by Troy Bishopp
ONEIDA, NY — Rock-star Astrophysicist and gifted science communicator, Neil deGrasse Tyson, lends his credentials to a thought-provoking, documentary film called Food Evolution that confronts the “brutally polarizing debate” surrounding GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and food. “The documentary is not specifically pro-GMO, its pro-science,” said Tyson.
Getting to some factual data about an agricultural technology tool was the goal of the Madison County Farm Bureau, The New York Beef Council and Madison County Cornell Cooperative Extension who hosted the movie screening at the Kallet Theatre for 80 farmers and students from FFA and Morrisville State College. Guests took a pre-screening survey about their understanding and concerns over GMOs as a precursor for being influenced by the movie’s range of data and debate by scientists, activists, farmers, foodies and pundits.
The first stanza took place in Hawaii, the “GMO’s ground zero”, as the papaya ringspot virus decimated the Island’s beloved crop and farmers were desperate for answers because cultural practices weren’t working. Amongst a predictable theatrical juggernaut of masked protesters and council people looking to pass laws with limited facts and plenty of emotion, arose Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, retired Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology at Cornell, who led the charge in developing the transgenic Rainbow papaya, resistant to the virus.
“The exempted GMO papaya has been grown commercially in Hawaii since 1998 and there has been no impact of human safety and the environment. In fact, in relation to the environment, it has had a positive impact because it allows the farmers to continually grow papaya in the historic areas where papaya was grown commercially and not force the farmers to go to virgin lands to escape the virus,” said Gonsalves. “Some people are philosophically against GMOs, and that is okay. My aim was to do good science and make a scientific judgment on the safety of the transgenic papaya for humans and that it did not pose risks to the environment.”
The film traversed success stories on banana farms in Uganda to the cornfields of Iowa with conflicting scientific and emotional debate from the likes of environmental activist Mark Lynas, author Michael Pollan, former research professor, Dr. Charles Benbrook, consumer activist, Jeffery Smith and Bill Nye, the science guy. The sentiment was compelling from both sides of the GMO issue, maybe to a draw. In its own statistics, the documentary cited 88 percent of scientists say GMOs are safe to eat, but only 37 percent of the American public shares this view, which has been suggested that the GMO debate is not about science; it is about emotions.
When the lights came up after the film, a discussion ensued with Canastota crop and beef farmer, Scott O’Mara, Cornell University’s professor of plant breeding and genetics, Margaret Smith and NY Beef Council’s Director of Nutrition Education, Cindy Chan-Phillips. “The movie made emotional connections not necessarily science ones,” said Phillips. “The GMO term is not helpful as it blurs the context of plant breeding. GMOs are a socioeconomic issue. It would be wise for all of us to explore the facts and truly listen. We are very good at rationalizing our own views,” said Smith. “The GMO debate has helped us look at our suite of tools and options as a way to become sustainably prudent within our farm enterprises,” commented O’Mara.
The post screening survey alluded to the fact that many learned more about the topic but it didn’t automatically mean they changed their position. The environmental impact of GMOs was still the largest concern of the audience followed by food safety and a distant human health impact. “After this film, it’s time to get on the top side of promoting what good agriculture is doing instead of focusing on the bad things,” said Lebanon County, PA dairy farmer and Morrisville State College Student, Jacob Kline. “As young agriculturists, we need to educate the public on the benefits of technology and sound science.”
“Perspectives will change, one conversation at a time,” said Morrisville State’s Farm Manager, Shawn Bossard.
For your own judgment on this topic visit or talk with New York Farm Bureau’s Area Field Advisor, John Wagner at 315.761.9770.