Used under Creative Commons License from Michelle Foocault (https://www.flickr.com/photos/foocault/)

Last month, I was one of the signers of an open letter about the movie Food Evolution, and how it was not an adequate representation of the debates around GM (Genetically-Modified) crops. And boy has that letter provoked a reaction! A number of the signers have received emails and been the objects of critique on social media and blogs, among other things, challenging our use of the word “propaganda” to describe the film. UC Berkeley economist David Zilberman’s take was representative of the responses:

I looked up the definition [of propaganda] in the Oxford dictionary, and it is “[i]nformation, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

Based on my knowledge, the movie doesn’t present false or biased information.

I don’t want to get into a battle of pedantry, too late though it may be, but “bias” is defined as “Unfairly prejudiced for or against someone or something.” Another way of considering bias is whether or not selective use of evidence is made–that is, whether the strongest counter-arguments of alternative viewpoints are addressed, and whether appropriate context is given for evidence and quotations. Yet, as our letter stated,

Some folks, like Wise [an economist] and Naylor [an Iowa farmer and former president of the National Family Farm Coalition] — known for incisive critiques of GM crops, price-fixing, and corporate consolidation of agriculture — were not included in the film after they learned that the filmmaker had misrepresented its editorial focus and funding, and Wise withdrew his consent to be in the film.

Marion Nestle, noted NYU professor of nutrition, author, and blogger, had this to say of her interview for the film:

I have asked repeatedly to have my short interview clip removed from this film.  The director refuses.  He believes his film is fair and balanced.  I do not.

I am often interviewed (see Media) and hardly ever quoted incorrectly or out of context.  This film is one of those rare exceptions. [emphasis added–Agroecoprof]

In my 10-second clip, I say that I am unaware of convincing evidence that eating GM foods is unsafe—this is what I said, but it is hugely out of context.

Safety is the industry’s talking point.  In the view of the GMO industry and this film, if GMOs are safe, they ought to be fully acceptable and nothing else is relevant.

I disagree.  I think there are plenty of issues about GMOs in addition to safety that deserve thoughtful consideration:  monoculture; the effects of industrial agriculture on the environment and climate change; the possible carcinogenicity of glyphosate (Roundup); this herbicide’s well documented induction of weed resistance; and the how aggressively this industry protects its self-interest and attacks critics, as this film demonstrates.

Food Evolution focuses exclusively on the safety of GMOs; it dismisses environmental issues out of hand.

No documentary is perfect, and all are selective. Interviews with GMO boosters were certainly edited as well (you can’t include everything you tape), and some were also left wholly on the editing-room floor. But it is notable that, as far as I can tell, only those critical of GMOs who were interviewed had their quotes taken out of context, or felt that their actual views were not appropriately represented.

To some extent, bias and propaganda are inevitably in the eye of the beholder. But insofar as the movie purports to be a scientifically accurate look at the questions at hand, it is problematic that noted and reputable commentators such as Nestle, Wise, and Naylor (as well as Michael Pollan) felt that the movie was not an adequate representation of their views. And the signers of the letter have appropriate backgrounds to comment, from Nestle herself (who has degrees in bacteriology, molecular biology, and public health nutrition), to farmer George Naylor and agricultural economist Tim Wise, to a number of ecologists and agroecologists, and other researchers with backgrounds in molecular biology, plant pathology, agronomy, and biological control (including World Food Prize Winner Hans Herren).

Critiques of the letter have unfairly singled out my friend and colleague, UC Berkeley PhD candidate Maywa Montenegro, who herself has degrees in molecular biology and science writing from Williams College and MIT. Her nuanced views on biotechnology are readily available across several publications, and hardly come down to blanket opposition, but rather, concerned critique and a scientifically-grounded skepticism (which I share) about the need for and contributions of GMOs.

But as anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone has noted, it is overwhelmingly difficult to occupy a space of nuance in the conversations around GMOs. Stone is no blanket opponent for GMOs, either, with critiques of both GM promoters and opponents, and he believes that there are potentially beneficial uses for the relevant technologies. Yet in a recently published piece, his general argument aligns with the critique of Food Evolution as propagandistic boosterism of GMOs; unbalanced pro-GMO rhetoric from scientists in this area is not at all uncommon, he points out:

The GMO controversy is quite different from—indeed, in many ways the opposite of—the climate debate, and the nature of scientists’ Mertonian transgressions is distinctive. Far from lacking media savvy, several of the basic scientists most active as GMO interlocutors regularly huddle with Monsanto executives and public relations operatives to craft messages, formulate strategy, and receive funding for “outreach” (Lipton 2015). And where climate scientists were guilty of inattentive self-policing, interlocuting GMO scientists engage in selective hyperpolicing: they not only avoid criticism of pro-GMO findings, but reflexively attack unfavorable published findings, often through vicious extracurricular charges of misconduct and incompetence (Waltz 2009). Merton’s “organized skepticism” is not simply transgressed, but caricatured: the “organized” part is elevated to a frenetic din of blogs, retweets, editorials, and petitions, while the “skepticism” part is replaced by brazen boosterism and motivated thinking (Stone 2013).

We need basic bioscientists as honest brokers, but we have lost them.

A number of us are working on a paper putting forth a positive vision of how crop breeding (including biotechnology) might be evaluated and developed in ways that align with our values of inclusivity, biocultural diversity, free, prior, and informed consent, sustainability, food sovereignty, and agroecology.

In the meantime, I also refer you to Alastair Iles’s excellent recent blog post on Food Evolution, available at the UC Berkeley blog, and Alex Swerdloff’s Vice article, some of the most conscientious media coverage thus far, where he interviews some of my co-authors of the critical 45 letter as well as the director of Food Evolution. Swerdloff’s attempt to really hear all sides is a move of honest broker-ship in the direction that Stone advocates, and is the kind of approach that might truly allow us to move the conversation forward beyond simplistic arguments “pro” or “con.”

And above all, we should remember that not all approaches to a problem are equally valuable; that science, and technology, are not just “biotechnology”–agroecology, for example, is a growing and modern scientific field, body of practices, and movement; and that ending hunger will require much more from us than producing more or boosterism for specific technologies.