by Sarah Janes Ugoretz
Doesn’t a movie review sound like a fun feature? We thought so too! This week, we’re shining the light on a documentary film called GMO OMG. In this 2014 film, filmmaker Jeremy Seifert sets out to examine an issue that has no doubt been on many of our minds over the last decade or so: Who controls the future of our food? In considering this question, Seifert explores the pervasiveness of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food supply, the lack of transparency surrounding the use of GMOs, and the environmental impacts of GMOs and conventional agriculture—two factors that, at times, seem almost synonymous. While this issue has certainly seen its fair share of exposure, Seifert’s approach is a creative one—in asking these big questions, he does so with his family in tow, road-trip style.
The father of three young children, Seifert connects the emergence of his and his wife’s concerns over the presence of GMOs in America’s food system to parenthood. Being responsible for feeding small human beings, they quickly began to realize that, once they took a closer look, everything seemed to contain GMOs. The question then became: Who else knew about this? Based on the reactions of various pedestrians Seifert petitioned in one of the film’s opening scenes, the answer seemed to be: Not very many. And so, without further ado, Seifert and his family file into the family’s van and take off—destined for the offices of Pioneer-Hybrid and Monsanto, the Rodale Institute, Seed Savers Exchange, and even Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
It’s clear from the beginning that Seifert is highly skeptical of GMOs and their corporate and, he makes the argument, governmental bedfellows. Due to and perhaps in spite of his unapologetically critical view of GMOs, Seifert reaches out to the corporate executives, seed distributors, and conventional farmers who make up this GMO conveyor belt. Of his many interactions, one in particular stood out to me. During a stop in Iowa, Seifert speaks with a conventional farmer about the use of GMOs in agriculture. Despite his belief that organic farming is a good thing, this farmer insists that the associated low yields makes pursuing this type of production system nearly impossible. “One billion people are living on less than US$1 per day, so if we all cut our production, what are you going to tell these people? You can’t eat?”
This conversation illuminates two key points—that growing GMOs does not make someone a bad person, and that the corporate “feed the world” argument has largely succeeded in justifying the use of GMO crops. Speaking to the first point, Seifert seems to reflect this in his interactions with and portrayals of conventional farmers. What could have added additional depth to his discussion, however, is a deeper, more realistic consideration for the degree to which conventional farmers are embedded in this mainstream system. Without the skills, knowledge, and government subsidies, farmers likely feel overwhelmed at the thought of transitioning from a conventional to an organic production system—especially if they’ve been operating the same way for a long period of time. If the power balance is ever to tilt in favor of the organic producer, this is one conversation that must be had. In stopping off at the Rodale Institute, Seifert sheds light on the second point. Over the last three decades, Rodale’s researchers and farmers have called into question the argument that organic equates to low yields and instead have demonstrated that organic methods can match and even exceed those yields produced conventionally. If organic production can produce in excess of conventional methods, then why is the majority of corporate and governmental support directed towards conventional producers?
MONEY! That, in short, is Seifert’s explanation. He draws connections between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Monsantos of the world, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—all of which appear to share mutual interests in the expansion and proliferation of GMO technology. One of the more powerful illustrations Seifert draws revolves around the great and rather expensive lengths to which Monsanto has gone to defeat legislation requiring GMO labeling in various states. For example, Monsanto spent US$45 million in California alone to defeat their GMO labeling ballot initiative! GMOs are so pervasive in our food system right now that if you choose not to consume them, you’re basically shutting yourself off from the majority of the food found in the average supermarket. As Seifert says: “Opting out of GMOs today means opting out of culture and tradition.”
In considering genetic diversity, the use of GMOs constitutes further cause for pushback. For example, in the U.S. 93 percent of crop varieties have been lost over the last century. The mainstream system we are faced with today, Seifert argues, is one that exalts a corporate-run monoculture at the expense of diversity, seed saving and sharing, and farmers themselves. Intellectual property battles, soil degradation and toxic runoff, Roundup resistant weeds and pests—these, Seifert says, are the consequences of such a system. Fortunately, visits to Seed Savers Exchange and Svalbard introduce a note of hope, as Seifert outlines the actions being taken to preserve the genetic diversity that is, essentially, the essence of life.
In GMO OMG Seifert has, I think, done a decent job in exploring his concerns surrounding the rise and permeation of GMOs. Apart from a few scenes that struck me as overly theatrical, the questions he asks are significant, the corporate-government connections he highlights are concerning, and the perspectives he elicits are thought provoking. That said, I would encourage you to sit down and watch GMO OMG and treat it as a point of departure off of which to further develop your views on this matter. Look to your local library or Amazon for copies, or, if you have Netflix, you can watch it instantly!
Visit the film's website for more information at www.gmofilm.com/.