WISCONSIN DELLS — Academy Award-nominated filmmaker and documentary producer Scott Hamilton Kennedy stood before attendees at the Wisconsin Corn/Soy Expo Feb. 2, having flown into Wisconsin on the red-eye that morning, ditching 70-degree weather in Los Angeles for below-zero temperatures in Wisconsin Dells. He stood, inspired and humbled, he said, in a room with hundreds of farmers — farmers who make decisions about agricultural systems and the food Americans consume every day.
Many of those in attendance had viewed Hamilton Kennedy’s film “Food Evolution” at the expo just a day before and tuned in for the producer’s comments on the perceived pro-GMO documentary that used science, data and storytelling to convey an important message.
“There are so many elements of why this film has been so special to me,” he said. “One of the gifts you have as a documentarian is to shine a light on a place that may not have one, or you could stand up for a group of people, an entire industry, an entire community that might not be getting their story told.
“I didn’t realize at the beginning of this process how out of balance the conversation was on food, agriculture and science.”
Genetic engineering is a modern form of breeding that farmers have done for hundreds of years, the filmmaker said. Many foods have been modified through selective breeding, and it’s hard to call any food in grocery stores “natural” because those products have likely been genetically engineered through selective breeding.
So why is the gap between the public and the science of GMOs the largest gap of any politicized topic?
According to Hamilton Kennedy, a “perfect storm” of distrust of the government, of corporate greed and of “big food,” in combination with each person’s own confirmation bias, has led consumers to make decisions and form negative opinions about GMOs.
Misinformation originating in the U.S. about GMOs reaches all corners of the planet, even affecting Third World countries. Hamilton Kennedy used the example of banana trees experiencing a bacterial disease in Uganda and how scientists studying a genetically engineered fix are meeting resistance from citizens in that country.
In another example, scientists in Hawaii spent seven years researching a fix for ringspot on the island state’s rainbow papaya population. By isolating a gene in the papaya, the scientists were able to save a dying breed and revive a struggling industry. But politicians still went forward with a proposal to ban GMOs.
Interestingly, the politicians proposed to “grandfather in” the genetically modified rainbow papaya, leading Hamilton Kennedy to question what their endgame really was.
“What are they really trying to do?” he asked. “Are they trying to keep their citizens safe? Or are they trying to manipulate their citizens in a benefit of a certain industry or a certain worldview?”
Hamilton Kennedy admitted he was surprised at how ruthless the organic industry and the organic market is in the U.S. Years from now, we will be looking at “organic” as the most successful marketing in the history of food, he said.
The filmmaker continues to explore food and is currently researching for an upcoming project he called “Food Fraud,” which is set to out the “worst of the food documentaries” currently being watched through the use of science and data. It is something Hamilton Kennedy remains passionate about — communicating the importance of science in a consumer’s decision-making process.
“We’re very, very honored at how much the film has helped make people think about their biases and how they can make decisions based on science and not fear,” he said.
He offered this advice for the farmers listening in the audience: “Open your doors and continue to communicate. Be transparent and let people come in. Point out how much hard work and decision-making goes into what you do. That is my humble request.”