Science - April 27, 2006

The grim future of food

Plant biotechnology multinational Monsanto was not prepared to collaborate in the making of Deborah Koons Garcia’s film. ‘I did approach Monsanto,’ said the filmmaker after the showing of her The Future of Food in the Wageningen Heerenstraattheater. ‘Their answer came in the form of a slick promotional CD – I used some of the images in my film.’

Garcia was in Wageningen on Sunday 23 April for the official presentation of her documentary, released two years ago in the US. ‘Scientists will probably say that my film only shows one side of the coin,’ said Garcia. ‘That is the case: my film conveys a message. So few people work in agriculture these days that almost nobody knows how food is produced. Most Americans don’t even know that they eat genetically modified products every day. Not that it’s their fault. I didn’t know either and I regard myself as a health freak: I’m vegetarian and very aware of what I eat. But before I started making the film I had no idea either about the terrible things that go on in agriculture. That’s why I made The Future of Food.’

It took Garcia three years to make the film, which she financed herself. The result is a penetrating cinematic statement. Clearly not an objective account, the film places itself firmly in the critical tradition documentary makers such as Michael Moore.

Ruins
The film presents the viewer with the example of a Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser. Like his father before him, Schmeiser grows rapeseed, and plants seed that he has saved from his own crops. Until one grim day, seeds from a Monsanto lorry that happens to be passing blow onto Schmeiser’s fields. Schmeiser doesn’t notice what has happened until he sprays part of his crop with Roundup, a Monsanto herbicide, and notices that some of the rapeseed is resistant to the spray. It’s not surprising: the Monsanto seeds contain a synthetic gene that makes them resistant to the herbicide that kills other plants. And although farmer Schmeiser doesn’t want to have anything to do with the new Monsanto crops, it’s the end of his farm. Monsanto has patented its gene, which makes every crop that contains the gene property of the multinational. After the discovery of the resistant rapeseed plants, Monsanto brings charges against the farmer, for illegal possession of Monsanto property. Sharp law firms reduce Schmeiser to ruins.

‘There are hundreds of similar cases in the US,’ tells Garcia. ‘It looks like the company wants to scare farmers so much that they no longer dare to use their own seeds, and go over to using Monsanto seed.’

Further afield
As if that is not enough, Monsanto has grown into an international giant that is buying up small biotech companies, even in Wageningen. ‘Monsanto is now setting its sights on markets outside the US,’ continued Garcia. ‘In Mexico, the country where maize originated, researchers have found the new genes that Monsanto has introduced in its BT-maize in plants in the wild. The government and farmers in Mexico are worried about what will happen next. Farmers sometimes cross their local maize varieties with wild varieties to make their crops more resistant to disease. Is Monsanto going to forbid that?’

The film goes even further. Disruption of the social fabric in the third world as a result of gene technology, the Pusztai affair, the fear of health and safety risks; all these issues are covered in the film. While opinions may be divided when it comes to the message of the film, as a piece of propaganda The Future of Food is a resounding success. It’s packed with facts, but the storyline remains visible throughout, and Garcia keeps the flow going in her passionate plea.

The documentary is starting to become a classic on the independent circuit. Since its release, Garcia has given two hundred interviews, the film has been reviewed in Nature Biotechnology and the New York Times, and it has been shown at meetings of chefs, organic farmers, critical groups and scientists. And since the weekend The Future of Food is also officially in the Netherlands.

Alternative
In the film, Garcia presents an alternative to gene technology: organic agriculture. The documentary closes with images of smiling people, children playing and unexpectedly attractive-looking organic produce. Some of the audience on Sunday clearly have difficulty with the juxtaposition of small-scale organic agriculture and biotechnology, if the discussion afterwards is anything to go by. Jaap Schouls, chairman of the KLV working group on organic agriculture, wonders whether the documentary doesn’t lump all forms of biotechnology together. ‘Monsanto takes genes out of bacteria and puts them into plants,’ he said. ‘But what if you use genetic material that is already present in the plant? Then you are not making a transgenic plant, but using a Cis gene? And what about if you use genomics or marker technology for traditional plant breeding?’

Schoul’s questions do not get a real answer. As far as the majority of the audience is concerned, gene technology is gene technology and therefore bad. ‘But what about if you can use it to increase the mineral and vitamin content of staple crops for poor countries?’ someone asks. Rubbish, according to Geert Ritsema, the Greenpeace representative on the panel. ‘That’s all bad science. We’re not against science. But we are against bad science.’

And that’s exactly what the audience wants to hear.

Willem Koert

See www.futureoffood.com and www.heerenstraattheater.nl for viewing times.

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