that I am not valid as a communicator? And that’s a shame.
RS: Let me just end this by getting people to watch your film, Food Evolution. I’m talking to Scott Hamilton Kennedy, the director of it, and an Oscar-nominated director. And he makes a case that you cannot just dismiss. It’s a very strong case that he makes; there are other strong cases made on the opposite side. And one of those is in a book by the author that we’ve been talking about, Marion Nestle, called Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety. And it deals with GMO issues very extensively. It originally came out in 2003, but it was revised in 2010. And if you want to just get into this debate, watch the film, buy the book by Marion Nestle, and between the two you’d have the start of a discussion that we’re going to have as a society worldwide as bioengineering advances, as it becomes more dramatic, as it enters different aspects of our life. And so I want to thank you, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, for having made a provocative film, and also for being willing to sit through what has been something of a critical interview, and doing it with patience. So thanks for having in there.
SHK: Absolutely, thank you.
RS: That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Our engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. Darren Peck was very helpful here at Sports Byline in San Francisco. See you next week.
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