‘Food Evo­lu­tion’

The doc­u­men­tary ‘Food Evo­lu­tion’ turns to rea­son to dis­cuss GMO con­tro­versy.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran@la­times.com

Calm, care­ful, po­ten­tially rev­o­lu­tion­ary, “Food Evo­lu­tion” is an icon­o­clas­tic doc­u­men­tary on a hot-but­ton topic. Per­sua­sive rather than polem­i­cal, it’s the un­usual is­sue film that deals in coun­ter­in­tu­itive rea­son rather than barely con­trolled hys­te­ria.

As di­rected by Scott Hamil­ton Kennedy, “Food Evo­lu­tion” wades into the con­tro­versy that makes the term GMO (ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms) what Jon Ste­wart once called “the three most ter­ri­fy­ing let­ters in the English lan­guage.”

For what right-think­ing cit­i­zen hasn’t quailed at the thought of ar­mies of ar­ti­fi­cially con­ceived zom­bie fruits and veg­eta­bles march­ing in lock­step un­der the com­mand of mon­ster cor­po­ra­tion Mon­santo un­til they take over the world.

As en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Mark Ly­nas says, “it’s dif­fi­cult to pay Mon­santo a com­pli­ment. It’s like prais­ing witchcraft.”

But tak­ing as his theme a quote at­trib­uted to Mark Twain that posits, “it’s eas­ier to fool peo­ple than to con­vince them they have been fooled,” film­maker Kennedy wants us to con­sider the no­tion that much of what we feel about GMOs may be wrong.

Pre­vi­ously re­spon­si­ble for the splen­did “OT: Our Town” and the Os­car-nom­i­nated “The Gar­den,” about the plight of a 14-acre com­mu­nity gar­den in South Los An­ge­les, Kennedy is a vet­eran doc­u­men­tar­ian.

Here he’s en­gaged the mel­liflu­ous voice of science celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson as nar­ra­tor and made sure to talk to peo­ple on both sides of the is­sue, par­ti­sans who iron­i­cally all have the same goal: safe, abun­dant food for ev­ery­one with­out the use of ex­ces­sive toxic chem­i­cals.

It is in fact the ques­tion of how to feed the stag­ger­ing amount of peo­ple in the world — more than 7 bil­lion now, 9 bil­lion by 2050 — that was one of the stim­uli that started Kennedy on this project.

And he wants you to re­mem­ber that trying to mod­ify plants to em­pha­size de­sir­able as­pects is some­thing farm­ers have been do­ing for a long time.

“Food Evo­lu­tion” be­gins in Hawaii in 2013 when the big is­land’s Hawaii County Coun­cil held hear­ings on whether to make the lo­ca­tion into the world’s first GMO-free zone.

That was ironic be­cause Hawaii turns out to be a state with a ma­jor GMO suc­cess story, the rain­bow pa­paya, which en­abled pa­paya farm­ing to come back from the dead af­ter a dev­as­tat­ing at­tack of dis­ease in the 1990s.

While anti-GMO ac­tivists like Jef­frey Smith talk darkly of GMOs as “thought­less, in­va­sive species,” the other side wrings its hands about per­va­sive dooms­day tac­tics and dis­trust of sci­en­tific data.

“It’s so much eas­ier to scare peo­ple than re­as­sure them,” says writer Mark Ly­nas, with food au­thor­ity Michael Pol­lan adding, “I don’t be­lieve fear-mon­ger­ing has helped. I’m care­ful never to say GMOs are dan­ger­ous.”

One statis­tic the film cites reveals the con­sid­er­able gap — 88% ver­sus 37% — be­tween what sci­en­tists and laypeo­ple say about whether GMOs are safe to eat.

“Food Evo­lu­tion” takes time to care­fully parse sev­eral is­sues that arise in the de­bate, like tu­mors in rats who eat GMO food (they get tu­mors no mat­ter what they eat) and poundage ver­sus tox­i­c­ity in pesticide use.

The film also em­pha­sizes that de­ci­sions made in the de­vel­oped world can have global im­pli­ca­tions, ex­plor­ing dif­fi­cul­ties farm­ers in Uganda are hav­ing gain­ing ac­cess to the GMO bananas they want to com­bat dec­i­ma­tion by dis­ease.

“Food Evo­lu­tion” cer­tainly un­der­stands the larger fac­tors that put GMO foods in the crosshairs: so­ci­etal fury at cor­po­rate ly­ing and greed, and dis­trust of Mon­santo in par­tic­u­lar as the de­vel­oper of DDT and Agent Orange.

But fi­nally the film is more trou­bled by the ero­sion of trust in science and by anti-GMO ac­tivists like Zen Hon­ey­cutt who says on cam­era that she trusts per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences of moth­ers more than the con­clu­sions of sci­en­tists. As writer Ly­nas says, “If you throw science out, there is noth­ing.”

Though it ul­ti­mately sides with the pro-GMO camp, “Food Evo­lu­tion” makes some fas­ci­nat­ing points about hu­man be­hav­ior along the way, about how we don’t make de­ci­sions based on facts as of­ten as we think we do. This doc­u­men­tary may not change your mind, but it will make you con­sider what caused you to de­cide in the first place.

Black Val­ley Films

SCOTT HAMIL­TON KENNEDY’S film shows anti-GMO ac­tivists and oth­ers.

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