Letter: ‘Food Evolution’ masks important issues in agriculture

by Alexander Liebman

As a University of Minnesota graduate student in the Applied Plant Sciences program, I am writing to pass along some information about a film you may be considering reviewing or covering, “Food Evolution.” It is scheduled to be shown on Sept. 26 and 28 on the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses. While I would never dissuade you, nor anyone else at the Minnesota Daily from reporting on “Food Evolution,” I urge you to look into the controversy surrounding the film, which purports to present an unbiased, “evidence-based” assessment of the debate over genetically modified (GM) foods but does nothing of the sort.

Back in June, several students, faculty and staff from agronomy, ecology, geography and international development programs around the nation co-authored a sign-on letter to call attention to gaps in the film. These include, but are not limited to, no discussion of human or environmental health risks from pesticides like glyphosate (considered a probable carcinogen by the WHO) and dicamba (responsible for 3.1 million acres of soybeans lost in 16 US states), no mention of monoculture production associated with GMOs and silence on how such agriculture has well-known adverse impacts on biodiversity, river systems, climate change, ocean health and the health of farmworkers and rural communities. While all around we hear of corporate consolidation of Monsanto-Bayer, Dow-Dupont, and Syngenta-ChemChina, the film paid no heed to patents or intellectual property. Evidence shows that the growth of patents, GM technologies and corporate consolidation has gone hand-in-hand the past 20 years.

Yet scientists who point these things out — and there are many of us — often get labeled anti-science, as if an irrational fear of GM foods motivates our concern. That was the main point of our letter, which we circulated among our colleagues. In the process, we learned that scholars including Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle — prominently featured in the film — were upset with their how their on-screen statements are taken out of context. Nestle has since come out publicly, denouncing the film and asking that her clip be removed.

We understand that in your position as film reviewers and reporters of events on campus, it is impossible to know what was edited out, whose perspectives were purposefully excluded or what may have been missing from the narrative altogether. Speaking on behalf of my colleagues, we will just say that good science is more complex and scientifically grounded than this film. It is in that spirit that we preemptively contact you to offer this background.

This letter has been lightly edited for grammar and style.

Alexander Liebman is a University of Minnesota graduate student in the Applied Plant Sciences program.