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In less skillful hands, a film about genetically modified (GM) food could have been tough sledding for regular folks to sit through. Making visual sense of the science alone would be a daunting task. But The Future of Food is an engaging and lucid presentation of not only the science of genetic engineering, but of the people and the politics behind what looks to be a pitched battle to control the global food supply.
Deborah Koons Garcia, a long-time documentary filmmaker (and wife of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia), spent the past three years writing, directing and producing Food for her Mill Valley, CA-based Lily Films. The idea for the film came after her award-winning educational series "All About Babies," an in-depth examination of the first two years of a child's life. She's had a lifelong concern about how food is grown, and "I always wanted to make a big film about agriculture that was as thorough as 'Babies,'" said Garcia.
She has said that her goal in making the film was to produce a cross between Silent Spring – Rachel Carson's historic shot-heard-'round-the-world about the dangers of chemical pesticides – and The Battle of Algiers , the 1965 film by Gillo Pontecorvo that became a training film for the Black Panthers as well as those who opposed the Vietnam War.
And it's true, The Future of Food makes no secret of its desire to see GM seed and food removed from the food supply. But its rendition of the science of genetic modification (and its potential risks) is clear and accurate. And the many startling facts that it presents about both the agriculture industry and the U.S. government, which continues to prop it up with taxpayer subsidies, make the film very difficult for a reasonable person to dismiss as mere anti-GM propaganda.
Fear of a Modified Planet
In farming, a monoculture is the result of cultivating a single plant variety over a large area of land. Monocultures make a single strain of plant – one particular variety of soybean, for example, out of the hundreds that may exist – particularly vulnerable to being wiped out by a single pest, microbial infection or some other environmental stressor, like an unseasonable heat wave or cold snap.
In fact, according to the film, a monoculture caused the 1845 potato blight and subsequent famine in Ireland that killed a million people. When the same blight hit Peru, where potatoes originated and many different strains are still grown, its effect was far less devastating.
One of the hazards that has already come to pass with GM crops is that seeds from modified, "transgenic" plants are contaminating fields planted with traditional, non-GM crops. History provides ample evidence that this type of contamination and other unintentional plantings of GM seed may gradually create dangerous, invasive species-type monocultures on many of the most fertile, diverse and productive crop lands in the world.
"A single genotype that's preferential crowds out diversity, and that is a threat to food security," says one of the scientists interviewed in the film. "Without access to genetic resources, we will have challenges we cannot solve."
And while this is a frightening enough proposition, it becomes clear in The Future of Food that there are other, equally insidious "monocultures" involved in this story.
The second, more figurative monoculture is developing as a result of consolidation in the food supply chain. Today only four clusters of seed companies provide seed to farmers around the world. In the last decade, this consolidation has started to happen in the retail sector too. Within the next 10 years, one expert estimates, all retail food will come from six American firms. This level of corporate control means we'll have virtually no choice about what's on our store shelves.
As another scientist in the film says, "Whoever controls the seed, controls the food."
The third and possibly most frightening monoculture is the political one that Garcia details. It has already contaminated most of what could pass as public discourse, and it's co-evolved between government regulators and industry – industry, in the case of GM food, meaning primarily the Monsanto Company.
A one-stop shop for global industrial agriculture, Monsanto has also managed to install a revolving door between its corporate headquarters and most of the agencies in the U.S. government that regulate its products.
During the first Bush administration, for example, after Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists protested the lack of regulation for GM foods, the agency hired Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto official, to write a new, industry-friendly FDA policy for GM food crops. Linda Fisher, a former executive vice president at Monsanto, is now deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. (According to the film, Fisher has actually been back and forth between Monsanto and EPA three times.) Ann Veneman, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a former Monsanto executive. So is Mickey Cantor, former Secretary of Commerce. As is Clarence Thomas: now a Supreme Court judge, formerly a lawyer in Monsanto's pesticide and agriculture division.
One is tempted to begin this next sentence with "As a result ..." But of course we don't know why, exactly, the U.S. EPA and FDA have determined that GM crops and the foods produced from them should be classified under the rubric "GRAS" – 'generally recognized as safe.' In any case, the fact remains that these products require no labeling, no traceability, no corporate liability and no ongoing collection of data on health effects.
And the GRAS designation doesn't even touch the patent laws that allow companies like Monsanto to prosecute farmers who end up with Monsanto plants that they didn't sow contaminating crops on their own property. Just blowing in from a neighboring field is good enough for the company to drive onto thousands of farmers' properties and demand a sample of whatever is growing in their fields. One farmer in the film, who was being sued by Monsanto, believes the company has sent 9,000 patent infringement letters demanding payment, and has 100 active lawsuits against farmers.
"It's like a return to the feudal system," he said.
Roundup of Reliable Sources
While The Future of Food falls short of Garcia's goal of creating a hybrid of Silent Spring and The Battle of Algiers , that's hardly her fault. First, there's a shameful lack of scientific data about genetic engineering overall: simply not enough to support or condemn GM food in the same way that Carson condemned DDT. As one scientist says, transgenic manipulations are "probably the largest biological experiment humanity has ever entered into," while there's been virtually no long-term risk or safety analyses to support their widespread deployment. As for Algiers: so far, successful guerrilla warfare against multinational corporations has proven to be even more difficult to sustain than war on the equally elusive target of terrorism.
That said, the film is an eloquent, compelling introduction to one of the most complicated, critically important and criminally overlooked issues of the day. It's a story well-told, mostly by the people who are living it – the film's "consultants," as they're called, are for the most part involved in blowing the whistle, or trying to, on the present situation.
They include Andrew Kimbrell, the executive director of the Center for Food Safety; Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., the former director of the Board on Agriculture for the National Academy of Science whose extensive research counters much of the biotech industry's hype; Rodney Nelson of Nelson Farm Enterprises in North Dakota, who claims his livelihood and reputation were destroyed by a Monsanto lawsuit; Ignacio Chapela, the U.C. Berkeley professor whose graduate student discovered that the Mexican land races of maize had been contaminated with Monsanto's Bt version – and whose peer-reviewed results were subsequently disavowed in pages of a leading science journal; and Arpad Puzstai, the former Rowett Research Institute scientist who was suspended from his position after releasing preliminary results that transgenic potatoes had stunted growth in rats.
And perhaps most famously, Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian canola farmer whose fields were invaded by Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" canola seeds which blew off a neighbor's truck driving by his land. ("Roundup Ready" seeds have been genetically altered to resist the popular herbicide, Roundup, so that farmers can douse entire fields with the chemical and only the crops survive. Monsanto sells farmer both the seed and the herbicide.) Monsanto sued him for infringing on its patent, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court in Canada; Schmeiser lost.
People who know the subject matter may have some quibbles with Garcia's presentation. For example, nowhere in the film does she say that she tried to contact Monsanto for a comment, although apparently she did and they didn't respond. Noting this would have deflected at least the most obvious criticism about why and how Food is an un-balanced representation of the situation.
And some of the facts of the cases she presents – in particular, the Percy Schmeiser case – may have suffered a bit from wishful interpretation. The Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser decision made headlines around the world because for the first time a company won control over the higher life form – in this case, the plant – that contained its patented gene, and not just the gene itself.
But according to an article on the decision, published in the July-August 2004 issue of the newsletter GeneWatch, "the Court was at pains to point out that its decision was based on the facts as found at trial and that in different factual circumstances, a different legal outcome" might have resulted. The factual circumstances were that a year after Schmeiser's fields were contaminated, Monsanto's tests showed that 95 to 98 percent of his plants contained the company's patented gene.
"The issue is not the perhaps adventitious arrival of Roundup Ready Canola on Mr Schmeiser's land in 1998," it says in Paragraph 92 of the decision. "What is at stake in this case is the sowing and cultivation [its emphasis] which necessarily involves deliberate and careful activity on the part of the farmer."
Nowhere does Schmeiser or the film explain the conflict between the original, accidental arrival of Monsanto's canola on his land and the court's finding – undisputed by Schmeiser – that he'd sown and cultivated the seeds once they were there. Analyses of the case have been based on wildly diverging versions of what actually happened. By not acknowledging this factor in the court's decision, the film again opens itself to accusations of selective interpretation of the facts.
But these are small as quibbles go. If The Future of Food starts making the rounds on VHS and DVD in living rooms, as Garcia is hoping it will, it might well start a movement that cannot be stopped in the usual fashion; that is, by maligning researchers or suing farmers. Garcia says she often sees people cry during the film, or they "get so freaked out about food that they stay awake at night and end up going through all their cupboards checking ingredients and chucking food."
Such reactions might instigate a grassroots response across the U.S. much like that which is happening in California today: Following the example of Mendocino and Trinity counties, which have passed laws banning genetically modified organisms, several other California counties have begun GE-free campaigns. Vermont and Maine are considering moratoria or bans as well. The power of such a response should not be underestimated: In response to overwhelming negative reaction from consumers and suppliers around the world, Monsanto has dropped its Roundup Ready wheat globally and withdrawn its applications for food use in all countries except for the U.S.
Of course, it has already been approved for human consumption here.
'The Future of Food' will be screened August 20-27 at the ArcLight Theater in Los Angeles as part of the International Documentary Association's InFACT Festival. VHS copies are available now; DVDs will be ready mid-September.
Denise Caruso is the former technology columnist for The New York Times and serves on the board of the Independent Media Institute, the parent organization of AlterNet. Her book, Redefining Risk in the Post-Genome World , will be published by Doubleday in 2005.