A few nights ago, I invited friends and neighbors for a potluck and viewing of the new movie Food Evolution narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Its tagline: “Amongst all this conflict and confusion around food, how do we make the best decisions about how we feed ourselves?” The evolution part refers to genetic engineering, a kind of anthro induced evo, if you could call it that.

It’s been making its way around the country, showing in smaller theaters where discussion might follow. Brilliant. Maybe this, I thought, will cut through the black and white to reveal the underlying gray matter. So as the table filled with risotto, cassoulet and chicken biryani, I had high hopes — tempered by skepticism.

The first I’d heard of Food Evolution was from a list-serve of policy-oriented scientists. One member suggested that those in the DC area might attend as a group. As the group is prone to do, discussion followed. And then one member shot back with a link to this letter which included signatures from Micheal Pollan and Marion Nestle, two respected voices when it comes to food. Both were interviewed for the film (here is Nestle’s response just before release of the film). Neither was happy. Below is an excerpt from that letter:

 “However, this particular film — Food Evolution — deserves to be called out for what it is: a piece of propaganda. We write as scholars and researchers who have long been working with issues of plant biotechnology, sustainable agriculture, the media, and food justice. Some of us were also interviewed for the film. We thus have some insight into the history, funding, and politics of expertise surrounding the film’s topics.”

For a fraction of a second I wondered, had I duped my neighbors into an hour or so of corporate propaganda? But then as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s authoritative and trustworthy voice filled the room, I relaxed into the couch. Perhaps our so-often reasonable “National Voice of Science” would save the day. Maybe.

As the film progressed I could feel a group cringe as anti-GMO advocates transformed from reasonable sounding concerned parents into suburban elitists gone off the deep end; and, as the downsides of some GMO products (like herbicide resistant weeds) were swept aside. “When that biotech communicator began to cry,” said my husband, “was when I knew we were being manipulated.”

But there’s nothing like propaganda to kick off discussion. One neighbor pointed out that GMO isn’t one thing. The technology that saves a crop from a devastating virus is different from one that enables corn to withstand dousing with herbicides like Roundup, and now dicamba (a problem-pesticide even without the GMO; as is quite possibly Roundup, depending on who you read and trust). It is true, GMO are not one thing. They are a whole spectrum of products made using genetic engineering techniques. I’ve written about the pitfalls of some GMO  (here) and the benefits of other GMO (here.)  Another neighbor wondered where the scientists were who questioned the safety of GMO, because surely they were neglected here, and set off to find them. (Not an easy task, the letter aside, according to a survey by Pew Research Center, 88% of scientists surveyed have no issue with the safety of GMO. That said, they may have other issues.)

“What did you think?” asked one neighbor a few days later. “Biased,” I said. And it’s too bad; a squandered opportunity to begin the process of revealing the messy gray zone that exists in the science, the economics and ethics and communities. One movie won’t settle anything; and this one certainly won’t. But we, someone, needs to do better than that. Food is too important to be held hostage by those with vested interests.

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