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Science plays a starring role in documentary film

June 27, 2017

Food Evolution panel

From Hawaiian papaya groves to banana farms in Uganda to cornfields in Iowa, the documentary film Food Evolution took audience members at a Tuesday morning screening on a 90-minute trip around the globe. The IFT-commissioned film is a powerful exploration of the polarizing debate about the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and was designed to promote a rational dialogue about the use of sound science and its role in the global food system. Audience members responded enthusiastically to the documentary, delivering a standing ovation when Food Evolution director Scott Hamilton Kennedy, writer/producer Trace Sheehan, and two key scientific sources featured in the film, Alison Van Eenennaam, a University of California, Davis, animal genomics and biotechnology specialist, and Emma Naluyima, a veterinarian and award-winning small farmer in Uganda, took the stage for a discussion after its conclusion.

The film paints a compelling picture of the role biotechnology has played in producing the disease-resistant rainbow papaya, a development that saved the papaya industry in Hawaii, and explores a genetically engineered solution scientists in Africa developed to combat banana wilt, a bacterial disease that has ravaged banana production there, while also presenting the views of a variety of anti-GMO activists. The movie is narrated by world-renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Hamilton Kennedy started the discussion period by expressing his appreciation to IFT and its members for supporting the making of the film. “The GMO controversy was waving its hands saying this is a story about food, about science … and … it wasn’t being told correctly,” said Hamilton Kennedy in response to a question about why he wanted to make the movie.

Sheehan said he got involved with the project because of his curiosity about GMOs and the many conflicting opinions about them. “I wanted to find out what’s real. What does the science say?

“The main point that we want to get across from the movie is, let’s have this prompt a more science-based dialogue,” Sheehan said. … “We don’t expect everyone to agree with every single point we made in the film. But let’s use it as a jumping off point [for discussions].”

Alison Van EenennaamVan Eenennaam said she initially had some reservations about participating in the film but is impressed with the final result. “To do an honest job with the science but also to make it compelling and watchable” is a significant achievement, she reflected in an interview before the screening. “I hope this appeals to the 98% of people who aren’t involved in food science.

“There are a lot of really powerful moments in the movie,” she continued, “and hopefully the message of the movie is the importance of evidence-based decision-making and not letting emotions run the show.”

The film highlights Van Eenennaam’s participation in an Intelligence Squared debate in which she and debate partner Rob Fraley of Monsanto squared off against two anti-GMO debaters and scored an impressive victory, convincing the audience that there is scientific consensus that genetically engineered foods are safe.

Anti-GMO sentiment is widespread in Africa, Naluyima said, but she believes that some of its applications hold the potential to be of great benefit. “I fight for food security,” she said, applauding the way the movie illustrates that “there are many scientific answers to fight food insecurity. …. The onus is on us to pass on the information … that there are different types of biotechnology that can help you put food on your table.”

Emma Naluyima

Speaking in an interview prior to the IFT17 film showing, Naluyima said she wound up being featured in Food Evolution after meeting Hamilton Kennedy several years ago when she was in Des Moines, Iowa, as a keynote presenter for the World Food Prize. In Uganda, Naluyima operates a successful, highly integrated small farm and works to educate others about scientifically based agricultural practices.

The panel discussion was moderated by Colin Dennis, IFT 2015–2016 president. Dennis described Food Evolution as a “compelling, emotional, and thought-provoking film that asks viewers to challenge their own views about the food supply.”

Hamilton Kennedy and Sheehan said that Food Evolution will be moving into national U.S. distribution and will also soon be available via a major online platform. They urged audience members to request community and educational screenings. “Please help us in your own communities to make sure that this film gets seen by as many people as possible,” Dennis urged. More information is available at foodevolutionmovie.com.