What do GMOs say about us?

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My friend Brian’s poster from Oaxaca depicts GMO corn as “intruders”

On the side, I write for Food Politic: A Journal of Food News and Culture.  I write and edit their multimedia page, where I write about:  maps, photography, music, short films, and documentary films. Last month, I jumped at the opportunity to review the latest in food documentaries, GMO OMG! I started off with an interview with the director, Jeremy Seifert, and then wrote a review of the film.

GMO OMG!, Jeremy Seifert’s documentary film about genetically modified food, is most effective when viewed for what it is: a film about modern agriculture; a story about one culture’s mission to manipulate seeds for higher yields.

The immediate response to it was unsurprisingly controversial: Dr. Oz invited Seifert on his show to share his findings but top environmental writers at The New York Times and The New Yorker took issue with Seifert’s lack of scientific information, describing the film as “an oversimplified survey” and “aggressively uniformed.”

In comparing American pro-GMO stances with Haitian and European skepticism, it’s clear that the point of this film is not to prove whether or not GMOs pose specific health threats.  Siefert’s mission is to explore what GMOs say about us.

Seifert started his journey as a father deciding whether or not he should feed GMOs to his children, whose matter-of-fact opinions on food and seeds are featured throughout the film.  A trip to Papaye, Haiti – a hub of the anti-GMO movement led by Haitian farmers and religious leaders (who are part of the larger farmer-led movement, La Via Campesina) – turns his mission from personal to political.

He watched as impoverished Haitian farmers and families threw out bags of donated seeds from Monsanto and thought, “What could they possibly know that I don’t know?”

As the documentary explains, the people of Papay didn’t immediately throw out the seeds but those who planted them noticed that they grew horribly because they didn’t have the chemical inputs that the genetically-modified seeds were designed to accompany. The next year, unable to save their seeds and unwilling to ask Monsanto for more, they resisted the aid, forming one of the worlds’ strongest anti-GMO movements.

“They were fighting for something that we had lost without even knowing that we were giving it up,” said Seifert during our interview.  Seifert returned to the U.S. and completed the documentary with an ethnographic approach to understanding what did we give up when we accepted the GMO seed?  He questions farmers, scientists, grocers, political leaders, and his neighbors to find out.

After interviewing Seifert, it became clear that this moment of questioning the power of scientific ways of knowing and the realities they produce, drives the film, in which he invites viewers to dig as deep as he does.  To get you there, GMO OMG! flows more like Planet Earth than Super Size Me!   With vivid videography and minimalist watercolor-stylized graphics, Seifert invites viewers to create their own contexts for understanding the place of GMOs in our culture, the environment, and one’s body.

He poses questions about the patenting of life as a time-lapse video of the night sky harkens back to the Haitian belief “that the seeds of life are the common inheritance of all humanity, as numerous and diverse as the stars above, owned by none and shared by all.”

It follows, then, that Seifert’s social and political research is in frequent conversation with his seven-year-old, who shows the audience how anyone can grow food from a seed; all you need to do is save your seeds for next year.  His opinion is contrasted with that of the industrial farmer using Monsanto RoundUp ready seeds.  Saving Monsanto-developed seeds, as the documentary shows, (or even farming a field that Monsanto seeds have by chance drifted into) gets you sued.  One of the first things we give up with the GMO, then, is the power of a farmer to sustain their own food system – food sovereignty.

You eventually arrive at a place where the farmer disappears.  Wendell Berry, an inspiration for Seifert, explains, “The farmer too in effect has vanished. He is no longer working as an independent and loyal agent of his place, his family, and his community, but instead as the agent of an economy that is fundamentally adverse to him and to all that he ought to stand for.”  Seifert’s focus is bigger than the body’s experience of GMOs.  In showing the prevalence of GMOs in Americna farming, Seifert shows how, with a focus on agri-business, we loose agri-culture.

What revolutionaries in Papay understand is that we can’t be taken out of that equation.  While GMOs have no scientifically-proven negative health effects on humans, it’s clear that they break down the environment and disrupt farming communities.  As Dr. Vandana Shiva explains during an interview with Seifert, Monsanto GMOs are devastating India’s cotton belt, where cotton farmers are committing more suicides each year as their production becomes more and more tied to Monsanto.

The same dependency happens here, where farmers struggle against “yield lag.”  Production soars in the first year, but by the next year bugs and weeds grow resistant to the chemicals released by GMO seeds.

The Rodale Farming Systems trial proves that the organic farming can have equivalent yields to GMO farming.  What’s key here is a trial that occurs over at least three years.  The IAASTD report, a 3-year commissioned trial by the UN and World Bank and 500 scientists from around the world all consented that the only way to feed the world is through small agro-ecology.

It’s easy to request “more scientific proof” of Seifert – but in doing so, the viewer misses out on the point he’s making with his cultural questions, which expose the grossly uneven power dynamics that shape agro-science. To start with, the only scientific studies available to us in the US are funded by the chemical companies themselves.  The request for more science thus reflects the same limited mindset that drives factory farming and confined animal feeding operations; the assumption critiqued by Wendell Berry, “that agriculture could be adequately defined by reductionist science and determinist economics.”  Asking for more science makes it possible for writers to disregard the rich socio-political, cultural realities that Seifert presents.  It enables science to be treated as truth. But science, like any other human endeavor, is objective and illusive.

GMO studies are especially scrutinized.  The New Yorker, for example, criticized Seifert’s use of Dr. Gilles Eric Seralini’s two year study, explaining that the study was “widely denounced throughout the world for its lack of statistical rigor, poor study design and small number of controls.”  The study was, unfortunately, the only long-term study on the effects of GMOs not produced by GMO companies themselves.   Seifert used it, obviously, for those reasons, and also perhaps for the disturbing visuals.  Rats were fed a diet of corn with roundup and roundup on its own, and by the end of their lifespans their organs were infested with tumors (seen most severely in female rats).

Long-term being a key factor in judging the value of GMO studies, Seifert’s other featured scientific study was one conducted by the Rodale Institute, which shows that side by side, over 30 years, organic farming outperforms industrial GMO farming.  A UN report, cited by the Rodale report, estimates that agroecological farming methods could double global food production in 10 years.  A recent large-scale study conducted by the UK Government studied 40 sustainable farming projects in 20 African countries (cited by the Rodale Report), revealed that that food production doubled over just 10 years.

GMO OMG! is important but all of the above messages are unfortunately depressing.  It asks, What do GMOs say about us?  -That we are a nation of mechanized eaters dependent on mechanized farmers – less than 1 % of our population – to feed us.  That we’re hooked on processed foods, 85% of which contain GMOs.

After viewing GMO OMG!,  I look at the American way of eating through the GMO.  What does the GMO say about us?  (1) That we are a nation of mechanized eaters who depend on mechanized farmers – less than 1 % of our population – to feed us.  (2) That we’re hooked on processed foods, 85% of which contain GMOs.

To feed the world, then, we don’t GMOs, processed foods, or the simultaneous obesity and hunger that they create.  Instead, we need more farmers.  They know the art of agriculture that we can’t afford to loose.

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Rogowski Farm in Warwick, NY, where NY’s first low-income CSA began. Photo by Aly Miller.

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