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The GMO Debate With Scott Hamilton Kennedy | Serving Up Science

Food Evolution
Food Evolution

Are GMOs safe? What is the deal with organic food? On this week's episode of Serving Up Science, Science Writer Sheril Kirshenbaum and WKAR's Karel Vega interview Academy Award-Nominated Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy about his documentary Food Evolution

You can learn more information about Food Evolution here.


VEGA: Food is the language everyone speaks, but do we truly understand it?

KIRSHENBAUM: Between the conversations over organic food and GMOs, different diets taking the world by storm, and what we eat actually impacts our environment.

VEGA: There is no shortage of things to learn about. Hi, I’m Karel Vega.

KIRSHENBAUM: And I’m Sheril Kirshenbaum, and this is Serving Up Science. We talk a lot about how modern technologies are changing our food, especially with regard to GMOs or genetically modified organisms. But when it comes to the science, there is so much misunderstanding among the public that makes it very, very difficult for the best research to find its way into the market.

VEGA: We have a special guest on this week’s Serving Up Science joining us by phone all the way from California is Academy Award-Nominated Documentary Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy. Scott is the founder of Black Valley Films. His 2008 film, The Garden, was nominated at the 81st Academy Awards for best documentary. Scott is here today to talk about his latest film, Food Evolution. Scott, thank you for joining us on Serving Up Science.

Scott Hamilton Kennedy
Credit Food Evolution
Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy on the set of Food Evolution.

KENNEDY: Hey, how are you guys?

KIRSHENBAUM: Scott, to begin, would you share with our listeners a brief synopsis of what Food Evolution is all about?

KENNEDY: Sure. So, Food Evolution in its easiest description is a reset of the conversation around the GMO controversy. What are GMOs? Are they safe to use? Are they safe for ourselves? Are they safe for the environment? And that sounds reasonably easy in that description, but it is very, very complicated because even the name GMO is incorrect – genetically modified organism. It is really genetic engineering is the process – it’s a process, not a product. So, there are all these layers we wanted to peel back on what it really is. Should we be fearful of them? Should we be supporting them? But most importantly, it is really using the GMO controversy as a metaphor for looking at how we make decisions. And the dangers of not using the scientific method in making decisions.

VEGA: Scott, how did you get interested in the topic of GMOs?
KENNEDY: The GMO controversy was really just waving its hand saying, “This is about food. This is about science.” And it doesn’t seem to be being told correctly, so we learned very quickly that there are all these other stories that aren’t really coming out in other documentaries around GMOs. And we thought “wow, this is a very good way of showing the importance of science.”

VEGA: You’re listening to Serving Up Science. We’re speaking with Academy Award-Nominated Director Scott Hamilton Kennedy about his latest film, Food Evolution, which tackles the debate over GMO foods.

KIRSHENBAUM: Well, you are talking about stories, and something I really appreciated in the film is you don’t just sit and interview a bunch of scientists. You talk to a lot of different people coming from a lot of different perspectives, both in the U.S. and around the world; people at festivals as well as science. So, I am curious to ask, what was most surprising for you in the course of making the film?

KENNEDY: I started as – I hope as – a rationalist and ended as a rationalist. And the most surprising part though wasn’t that GMOs were safe, that became pretty clear. The technology of genetic engineering is a reasonable tool to consider for a lot of things, including the engineering of seeds to rennet and cheese, and penicillin and all these different ways it could be used. That was pretty easy to find evidence to support that, but the scientific community felt that there were no fears around the current GMOs. What was more surprising, and was the fact that some in the organic and natural foods industry were very, very ruthless about using fear around GMOs and other types of fears to sell their products. And the success at which they did that with some of the most educated people in our country – I mean the most educated people around the world. That is what was really special about that successful marketing because they didn’t just sell a better product, you were a better person for buying that product. You were a better mom. You were a better environmentalist. And that is an imperfect description, if not a downright fraudulent description of what they are actually selling and that surprised me and, as you can hear in my voice, really, really frustrated me.

VEGA: Scott, we are going on two years since the release of the documentary and, in that time, what has the response been to the film?
KENNEDY: It’s been pretty amazing the response to the film as both critically and from viewers. We have screened all of the United States and all over the world. We are about to have a theatrical release in France with the fully dubbed version of it into French, which is just something I never could have imagined. And they hired forty actors and replaced all of the voices with French voices because it is such a complex film. And it’s a very, very courageous thing for this distributor to do, so that’s coming out in February. The long throw for us now is education. We just started to chip away at the educational market and that is what we are going to be doing for two, five, ten years. If this film in anyway can help teachers and help students learn how important the scientific method is, not just in science, but the way that you live your life and make decisions. Oh my god that would be such an honor, such an incredible honor.

VEGA: We’ve been speaking with Scott Hamilton Kennedy about his latest film, Food Evolution, and the GMO debate. Food Evolution is available on most major streaming services.

KIRSHENBAUM: Thank you so much for joining us today.

KENNEDY: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me and thank you for communicating good science.

VEGA: You’ve been listening to Serving Up Science; the podcast about food, its origins and effects on the planet. This series is produced in association with Food At MSU. You can find more Serving Up Science at WKAR.org or wherever you get your podcasts. This is WKAR.

As managing editor, Karel Vega supervises news reporters and hosts of news programming, and is responsible for the planning and editing of WKAR's news content.
Serving Up Science host Sheril Kirshenbaum is a history buff, science writer, and curious foodie.
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