Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Review of The GMO Trilogy: Films highlight genetic threats,sustainable futures

In recent years, "you are what you eat" has become a popular adage, a truism, perhaps a bit of a cliché. There is little doubt that the quality and variety of the food we eat has a profound impact on our health and well being. But in recent years, a new threat has emerged that challenges our ability to make the most basic choices about our food. The new technology of genetic engineering (GE), coupled with an unprecedented concentration of corporate control over the processing and distribution of food‹and especially the sources of our seeds - has cast doubt on the safety and integrity of even some of the most common foods we eat every day. Thus far, genetic engineering on a large scale has been largely limited to four basic crops: soybeans, corn, cotton and canola. Hawaiian papayas, some varieties of summer squash, and milk from cows injected with a genetically engineered hormone, Monsanto's notorious recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), are also affected to varying degrees. But when we consider the pervasiveness of various soy and corn extracts in processed foods - even "natural" processed foods - the broad extent of the problem is revealed. The more scientists learn about the consequences of genetic engineering (also known as genetic modification, hence the popular abbreviation GMOs, for "genetically modified organisms"), the more alarmed we become about how this technology is affecting our health and the environment. Amidst the growing public debate about the effects of GMOs, the Iowa-based Yes! Books has introduced an important new multimedia collection, attractively packaged as The GMO Trilogy. The trilogy features two timely and well-produced videos, a comprehensive audio CD, and lots of clickable extras. The centerpiece of The GMO Trilogy is an hour long documentary called Unnatural Selection. Masterfully produced in English by Bertram Verhaag and Gabrielle Kroeber, two German filmmakers with a long history of documenting GE and farming issues, Unnatural Selection takes us on a panoramic world tour of some of the places that have been most directly impacted by aggressive corporate promotion of genetically engineered agriculture. For those already familiar with the basics of this issue, the journey illuminates the vast international dimensions of the debate. For those new to genetic engineering, it offers a profound and colorful introduction. It is a work of compelling urgency and stunning beauty that should not be missed by anyone who cares about food and the people who grow it.

The film begins on the sprawling prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada where countless farms were saved in the mid-1990s by converting to growing organic canola. But an invasion of genetically engineered canola, developed by Monsanto to withstand applications of their Roundup-brand weed killers, ultimately reversed this progress. Pollen from GE canola spreads for miles and seeds blow freely from farm to farm; the survival of countless organic, and even conventional non-GE farms was threatened.

The best-known voice of Saskatchewan's canola growers is Percy Schmeiser, who plays a prominent role in the unfolding of Unnatural Selection. As a commercial canola grower and a lifelong seed saver and seed developer, Percy's future was irrevocably altered when a portion of his own crop, uniquely bred for local conditions, was contaminated with seeds or pollen from Monsanto's genetically engineered variety, which had blown onto his land from neighboring farms and passing trucks. For the "crime" of having a contaminated crop, he was sued by Monsanto under patent law, and his case went all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court (see <> ). "We have no choice left," says Schmeiser, pondering the widespread contamination of Canada's canola fields, "but people in many parts of the world still have a choice."

From there, the scene shifts to Hyderabad, in central India, where local cotton growers have organized to resist the introduction of genetically engineered cotton‹in this case engineered with a pesticide that aims to kill the cotton bollworm, many growers¹ most persistent and damaging pest. Following a hyper-aggressive marketing campaign, featuring give-aways and flashy, Bollywood-style TV ads, numerous farmers in India came to believe that the new "Bt cotton" was the answer to their problems, and they mortgaged their farms and their futures to embrace the new technology. But the bollworm resistance failed and crop yields fell dramatically, forcing many to sell their land. Thousands of farmers committed suicide so their families could escape the burden of mounting debts. Now, whole communities are organizing to vent their rage toward local representatives of multinational seed companies. Indian physicist, author and activist Vandana Shiva, one the world's most articulate and respected opponents of genetic engineering, is seen speaking with groups of farmers and sharing her profound insights about the consequences of this technology. She also presents a compelling alternative, drawn from the phenomenal diversity of traditional Indian agriculture. Dr. Shiva offers us a tour of one of the most inspiring places in the world for people who care about food: the Navdanya seed farm in the Himalayan foothills. There we view some of the hundreds of varieties of traditional rices, beans, and peas that have been preserved through Navdanya's efforts. We are reminded that healthy diets depend on healthy, loving relations to the land, both for our farmers and ourselves. For Dr. Shiva, traditional farmers are the "heart and soul of India," embodying a rootedness to the land that can inspire us here in North America as well. Unnatural Selection offers disturbing exposés on experiments involving genetically engineered animals, from monstrously deformed pigs given a human growth hormone gene by the US Department of Agriculture, to fast-growing GE salmon raised in a laboratory in eastern Canada. The company that "invented" these salmon, known as Aqua Bounty, has already applied to the US EPA for permission to grow and sell them commercially. We hear from company officials about how engineered fish - in what has become a familiar advertising slogan for GMOs - are needed to "feed the world," and the contrasting view of university scientists at Purdue who have studied the disastrous effects these "super-salmon" would have if they ever escaped into native wild fish populations.

"[This] is a technology that can not exist with nature; it is a technology that invades, pollutes, contaminates, and ultimately destroys the natural species," explains attorney Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, one of the most persistent GMO opponents in the US. We also meet chefs in San Francisco, who have rejected the use of engineered ingredients, and visit the Norwegian laboratory of Dr. Terje Traavik, one of the few independent scientists investigating the health hazards of GE foods.

The second disk in The GMO Trilogy, Hidden Dangers in Kids' Meals, is a fast-paced introduction to the health consequences of GE foods, featuring interviews with some of the world's most prominent independent scientists who have arisen as vocal critics of this technology. Dr. Traavik is included here, as is Ignacio Chapela, who made world headlines in 2001 with his discovery that indigenous corn varieties in the high mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico had been contaminated with DNA from engineered corn imported from the US. We are introduced to Dr. Arpad Pusztai, a renowned plant scientist who was fired and gagged after discovering the horrifying effects of GMOs on organ development, immune response, and the digestive health of laboratory animals, as well as David Schubert of the Salk Institute and many others. Jeffrey Smith, the best-selling author of Seeds of Deception and producer of the GMO Trilogy, intersperses the scientists' comments with a running overview of some of the most disturbing scientific findings about GE food crops and milk from cows injected with the hormone rBGH.

Shifting more directly to children's health, we travel to Appleton, Wisconsin, where a high school once ridden with crime and chronic behavioral problems underwent a surprising transformation. One weekend in 1997, all the junk food, sodas, and highly processed ingredients were removed from the school's hallways and cafeterias and replaced with wholesome and nutritious meals and snacks. Teachers and school officials interviewed in the film report a rather sudden transformation in the students and the school environment. The atmosphere became calmer, behavioral problems and dropout rates plummeted, and students' academic performance increased dramatically. ³Since we started the program "I have seen a total change in the students and in the environment within the school," reports Appleton principal LuAnn Coenen.

It is unclear whether there is a direct link to genetic engineering, as GMOs had only begun to be introduced into commercial agriculture the preceding year. But this case study is highly illustrative of the widespread advantages of changing to a healthier diet. "By taking simple steps now, we can protect those we love, and future generations," concludes Jeffrey Smith.

The third disc in The GMO Trilogy is for anyone seeking a more step-by-step discussion of the health hazards of genetically engineered foods and the controversies surrounding their approval. It is an hour-long audio presentation by Jeffrey Smith, recorded during the international speaking tour that followed the publication of Seeds of Deception. In this dynamic, entertaining and information-packed presentation, Smith intersperses scientific facts with some of the compelling stories that have aroused GE opponents in recent years. We hear of a debilitating and sometimes deadly disease that was linked to a genetically engineered dietary supplement (L-tryptophan) from Japan, the story of Dr. Pusztai's dismissal after blowing the whistle on the dangers of GMOs, and tales of farmers in Iowa whose pigs suffered from persistent reproductive problems attributed to genetically engineered grain. This presentation as well, ends on a hopeful note, as Smith chronicles newly created GMO-free zones across the world, the systematic removal of GE ingredients from most processed foods in Europe, and the myriad ways people around the world are organizing to resist this technology.

GMOs represent an historically unique threat, reports Jeffrey Smith: "We're feeding the products of an infant science to millions of people and releasing them into the environment where they can never be recalled." So whether you're already well read on the topic of GMOs, or just starting to learn about this latest threat to our food, get The GMO Trilogy. Your friends, neighbors, and your children will thank you for it.

The GMO Trilogy is sponsored by Eden Foods <> , Nature's Path <> , Organic Valley <> , Frey Vineyards <> , Nutiva <> , NOW Foods <file://%20Foods/> , French Meadow Bakery <> , Organic Food Bar <> , Organic Consumers Association <> , Sweet Wheat <> , Seventh Generation <> , the Institute for Responsible Technology <> and others.

It will be available in health food stores in US and Canada starting in April 2006, and given free to those who become members of the Institute for Responsible Technology <> . See <> for more information.

*Brian Tokar directs the Biotechnology Project at the Institute for Social Ecology and is the editor of two books on the science and politics of biotechnology: "Redesigning Life?" and "Gene Traders."

Spilling the Beans is a monthly column available at <>

Permission is granted to publishers and webmasters to reproduce issues of Spilling the Beans in whole or in part. Just email us at <> to let us know who you are and what your circulation is, so we can keep track. The Institute for Responsible Technology is working to end the genetic engineering of our food supply and the outdoor release of GM crops. We warmly welcome your donations and support. Click here
if you'd like to make a donation.

© Copyright 2006 by Jeffrey M. Smith.

This GMO news service is underwritten by a generous grant from the Newman's Own Foundation, edited by Thomas Wittman and is a production of the Ecological Farming Association. Please join us and become a member at <> . To be removed from this list, reply to any email with "remove" in the header.