A Critical Review of “GMO OMG” (Part 1): He Blinded Me with Pseudoscience

Wasting all your time on drama, could be solving real crime
Waste away your mind too.

~ My Morning Jacket, “Highly Suspicious


GMO OMG poster

Independent filmmaker Jeremy Seifert chose a very apt title for the anti-GMO documentary he wrote and directed in 2013. The title, GMO OMG, is an expression of incredulity, shock, and confusion about the subject he treats. These are qualities that Seifert has found very useful in constructing his narrative. He plays upon peoples’ misconceptions and fears about genetically modified organisms in food manufacturing. In the end he manages to convince himself of these misconceptions and fears.

There is some nice production quality in GMO OMG. It is beautifully shot and aesthetically pleasing to watch. It is a family-oriented flick with a homely and earthy feel. In this sense, it differs from the conspiracy-happy fringe fare of previous anti-GMO documentaries such as Gary Null’s Seeds of Death. Its slick and aesthetic packaging makes it accessible to a much more mainstream audience of well-intentioned but uninformed people who will find its tone more appealing than the jackbooted nuttiness of other anti-GMO films and videos. But intellectually, GMO OMG leaves much to be desired, and its mainstream façade makes it more worthy of refutation and correction.

Jeremy Seifert begins his documentary by pulling out all the sentimental stops, appealing to his viewers’ emotions about the love of family and the care of young children. He tells a story about his son Finn teaching himself how to read at the age of three by copying letters from a seed catalog. This activity led Finn, six years old at the time the documentary was filmed, to fall in love with seeds. This made Seifert begin thinking more about seeds and how food is produced, and he comes to the conclusion that he has a lot to be worried about:

We tried to be awake and make good decisions, to look out for our children and do our best for them. But one thing we totally missed – we just never heard about it – was GMOs, genetically modified organisms. Seeds, much like my son Finn’s seeds but with altered genes. And they are in our food, for either good or ill I didn’t know. But it bothered me that we were eating them and didn’t even know what they were. I decided to see if anyone else knew about GMOs. And that was the beginning of a very long journey.

He begins this “long journey” by going out and asking people on the street if they know what GMOs are and if they eat them. None of the 25 or so queried people included in the final cut even know what GMOs are, much less whether or not they eat them. This is typically what happens when you ask a random sample of people to explain a scientific subject they have no educational background in. The implication is fairly uncontroversial: much of the general public really is completely uninformed about what GMOs are. But Seifert is not interested in educating the public. Instead, the whole point of his informal survey seems to be to make it seem as if the subject of GMOs is a hopelessly complicated issue. He wants his viewing audience to be overwhelmed and intimidated by the subject. This is made clear by what he says next:

I suddenly felt uneasy about all the food we were eating. So I did some research to answer a very basic question: what is a GMO? According to the World Health Organization, GMOs are “Organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” But what does that mean exactly?

It gets complicated pretty quickly. They involve Agrobacterium tumefaciens and vectors and Ti plasmids and Cry1Ab genes taken from a soil-dwelling bacteria [sic] called Bacillus thuringiensis. There are glyphosate-resistant enzymes called EPSPS, and my favorite, a gene gun with protoplast electroporation bombarding cells with gold particles coded with DNA encoding.

Seifert double- and triple-tracks his voice in the background audio during this narration to turn it into a cacophony designed to make the information he is throwing at the viewer seem more confusing and complicated than it really is. He never goes on to explain any of the things he includes in his list of complicated things. This is not good science communication. It’s just an attempt to intimidate his viewers with scary-sounding and obscure-sounding technical terms.

GMO OMG 1

Jeremy Seifert trying to intimidate his viewers with words he thinks sound scary.

To be fair, Seifert does go on to provide a fairly accurate and succinct, if somewhat oversimplified, explanation of the difference between pesticide producers (such as Bt corn) and herbicide resisters (such as Roundup Ready Soybeans), which constitute the two basic types of GMOs. No other anti-GMO documentary that I am aware of explains this difference, so I give credit to Seifert for doing so. However, Seifert then makes this patently false statement:

I couldn’t find anything definitive on the health effects of GMOs. Most studies were only three months in length, done by the same companies selling the GMOs. The studies aren’t peer-reviewed and they refuse to release the raw data to the public. Were they hiding something?

Seifert got all of that wrong. There are over 2000 scientific studies on the health effects of GMOs. [1] These studies are all peer-reviewed, and to claim otherwise as Seifert does is patently absurd. This embarrassment of riches has resulted in an overwhelming scientific consensus that GM foods are at least just as safe for human consumption as any non-GMO food. The American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded in 2012 that “consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.” [2] In a massive study assessing the potential unintended health effects of genetically engineered food, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found that, “To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” [3] Several other large and highly respected science and health organizations from other countries have made similar statements based on the wealth of evidence that has been amassed.

In fact, according to one systematic meta-study reviewing 20 years of research, GM foods are statistically safer than traditionally-bred, non-GM foods. “Our assessment,” report the authors, “is that there appears to be overwhelming evidence that transgenesis is less disruptive of crop composition compared with traditional breeding, which itself has a tremendous history of safety.” [4] This is because genetic variation that occurs naturally and through traditional breeding practices is much greater than any observable compositional changes brought about by specific and targeted genetic modification. The authors conclude:

It is concluded that suspect unintended compositional effects that could be caused by genetic modification have not materialized on the basis of this substantial literature. Hence, compositional equivalence studies uniquely required for GM crops may no longer be justified on the basis of scientific uncertainty. [5]

This directly contradicts Seifert’s implication that public ignorance on the subject of GMOs is a reflection of uncertainty in the scientific community. And while there is nothing wrong with being skeptical of research conducted by the industries developing and marketing these GMOs, a significant portion of these peer-reviewed studies have been done by scientists with no connection to either the pharmaceutical or agricultural industries. [6]

Seifert is also lying when he says that most studies on the health effects of GMOs are only three months in length. Seifert is merely regurgitating a claim that is very commonly touted by people opposed to GMOs. What the anti-GMO crowd conveniently fails to mention is that they are disingenuously representing animal feed studies as if they were studies about GMO health effects. The reality is that animal feed studies are only one part of a very long and very rigorous regulatory process applied to GM food development. Animal feed experts have determined that after many animals (including chickens, pigs, and rodents) have consumed food, 90 days is the length of time it takes for any potentially harmful toxicants to be detected in the animal. [7]

Seifert’s denial of the existence of long-term studies is also wrong. In addition to animal feed studies, there are numerous long-term studies of the health effects of GM foods that are freely available to the public. These studies range from 10-20 years in length, most of which are conducted at a cost in excess of tens of millions per year. The European Union, for example, has conducted 15 year-long studies and has spent more than €300 million on research projects looking into the biosafety of GMOs. In a 2010 overview assessment of EU research on GMOs, the European Commission stated, “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.” [8] In the U.S. alone, it takes between 12 and 15 years to go through the regulatory process required by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to move genetically modified foods from the initial R&D stage to the shelves of your local grocery store.

If Seifert has done any of the research he says he’s done, he should know all this. If he had gone the intellectually honest route and avoided going into his research with a preconceived conclusion, he might have ended up titling his film GMO OK. But Seifert clearly did not go about his project in an intellectually honest way. Seifert is the one trying to hide facts that contradict his narrative, not the biotech industry.


 

NOTES

[1] JoAnna Wendel and Jon Entine, “With 2000+ Global Studies Affirming Safety, GM Foods among Most Analyzed Subjects in Science,” Genetic Literacy Project, October 8, 2013, https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2013/10/08/with-2000-global-studies-confirming-safety-gm-foods-among-most-analyzed-subject-in-science/ (accessed April 3, 2016).

[2] American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors on Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods” (20 October 2012), http://www.aaas.org/sites/default/files/AAAS_GM_statement.pdf (accessed April 3, 2016).

[3] The National Academy of Sciences, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2004), p. 8. PDF available at http://nap.edu/10977 (accessed April 3, 2016).

[4] Rod A. Herman and William D. Price, “Unintended Compositional Changes in Genetically Modified (GM) Crops: 20 Years of Research,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 61 (February 2013): 11695-11701. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/jf400135r (accessed April 3, 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marc Brazeau, “About Those Industry Funded GMO Studies…,” Biology Fortified, February 28, 2014, http://www.biofortified.org/2014/02/industry-funded-gmo-studies/ (accessed April 3, 2016).

[7] EFSA GMO Panel Working Group on Animal Feeding Trials, “Safety and Nutritional Assessment of GM Plants and Derived Food and Feed: The Role of Animal Feeding Trials,” Food and Chemical Toxicology 46 (March 2008): S2-S70.

[8] European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research (2001-2010) (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2010), p. 16. Available online at https://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/pdf/a_decade_of_eu-funded_gmo_research.pdf (accessed April 3, 2016).

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About Nathan Dickey

I am a freelance writer trying to finish my degree in Journalism. I attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My interests are many, and include investigative reporting, science, philosophy, history, classic rock music, and pop culture analysis. My motivation in writing is to contribute what I can to the promotion of science and skepticism among the public. My goal is to use my journalism training to be active in the skeptical and freethought movement, analyzing dubious but popularly-believed claims involving the supernatural, the paranormal and religion.
This entry was posted in Movie Reviews, Pseudoscience, Science Education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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