Can documentaries on controversial science be entertaining—and accurate?
Three quarters of the way into Food Evolution, a recent documentary about genetically engineered food, agricultural economist Charles Benbrook glances furtively around a crowded lobby. He’s just participated in a public debate over GMO technology, and moviegoers know his angle: Benbrook is the author of several influential scientific papers that have been rallying points for pro-organic and anti-GMO folks, including one suggesting pesticide use skyrocketed after the introduction of GMOs, andanother claiming organic milk is more nutritious than conventional milk.
In the scene, Benbrook leans close to Chris Arnold, the public relations director for Chipotle—a company that has publicly shunned GMOs. It looks like Benbrook is about to kiss him on the cheek. “I’ve been hired as an expert witness by the Vermont defense statute,” Benbrook says. (Vermont had recently passed a law that would require companies to label GMO foods; lawsuits from pro-GMO industry groups followed.) Benbrook’s disclosure meant he was helping defend these labeling laws. He adds: “I’m whispering in your ear because I’m mic’d.”
“We might be funding your testimony,” Arnold replies. “We made a contribution to that defense fund.” The two men laugh.
While watching this scene from a packed Manhattan auditorium at the film’s theatrical debut in June, the audience shifted and muttered in discomfort—maybe even in disgust. In an earlier scene, Benbrook, who had presented himself as an independent scientist employed by the University of Washington, had looked straight into the camera and said: “I am deeply troubled by the sort of erosion of the integrity of science and the whole debate about genetically engineered food.”
Yet here he was, behaving flippantly about the same lack of transparency and conflicts of interest that are typically associated with big biotech players like Monsanto. As Benbrook whispered in the ear of an industry representative, the audience saw another angle of the story: The organic industry is jockeying for its own capitalist interests, too, and sometimes using dubious strategies. This narrative established, the filmmakers lay out more evidence, including excerpts from Benbrook’s e-mails, released as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, showing requests to industry to fund his research. The film reveals that because companies like Whole Foods and Organic Valley funded Benbrook’s work for three years—and because he received no public grants during that time—U.W. ended Benbrook’s contract.
It’s a punchy scene, and one that was emblematic of Food Evolution’s message, which is that GMOs are safe to eat and much of the ado surrounding them is overblown or deceitful. The audience seemed convinced: After the credits rolled, the filmmakers repeated an informal poll they had taken before the movie played, asking how many people were afraid of GMOs with respect to human health. Before the film, around 25 people raised their hands. After, there was just one.
As a journalist who covers biotechnology, this raised a question: Just what is the purpose of documentary films that center around controversial science? Are they for entertainment or education? And if entertainment is prioritized over education, can a 90-minute film dutifully explore a topic as dense and politically fraught as genetically engineered food?
It’s an increasingly important question as genetic science advances and the ethics surrounding it get ever more complex. With CRISPR’d humans and gene drives that may shape entire ecosystems on the horizon, the need for accurate and contextualized storytelling will only grow. These technologies will provide compelling fodder for filmmakers. But how will they cover human embryos that scientists have altered by CRISPR or the next generation of GMOs? What will a documentary about the first publicly released gene drive organism look like—and whose voices will that documentary include?
There’s a lot to lose if the entertainment industry mangles this research or omits key perspectives in the name of a good story. On one hand, an unfairly critical view can spark public backlash, which can strangle innovation and halt projects and products ranging from new ways to curb disease to crops that can better withstand climate change. On the other, an overly rosy view cuts out legitimate concerns and critiques of that same technology.
Food Evolution is just one of the latest documentaries to delve into one facet of the GMO debate while presenting itself as a more comprehensive take on the issue. Another recent release is Island Earth, which follows several Hawaiians—including a young scientist studying biotechnology and chemistry—as they struggle to understand the impact of the technology on their islands. The takeaway is that although GMOs may be safe in a narrow sense, there are broader implications for how the technology is wielded as a form of modern-day colonialism. It’s a perspective that is too often omitted in conversations about modern technology. At an Island Earth screening in Brooklyn, just a few days after Food Evolution’s theatrical release, an eager audience seemed just as convinced by this narrative.
Both films were fun to watch. They both also get a lot of the facts right. But did either of the audiences leave the theaters with a more comprehensive take on GMOs? Whether documentaries are primarily for education or entertainment is “one of the central dilemmas” in the industry, says Theo Lipfert, the director of the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University. “Documentaries have become really popular in the last few years and there is an absolute entertainment value to many that are being created right now.” Whereas documentarians draw from the real world, filmmakers are not necessarily journalists, he says. “We’re not doing science communication. We’re not training [our students] to be science journalists, to always find the other side and to be fair and balanced. We’re really teaching them about artistic expression and about communicating visually,” he adds.
Recognizing an opportunity to get more science in front of film audiences, the National Academy of Sciences started a program in 2008 called theScience and Entertainment Exchange, which provides free scientific advice to filmmakers. Most of the nearly 2,000 consultations the exchange has done so far—including working on Arrival, Ghostbusters, Star Trek, Frozen and various Marvel features—have focused on fiction.
But according to Ann Merchant, the deputy executive director for communications at the National Academies, that’s changing. “We have seen a rebirth of the documentary filmmaking medium,” she says. “There’s a new audience for them.” The academy is actively reaching out to filmmakers, and in September 2016, the exchange brought 15 documentarians and 15 scientists for a weekend of presentations in Woods Hole, Mass., to learn about a range of scientific research, from plant breeding to cosmology to bioethics. They have more workshops in the works. It’s an ongoing partnership that they hope will spark ideas for new—and, perhaps, more nuanced—projects.
In order to express their art, filmmakers, like all storytellers, are often drawn to fraught topics. A real-life drama such as the fights over climate change, GMOs and vaccines makes for compelling tales with high stakes. These stories also come with a built-in audience, Lipfert says. When hot-button issues collide with strong points of view, though, it can be difficult to present an accurate and compelling story at the same time.
When that documentary is about food, it gets even trickier, because how we eat is deeply personal and cultural. “I have yet to meet a single person who doesn’t have a bias towards food and [agriculture]—including myself,” says Jessica Eise, a communications expert at Purdue University and co-author of The Communication Scarcity in Agriculture. “Most people aren’t aware that they have a bias, so they don’t do the mental work to try and stretch around that bias.” This attitude can make it harder for subtleties to enter mainstream writing and film, she adds.
Audiences, Lipfert says, might assume a documentary is a piece of journalism, where the creator has made an explicit attempt to be objective and fair. They may believe a documentary has a one-to-one relationship to the truth, and that watching it is enough to learn everything about a topic, rather than treating it as a starting point that requires more context.
In interviews with the filmmakers of Food Evolution and Island Earth, both say they actively checked their own biases during the production and editing. Inevitably, some of those leanings still made it to the final cut.
This problem is perfectly illustrated by public protests on Kauai that occurred as lawmakers were debating whether to ban GMOs on the island. Both films use similar footage from these events to evoke strikingly different feelings. Food Evolution films from outside the action, putting the viewer as an observer, and uses music in a minor key, which gives a sense of foreboding. Interview clips with protesters feature nonsensical statements that make them look cartoonish and uninformed. (The audience in New York City laughed and snorted at these scenes). Meanwhile the protest scene in Island Earth is a slow-motion montage scored with dramatic drums, giving the protesters an aura of underdogs rising up against an oppressor. At times, the camera films from within the protest, giving the viewer the feeling that they part of it—and rooting for it.
Other frames direct the viewer’s perspective, too. The Food Evolutionfilmmakers say they interviewed 200 experts but the focus is almost entirely on whether or not GMO foods are safe to eat—and how the misinformation about food safety is stifling potentially lifesaving technology in other parts of the world. Because they were laser-focused on this narrow frame they left out valid arguments against the technology such as its role in exacerbating herbicide resistance in weeds as well as the politicized fights over whether glyphosate, the main herbicide connected to GMOs, causes cancer.
And during the documentary’s takedown of Charles Benbrook, the filmmakers chose to flash a New York Times article on the screen, which laid out the scientist’s ties to the organic industry. Although it is true Benbrook has had financial ties to the organic industry, painting him as a pure villain isn’t quite right. In reality, he uses real data in his work, unlike many other GMO critics, and his perspective on GMOs and herbicide use can be quite nuanced. The film also failed to mention the biotech industry has also faced criticism for financial ties with university scientists, which is covered in that same Times article. By isolating Benbrook, viewers might think the organic industry’s actions are uniquely egregious when in fact questionable behavior has occurred on both sides.
Island Earth, meanwhile, lacks follow-through. In one scene a tractor fitted with a row-crop sprayer applies pesticides on an open test field that belongs to Pioneer, which sells GMO seed. A local resident named Malia Chun gestures toward the field and says, “almost every resident” on a street nearby has cancer, suggesting a link. Chun also says she had her daughter’s hair tested for pesticides, which turned up evidence of 36 different chemicals, eight of which were “restricted use.”
It makes for a powerful narrative. But the filmmaker, Cyrus Sutton, doesn’t give the viewer any context as to how likely it is that these pesticides are linked to cancer or other health problems. There are no interviews with toxicologists, epidemiologists or risk experts. It’s not clear whether the pesticides in Chun’s daughter’s hair were present in harmful amounts. These are all starting points for worthy investigation but the way they are treated raises more questions than it answers. When asked about the claims his subjects make, Sutton says he “tried to portray people’s sentiments as accurately as I could. On the science side of things, I tried to understand and convey the nuances on the issue with the limited time and resources that I had.”
The problem is, the very nature of documentary films demands a narrow storytelling lens, and both films left out key context that would have made for a fuller—and more accurate—depiction of GMOs. If only Island Earthcould have applied some of the scientific rigor from Food Evolution, and Food Evolution could have considered the broader implications of the GMO industry. Or, as Nathanael Johnson, a reporter at Grist who appears in both films, put it to me: “There’s probably a world in which some master documentarian would find a way to fuse these two [films] into something that was really solid.”
It may be an impossible task, but filmmakers eyeing the next generation of genetic technologies would do well to give audiences not only entertainment but also a story that captures more facets of their subject.