GMO OMG! Is a Documentary About People, Not Science

By Aly Miller

When I saw GMO OMG!, Jeremy Seifert's documentary about genetically modified food, I was prepared by critics for an "outrage documentary" -- the sensationalist kind of film that turns omnivores into vegans, if only for a week. Instead, Seifert presented a storyline that didn't stop at the health impacts of GMOs but used the GMO as a lens for understanding industrial agriculture: the profit-driven mission to manipulate seeds for higher yields.

To get you there, GMO OMG! flows more like Planet Earth than Super Size Me! In one memorable scene, time-lapse footage of the night sky accompanies narration of a lesson learned in Haiti, "The seeds of life are the common inheritance of all humanity, as numerous and diverse as the stars above, owned by none and shared by all."

The immediate response was predictably polarized: Dr. Oz invited Seifert on his show to share his findings but top environmental writers at The New York Times and The New Yorker took issue with Seifert's lack of scientific information, describing the film and its moments above as "an oversimplified survey" and "aggressively uniformed."

It's easy to request "more scientific proof" of Seifert but, in doing so, the viewer misses out on the point he's making with his cultural questions, which expose the grossly uneven power dynamics that shape agro-science. In this light, it's clear that the point of this film is not to prove whether or not GMOs pose specific health threats. Siefert's mission is to explore what GMOs say about us.

Seifert contrasts reactions to GMOs that span culture and discipline. His personal quest of deciding whether or not to feed them to his children turns political on a trip to Papaye, Haiti, a hub of the anti-GMO movement, The Peasant Movement of Papaye.

He watched as Haitian farmers threw out and even burned bags of donated seeds from Monsanto. The farmers who planted them noticed that they grew horribly because their farms didn't have the chemical inputs that the hybrid seeds were designed to accompany. Unwilling to ask Monsanto for more, they resisted the aid.

"They were fighting for something that we had lost without even knowing that we were giving it up," said Seifert during our interview. This moment of questioning the power of agro-science and what we might have given up along the way drives the film.

Seifert's research is in frequent conversation with his seven-year-old, who shows the audience how anyone can grow food from a seed: all you need to do is save your seeds for next year. On their way to the Monsanto headquarters, he's astonished when his father tells him that saving Monsanto seeds is illegal. The first things one gives up with the GMO seed, then, is the power to sustain one's own food system using traditional farming knowledge, a human right referred to, broadly, as food sovereignty.

With that, we lose small farmers (farmers now represent less than 1 percent of the U.S. population) and gain agro-scientists and monocultures. In conversations with both large scale and small scale-organic farmers, we see how, over time, business and science replaced the 'culture' in agriculture.

What revolutionaries in Papaye understand is that we can't be taken out of that equation. Worldwide, we see how GMOs disrupt culture. As explained by Dr. Vandana Shiva, GMOs are devastating India's cotton belt, where cotton farmers commit more suicides each year as their production becomes more and more tied to Monsanto. Farmers here struggle against "yield lag" where production soars in the first year, but by the next year, bugs and weeds resist the seed's chemicals.

Seifert's scientific research comes from the Rodale Institute, which showed that side by side, over 30 years, organic farming outperforms industrial GMO farming. A UN report, cited by the Rodale Institute, estimates that agro-ecological farming methods could double global food production in 10 years. A recent large-scale study conducted by the UK Government studied 40 sustainable farming projects in 20 African countries (cited by the Rodale Report), revealed that that food production doubled over just 10 years.

The other long-term study Seifert looked at was Dr. Gilles-Eric Séralini's research on the effects of GMOs on rats (who were fed RoundUp Ready corn and RoundUp herbicide). Although The New Yorker criticized Seifert's use of the study, claiming it "widely denounced throughout the world," it was the only long-term study on the effects of GMOs not produced by GMO companies themselves. All rats were infested with tumors by the end of their lifespan (seen most severely in female rats).

Scientific debates aside, the GMO frames the American way of eating in alarming terms: We are mechanized eaters (85 percent of our processed foods contain GMOs) dependant on mechanized farmers -- less than 1 percent of our population -- to feed us. Do we wish this on the rest of the world?

To feed the world we don't need GMOs, monocultures, processed foods, or the simultaneous hunger and obesity they create. Instead, we need more small farmers. They practice the art of agriculture that we can't afford to lose.

Aly Miller also had a chance to interview GMO OMG! director Jeremy Seifert in October 2013. To read his personal answers about the film, read this illuminating Q&A.