Registered Dietitian Nutritionists Review Food Evolution


Registered Dietitian Nutritionists Review Food Evolution

05, April 2019 2:16 PM

In March, rather than reading a book, the Silicon Valley Dietitian’s Book Club watched and discussed the 2016 documentary Food Evolution. This production, directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and Tracy Sheehan and narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, takes a methodical look on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture, respectfully presenting the different points of view of activists and researchers debating about policy. 

About the movie

The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) approached this award-winning, filmmaking team to discuss the prospect of creating a documentary that would stimulate a fact-based public dialogue about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) our food system. IFT is a non-profit, scientific society with more than 17,000 food scientists worldwide who publish peer-reviewed scientific journals. The filmmakers were initially skeptical of the project until they were given complete creative control of the project. The funding for the project was solely provided by IFT membership, which represents both the organic and conventional food industry. The overarching goal for this project was to promote a more science-based conversation about food, not to advance any particular agenda.

What we learned

Plant genetic engineering is essentially a modern form of selective breeding, where "useful" traits in foods are selected via DNA. Genetically modified (GM) seeds provide a new way to manage the timeless struggle between food production and crop destruction caused by insects and pests and extreme weather conditions such as floods and drought. 

The film tells multiple stories illustrating the benefits of GM seeds, such as the rainbow papaya crop in Hawaii that was saved from extinction and the continuation of banana farming in Uganda.  In both instances, preserving these crops ensures both the financial security of farmers as well as the food security for vulnerable populations often in areas that have been negatively impacted by climate change. 

Some claim the use of GMOs has led to a greater use of pesticides. While this statement is true, according to the organic farmer interviewed in the film, the use of toxic pesticides has gone down significantly since the advent of GM seeds. An unintended consequence in regions where GM seeds have been banned, farmers are forced to return to using more toxic pesticides, putting their own health and that of the ecosystem at risk. The reality is, farmers need some method to control pests or they risk losing their crops and livelihood.  

A vast gap exists  between public opinion and the opinions of scientists about the use of biotechnology in food production. According to the documentary, only 37% of the public agree that the use of biotechnology in agriculture is safe while 88% of scientists agree. This agreement comes from 30 years and over 2000 experiments, all of which determined that food that has been genetically altered through plant science is safe to eat and safe for the environment. As stated in our last book review, Tomorrow’s Table, organic farming and the use of plant genetics can be used together to enhance both the local and global food system. 

What is the impact?

Everyone wants a safe, abundant food supply grown with fewer toxic pesticides and a sustainable food system, yet the crisis in trust toward science has caused many to turn their backs on credible evidence.

The anti-GMO ideology that sometimes comes with dogmatic messages based on faulty or no science tend to originate in the more affluent countries with an adequate food supply, yet these beliefs negatively impact the developing world where changes in climate can have devastating impacts on the country’s ability to grow food. 

Several of our book club members completely changed their thinking on GMOs after watching the movie. Others found it provocative, yet weren’t entirely sold and wanted to learn more. We all agreed on the importance of keeping an open mind to new ideas, especially as challenges to the food system increase, in order to provide healthy food for all. 

Bottom line, our group recommends this documentary with the caveat that there is a great deal more to learn on these topics. 

Maureen Bligh, RDN

Program Director, Resource Development and Marketing

Tags: Food Evolution GMOs Healthy eating Maureen Bligh plant genetic engineering registered dietitian book club

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