'Food Evolution': Film Review

A polished and provocative call for activists to be as scientifically minded as they believe they are.

Neil deGrasse Tyson helps director Scott Hamilton Kennedy challenge enviro-activist orthodoxy in a new food doc.

A necessary contribution to ongoing debates over food and farm policy worldwide, Scott Hamilton Kennedy's Food Evolution — which defends the place of GMOs in agriculture — sounds on paper like it might be one of those hack-job rebuttals in which moneyed right-wing interests disguise propaganda as a documentary. Many on the left will likely dismiss it as such, which is a shame: Though it doesn't address all of their complaints, the movie makes an excellent case against those who seek blanket prohibitions against genetically modified organisms — and, maybe more importantly, against those of us who support such bans just because we assume it's the eco-conscious thing to do.

Let's get this out of the way: Though the doc acknowledges legitimate reasons to oppose agri-giant Monsanto, it sets some issues aside to shore up its assertion that "to be concerned about the safety of their GMOs is to be misinformed." So while Robert Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer, admits the company "should have been much more transparent" during past debates over GMOs, the film is more interested in letting him debunk "pseudoscience" in anti-GMO campaigns than in, say, having him defend business practices many claim have hurt farmers worldwide.

Recalling the debate over climate change, Food Evolution asserts that a consensus of scientists worldwide believes there's no danger in consuming crops whose genes have been modified. More specifically, it discredits some of the evidence promoted by those seeking bans: Activists have made widespread use, for instance, of a scientific paper and related photos claiming Monsanto's Roundup pesticide causes horrific tumors in rats — a paper Kennedy points out was not subject to peer review, and was later retracted amid much controversy.

The story of that paper is more complicated than the doc has time to explain, and non-scientists in the audience may feel they're being asked to take some things on faith, relying partly on the reputation of narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson. Wary viewers may be more convinced after the film takes us to a public debate where a level playing field is created for two leading anti-GMO figures and two who argue for their safety. The pro-GMO side's arguments win over a large portion of the audience, including skeptics like "science guy" Bill Nye, who later revised one of his books to reflect a change of heart on GM foods.

The doc has smart things to say about humans' reluctance to change our minds about things we think we understand, especially when the issue at hand has a moral component or involves our personal interests. Toward the end, it investigates the motives of some prominent anti-GMO activists — like those who are "very entrepreneurial," finding ways to make money off fears the film believes are baseless, or like researcher Chuck Benbrook, whose work was financed by companies making billions from customers afraid of GMOs.

When Kennedy's on-screen titles note that a leading activist got her B.A. in fashion design, though, one might feel compelled to observe that the documentarian once directed Livin' It Up With the Bratz. You don't have to be a scientist to find yourself moved to action on an issue of public health. As Food Evolution rightly insists, though, you shouldn't claim to hold the scientific high ground if you aren't willing to accept the rigor and open-mindedness required by the scientific method.

Venue: DOC NYC
Production company: Black Valley Films
Director: Scott Hamilton Kennedy
Screenwriters-producers: Scott Hamilton Kennedy, Trace Sheehan
Director of photography: Larkin Donley
Editors: Alex Blatt, Scott D. Hanson, Scott Hamilton Kennedy
Composer: William Kingswood
Sales: Andrew Herwitz, Film Sales

Not rated, 92 minutes