Current thoughts on mind, life and culture

Film Review: GMO OMG SRSLY? An #EpicFail in Exercising Our Right to Know



Credit: Daniel Goehring, via Wikimedia Commons

Jeremy Seifert’s new documentary “GMO OMG” opens with a series of maudlin pastoral scenes—sun-dappled forests, kids playing outdoors, a close-up of ants crawling in a line—as a man’s somber voice reads Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things.” With this subtle Malickian prelude out of the way, the film begins more earnestly. Lately, Seifert explains onscreen and in narration, he has been thinking about the food that he and his family eat. In particular, he has been wondering about a kind of food he has heard of now and then, but does not really know much about—genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Certain questions have been flitting through his mind: What are GMOs? Where do they come from? And are they safe to eat? So he begins a quest to find out.

What quickly becomes obvious, however, is that Seifert’s naivete is a charade. He is not so much trying to develop an understanding of GMOs from scratch as searching for affirmation of preconceived concerns. Even before he talks to any scientists or farmers, Seifert suspects that GMOs are unhealthy; that they disturb “the peace of wild things;” that the government and scientists have hidden damning facts about GMOs from the public; and that, in general, we don’t know how they work or what the consequences of growing and eating them will be. Instead of seriously investigating these suspicions, he is content to parrot numerous misconceptions spread by people who fiercely oppose genetic modification. As a result, Seifert's intellectually lazy and, at times, emotionally manipulative film only detracts from the public understanding of GMOs.

Seifert concludes that the “science is still out” on genetically modified organisms. This is completely misleading. For almost 20 years, farmers around the world have grown corn, cotton, soybeans, canola and other crops that scientists and biotech companies have genetically engineered to fight off specific pests and survive a dousing of weed-killer, among other advantageous traits. Using evidence from studies conducted in the last two decades, scientists have in fact reached conclusions about the safety and dangers of GMOs—especially about how safe they are to eat. As the editors wrote in the September issue of Scientific American: “The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods. Compared with conventional breeding techniques—which swap giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another—genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tested all the GMOs on the market to determine whether they are toxic or allergenic. They are not.” (To clarify, it is incumbent upon biotech companies to fund and conduct such tests, the results of which the FDA rigorously evaluates. If the FDA is not satisfied, they will request further testing. Selling a GMO before going through such procedures puts a manufacturer at great financial and legal risk.)

GM crops do not always work as intended; the biotech companies that make many GM seeds are not charitable organizations with the little guy’s best interest at heart; and there are legitimate concerns about how GM crops inadvertently imbalance insect ecosystems and accelerate weeds’ resistance to herbicides. Still, research and practical experience demonstrate that, when made and grown responsibly, GMOs are an incredibly useful agricultural tool, albeit one of many. GM crops provide immense benefits: namely, they greatly reduce the use of toxic insecticides—which is good for people, wildlife and the environment—and dramatically increase yields.

In one of the most disingenuous scenes in Seifert’s film, he takes his two young sons Finn and Scout to a cornfield. Back in the day, he explains, children could scamper through such fields carefree. But now farmers grow so-called Bt corn, which has been genetically engineered to produce a pest-killing toxin. So, Seifert reasons, the plants themselves are toxic and before he and his sons can enter the cornfield, they need to take some precautions. The Seifert boys pull on white biohazard suits and gas masks and dash off, filming all the while. Seifert loses his sons amid the stalks at one point, but once he relocates them they leave the field and fall exasperated on the ground. Visibly upset, one of his sons begs for water.

Instead of using his children like marionettes for ludicrous theatrics, Seifert could have, I don’t know, done some actual research. If he had, he would have learned that the toxins Bt corn plants make are extremely specific, killing only certain pests; that Bt corn is not toxic to people; that Bt corn is generally coated in far fewer chemical insecticides—which can poison people—than non-GM corn; and that Bt crops were invented precisely to avoid the application of those noxious chemical insecticides. He would also have learned about some real risks, which have nothing to do with making people sick and were never mentioned in his film. I summarized the research on Bt crops to date in a recent Scientific American article:

“At this point, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that Bt toxins are some of the safest and most selective insecticides ever used. Claims that Bt crops poison people are simply not true. When properly managed, Bt crops increase yields and make croplands far friendlier for insect populations as a whole by reducing the use of broad-spectrum chemical insecticides that kill indiscriminately. Fewer chemical sprays also translate to cleaner grains, legumes and vegetables mixed into processed foods and sold whole in the produce aisle.

Bt crops are not entirely benign, however, nor are they a panacea. Despite the unparalleled specificity of Bt toxins, recent studies indicate that in a few rare cases they may inadvertently kill butterflies, ladybugs and other harmless or helpful insects, although so far there is no solid evidence that they poison bees. Even more concerning, agricultural pests can, will and have become resistant to Bt crops, just as they inevitably develop immunity to any form of pest control. If biotech companies prematurely release new Bt varieties without proper testing or farmers do not take adequate precautions when growing them, Bt crops ultimately fail and, ironically, encourage the use of chemical pesticides they were meant to replace. Most recently, some farmers in the Midwestern U.S. have realized that one kind of Bt corn no longer repels voracious root-chomping beetle larvae.”

Seifert also uncritically accepts the views of researchers like Gilles-Eric Seralini whose studies have been funded by anti-GM organizations like Greenpeace and thoroughly rejected by the larger scientific community. He uses flashy graphics and statistics ripped from their context to create a sense of peril and imminent doom. He sprays the screen with a cacophonous shower of scientific jargon, like a Sesame Street puppet’s fever dream, because all that crazy science stuff is obviously way too complicated for any “normal” person to understand, so why bother parsing it? And he acts as though all of Big Ag is unwilling to interact with journalists because Monsanto denies his feeble and unprofessional requests for an interview and turns him away when he drops by unannounced.

You can’t even take your kids to a lake in the woods and fish some “natural” rainbow trout anymore, Seifert laments on a family camping trip, because the trout probably came from a fish farm and ate food pellets made with GMOs. Never mind all the truly worrisome toxic chemicals with which we have contaminated rivers and lakes over the years; or the way we radically transformed almost every species we eat through selective breeding long before GM crops were around; or the fact that fishing rods and hooks—which are tools invented by humans, after all—are no more or less “natural” than genetic engineering.

Identifying all the inaccuracies and confusion in this film would require many more paragraphs. Honestly, if you really want to understand GMOs, I think it’s best to stay away from Seifert’s new documentary altogether. There are many books and articles on the subject much more deserving of your time and attention.

The central irony of "GMO OMG” is the same irony underlying so much of the GMO controversy: many GMO opponents harp the “right to know” what is in their food, but very few exercise that right. While making his film, Seifert could not be bothered to seriously review the facts. “I didn’t really dig too deep into the scientific aspect,” Seifert told Nathanael Johnson of Grist. “It was almost more of the cultural phenomenon of our widespread ignorance because I feel that we’ve been intentionally kept in the dark, and then asking the question, ‘How is it possible that we’re all eating this every single day, and no one even knows what it is?’” Likewise, people who oppose GMOs in California, Maine, Connecticut and other states have demanded mandatory labels on foods containing ingredients from genetically engineered crops because, they say, they want to know what they are eating. But such labels will not help people understand the advantages and risks of GMOs or help them make smarter dietary choices or even explain what a GMO is. The FDA labels foods that pose real dangers to consumers—those that cause allergies, for example. If premarket tests reveal that a GM food is allergenic or otherwise dangerous to some people, then the FDA will label it. So far that has not happened. We do not gain any useful knowledge by insisting that the government slaps labels on all GMOs indiscriminately.

Anyone who is genuinely curious can learn about GMOs and reach informed conclusions about them, but only if they take the time and make the effort required to critically engage with the evidence. Hundreds of published studies are available for review; plenty of government organizations, universities and educational non-profits have created highly informative websites; and respected magazines and newspapers routinely publish insightful investigative articles. Unfortunately, we cannot add Seifert's film to the list of helpful resources.

“The power of a film is to—if it’s a good film—allow people to feel something,” Seifert told Johnson of Grist. “And in a documentary you have to also learn something.”

On that point, at least, Seifert and I completely agree.

"GMO OMG" is in theaters starting September 13th

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article