The Genesis of Food Evolution: Film Review and Analysis

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On June 23, the film Food Evolution comes out in theaters, and is sure to make a splash in the debate over genetically engineered crops. The film is narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and produced by Academy Award®-nominated director Scott Hamilton Kennedy, and premiered at the DOC NYC film festival last November. I remember the night well because I trekked across the country to see it for the first time, meeting the filmmakers and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson! I didn’t want to write about my impressions of Food Evolution at the time because I wanted to see it again and let it sink in. I’ve long been interested in the portrayal of science in media, particularly in my chosen field, and so I searched for what would be a good angle to approach the film. At the DOC NYC premiere, I learned about the genesis of the Food Evolution film, direct from the president of the Institute of Food Technologists which funded the film, and after seeing the film again at UC Davis I followed up with Scott Hamilton Kennedy and IFT for more information. The story of how this film came together is as amazing as the film itself.

I found the film to be powerful, meaningful, and educational, and adds an indispensable human element to a debate fraught with abstraction and distraction. Food Evolution documented real events and shifts in attitude as they happened, surprising even myself, and entertains with genuine humor that will help you pick your jaw up off of the floor. This is the first real documentary on genetically engineered crops, and you have only to watch the trailer to know that this film is worth seeing, except if you have something to lose by changing your mind. In which case you should see it anyway.

The Genesis of Food Evolution

Documentary films are a way to record – to document – issues and events as they unfold and present them for the world to see, understand, and think about. The documentary style is familiar enough in our culture as a signal for presenting truth that it is imitated for comedic effect in shows like The Office, and in films like, well, just about every previous “documentary” film that has covered the topic of GMOs. Advocacy pieces adopting the documentary style include The Future of Food and the brazenly industry-funded and advertised GMO OMG which started with the filmmaker saying it was “time to take back our food”, neither of which were open-minded nor accurate on issues of science and law.

Outside the theater at the DOC NYC film festival. Credit KJHvM

In contrast, Food Evolution was not funded by the biotech industry and wasn’t even going to be about genetically engineered crops –  not at first. While standing around after seeing the film in New York, I was talking casually to a man standing next to me who identified himself as John Coupland, the president of IFT. Naturally, I asked how this whole project got started. He explained that in mid-2013, IFT was planning what they would do for their 75th anniversary the following year. They decided that they wanted to do a documentary about the food challenges of feeding people in 2050 and what role various food technologies might play in feeding the 9 billion people that are expected to live on this planet just 36 years down the road (now 33). They contacted a variety of accomplished film producers asking for proposals for films, and they eventually decided on Scott Hamilton Kennedy and Trace Sheehan – who had worked together before.

In an interview with me last week, Scott Hamilton Kennedy said “It is very important for people to know that there were other very important documentarians that IFT was interviewing, and their only caveat was Be inspired by the challenges of food in 2050, how are we going to safely and sustainably feed the growing population? That was the big umbrella.”

The filmmakers actually had somewhat of an uphill battle in convincing IFT to do a film on GMOs. Kennedy said they had considered other topics like food waste before settling on this subject. “We researched so many different subjects, and the GMO story was just waving its hands. It is about science, food, sustainability, and corporations, and greed, and trust – and the story didn’t seem to be being told correctly. Why didn’t I know about the GMO papaya in Hawaii? Why was every scientific organization that has helped people like myself with information about climate change also saying that GMOs are safe for human health and the environment? Why is this not showing up in my social media feed?”

On the IFT side, he said, they were reluctant to take on the topic of genetic engineering. “At first, IFT didn’t want to make the GMO movie, because they saw what a hot-button, terrifying lose-lose subject. Look at how Amy Harmon, Neil DeGrasse Tyson have been treated by the antis. Was it worth taking on this controversial issue?” Initially, they viewed it as an “ag science” topic and that it wasn’t their fight. Kennedy continued, “Ag science is from seed to farmer’s gate, and food science is from farmer’s gate to being eaten. They didn’t even ask for food science to be in it, and they let us go and make that movie. It’s as if we were funded by DC comics, and our film starred Marvel comics characters.” In their article, On the Origin of Food Evolution, the filmmakers state that “neither the motivation nor the funding for this film would come from any grants or from any particular company or industry group, but solely from the scientific society itself on behalf of its diverse membership.”

Both parties didn’t know what to expect, but they made an agreement based on mutual respect. “At first, I thought they were just looking to see what “the other side” thought. It was through several conversations and several meetings, I saw how smart, humble, and open they were about making a real documentary. I said, This conversation can come to a very quick close if you don’t let me have the final cut. They understood that that had to happen. They respect the scientific method – you can’t ask for promised results, and I can’t promise results. I had to be an independent journalist. It was a miracle the way this film got made.”

IFT tells their story

I contacted IFT to get more information, but they said they were very busy preparing for several large events and were unable to grant the time, but they did release a statement that expands on this story.

“IFT funded the documentary Food Evolution to inspire discussion and show the critical role science and innovation play in building a safe, nutritious and sustainable food supply for everyone. This film is intended to contribute to a rational conversation about science, facts and food.

IFT wanted to fund a documentary dealing broadly with the challenge of feeding an estimated global population of 9 billion people in 2050.   We approached several high-quality film makers, including Scott Hamilton Kennedy.   While we funded the film, it represents the vision, full creative control and final cut that Kennedy and his partner on this project, Trace Sheehan, have maintained throughout the project. We worked with Scott Hamilton Kennedy because he is known for his skill and integrity. We knew he would come at this project from a completely fresh, objective vantage point.

Food Evolution focuses on the GMO debate because the director found it to be emblematic of the public misunderstanding about the science of food and food sustainability. We believe Scott’s film is thought provoking, fair-minded, and an important contribution to gaining a better understanding of the critical role sound science plays in the global food system.

IFT is a non-profit scientific association of 17,000 scientists from 95 countries representing multiple disciplines,  innumerable perspectives and shared commitment to science.   We are committed to a world where science and innovation are universally accepted as essential to a safe, nutritious, and sustainable food supply for everyone, and we are proud to have funded this important film and hope that it will encourage informed discussions about sounds science.”


GMOs in the audience! Credit: KJHvM

I asked Scott Hamilton Kennedy how his perspective had changed over the course of the film. He said, “In the beginning, I was skeptical, for sure, just from the name GMO, sounds horrible. There’s this company Monsanto that works in pesticides, but there’s a little bit of smoke there, but it never felt in balance with the horrible things being written about it from the anti- side. I went from mildly skeptical to pro-science. If these insane accusations are true, would I really be reading about it in a meme on social media, or would I see a Pulitzer prize journalist investigating it?”

“The most surprising part was finding out that there’s also an industry behind a lot of the anti-GMO vitriol. I smelled it a little but I had no idea how much some in the organic foods, wellness, and supplements industries had used fear of GMOs to sell their products. I just didn’t realize the cynicism that went with it.” But when he was out there filming and interviewing, the biggest surprise to him was how intelligent people who were against genetically engineered crops couldn’t agree on the interpretation of the same data. “Confirmation bias is a bitch!” He said.

Finally, I was curious how they decided to call the film Food Evolution. “The title was inspired by Darwin, and people associate survival of the fittest with ruthlessness, but sometimes we leave out the moral side of Darwin. He struggled with his relationship with God, and there is a morality angle to survival of the fittest. Do I crush my neighbor or do I help my neighbor? Our relationship with food is inherently tied to evolution.”

An ear to the film

I first heard inklings of the film project in February, 2014. I was contacted by Trace Sheehan because of some analyses that I published about the bills being considered in Hawaii to ban GMOs, which eventually became a subject of the film. From time to time I had been contacted by them for more information – like my thoughts on a piece of news or a recent study, and over time I observed the shift in opinion that Kennedy described. I witnessed the beginnings of the exploration, saw what they were curious about, and how they reached out to dozens of experts, thought leaders, and people active on both the pro- and anti-GMO sides. I feel fortunate to have been one of the many independent scientists who freely provided some of their time to answer their questions. When they got wind of the fact that I co-founded the March Against Myths in 2015 and that we were counter-protesting anti-GMO activists in the name of justice, with little warning they hired a local camera crew to capture the event and some of the surprising interactions, some of which made it into the film.

Knowing all of this, it still didn’t prepare me for what to expect in the film. Public updates taken into account, the filmmakers kept their cards close to their chests, leaving many people wondering how it would eventually turn out. Was the science accurate? Did they miss something? How nuanced was the take on it? Myself and other colleagues who had heard about or contributed to the film had heard very little, but I knew I should try to see it when it came out. Fortunately, the March Against Myths got a huge boost from a recent T-shirt sale, and I was able to make the trip out to New York City for the premiere.

Seeing Food Evolution

It was a really fun experience. My wife and I traveled to New York, and met up with Kavin Senapathy to attend the premiere on November 12 last year. We watched the film and got to meet Neil deGrasse Tyson – but I’ll tell you about that interaction at the end.

Excitement! Film poster! Frank N. Foode! Chili vest! Credit: KJHvM

Food Evolution is good. It takes the abstract and remote topic of genetic engineering, and critically thinking about food systems and brings it down to Earth to show how this impacts and affects people. It takes the viewer on a trip around the world to show how the words and actions of people whose hearts are in the right place but whose facts are wrong can have devastating impacts on people on the other side of the planet. The film then invites the viewer to dig deep within themselves to examine how we all make decisions. When was the last time you changed your mind?

The film was beautiful. Plant biologists should be especially pleased to see sweeping shots of space-planted nurseries of diverse varieties viewed from the sky, and appropriate detail paid to getting the science right, aided by clever graphics. This film is not committing the mistake of beating you over the head with facts, but concentrates on the people involved and how these facts affect their lives. You can tell that they really went on a journey themselves, digging up details and issues that I did not know much about myself. And they captured critical events such as the Intelligence Squared debate on genetically engineered foods – a monumental bellwether that I did not fully appreciate at the time. What happened in the halls outside the debate will echo through time. They were there to see it happen, and we are lucky to have had a window into it.

The biggest flaw I see in the film is that it is dense and at times hard to remember all of the threads going on, but that is not without reason. The range of issues and topics that connect to genetic engineering, agriculture, and food is immense, and those who have steeped in the public debate surrounding this technology will find many familiar arguments found in the film. It is simply not possible to address every question as some Facebook and Twitter threads purportedly attempt to do, and many previous films failed utterly to do the topical breadth justice while keeping a good flow with the narrative. One of the filmmakers’ techniques that I appreciated was how repetition was used to examine previous statements that flew past the viewer’s heads the first time around, but on closer examination revealed new and important information. So I could tell that they paid attention to helping the audience understand what was going on – not simply flinging facts and claims at them like other people have done. It is not so much a flaw as it is the great challenge and they met that challenge well.

There were many Easter eggs throughout the film that were also easily missed, and the film bears a second, and third viewing to take in and appreciate it all. It could have used more of the tempered yet critical comments that the likes of Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle could provide, but the film was already very full as it was, and it rightly and artfully focused instead on the people who are primarily and actively part of the GMO debate.

Food Evolution deals with big issues, from science to ethics, psychology and culture, profit-seeking and conflicts of interest. There are complex issues involved in this field, and there are people who attempt to turn it into a black-and-white issue. It has been over seven months since the premiere at DOC NYC, and at the time of writing only positive reviews have surfaced. I predict that the first negative reviews will be penned by people who stand to lose by having people open or change their minds on genetically engineered foods. It will most likely be written by someone with a direct or indirect financial interest in the sales of competing products that have used fear to increase sales. They will inevitably tie the film to nefarious conspiracy theories that will reveal more about how they see the world than how the world really is.

Myself, my wife Ariela, and Kavin – none of us knew precisely what to expect, so when I saw my own appearance in the film, my nerves turned to laughter and saw that everyone else was laughing with me. With Kavin, too! For years we have been trying to communicate with people who disagree with us, and the film showed our frustration and to my surprise the audience around me felt it too. Will the film change people’s minds? That’s an intriguing hypothesis. Will it open people’s minds? I’ve seen some anecdotal evidence of that. Should you go see it and make up your own mind? The science is in: Absolutely!


Talking science with NGT and taking photos. Credit: KJHvM

Oh yes, Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ve been a big fan of him ever since seeing videos of him speak at the Beyond Belief conference in 2006. His talk after the film was awesome, engaging, and Scott Hamilton Kennedy had to rescue the microphone from his now-famous “mic drop” move. When asked, what can we do about scientific literacy in this country, Dr. Tyson broke down on his knees saying “I’m trying!! I’m trying! What more do you want me to do? I did Cosmos!” He’s only one scientist communicator, and can only do so much. But, he has done so much!

When I came out of the film, there he was taking photos on the sidewalk. I walked right up to him and introduced myself, and he took a keen interest in my outfit. I was wearing a chili pepper-decorated vest of my own making, paired with a periodic table tie. He grabbed the tie and yanked it out – I thought to either look up the atomic number for Boron, or to strangle the bold moron in front of him. Instead, while holding the tie he asked what my favorite element was? As a biologist, I said that it would just have to be carbon, because it makes all of this possible. He said that Jon Stewart shared the same favorite, and was satisfied by my answer. I presented him with a couple gifts: An I ♥ GMO T-shirt and some plant plushies to take home, and we posed for some more pictures as I stuffed my tie back in. Later that evening he saw me giving the same T-shirt to one of the filmmakers and wanted to make sure I didn’t grab and re-gift his. “That’s not mine, is it? I put mine over there!” I made sure he got his shirt. And I might have slipped him a genetically engineered potato or two.

Kavin and Karl giving Neil deGrasse Tyson some plushies and a shirt! Credit: KJHvM
Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.