I recently watched “OMG GMO,” Jeremy Seifert’s aggressively uninformed “documentary” about the corporate duplicity and governmental callousness that he says drives the production of genetically engineered crops—which are, in his view, such barely concealed poisons that he actually dressed his children in full hazmat gear before letting them enter a field of genetically modified corn. Seifert explained his research process in an interview with Nathanael Johnson of Grist: “I didn’t really dig too deep into the scientific aspect.”
Fair enough. Normally, I would ignore anyone who would say that while publicizing his movie. But Seifert has been abetted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, the patron saint of internally inconsistent scientific assertions, and Seifert’s message of fear and illiteracy has now been placed before millions of television viewers.
Seifert asserts that the scientific verdict is still out on the safety of G.M. foods—which I guess it is, unless you consult actual scientists. He fails to do that. Instead, he claims that the World Health Organization is one of many groups that question the safety of genetically engineered products. However, the W.H.O. has been consistent in its position on G.M.O.s: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of G.M. foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine was even more declarative: “Foods derived from G.M. crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than fifteen years with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health) despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries the U.S.A.” In addition to the W.H.O. and Royal Society, scientific organizations from around the world, including the European Commission and, in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences, have strongly endorsed the safety of G.M. foods. I could cite quotes from a dozen other countries. But let’s leave the overkill to Mr. Seifert.
What else can you call it when a man sends his children into a field of genetically modified corn wearing gas masks? The director has few qualms about using his kids to make a point: early in the film, we watch him at a kitchen table with his boys, who are happily eating some Breyers ice cream. Seifert asks if they like it. They reply in the affirmative. “Even if it’s genetically modified, do you still like it?” he went on. His sons, neither of whom was older than ten, looked at him like he was a loon. Then he delivered the coup de grâce. “But, years and years from now, it might hurt you.” Nobody can really argue with that assertion. As a matter of fact, next Tuesday every person who has ever consumed a genetically modified product might drop dead. I can’t say it won’t happen, because you can’t prove what doesn’t exist. You can only look at the data, something that Seifert refuses to do.
As Ferris Jabr pointed out in extremely thoughtful review in Scientific American, Seifert’s intellectual laziness is profound. “Instead of using his children like marionettes for ludicrous theatrics, Seifert could have, I don’t know, done some actual research,” Jabr wrote. If he had, Seifert would have found that the toxin Bt, which is engineered into genetically modified corn, kills certain pests but poses no harm to people—which is why organic farmers have been spraying insecticide containing the Bt bacterium on their crops for years. Seifert also missed that Bt corn is actually sprayed less than conventional corn, and that the pesticide used, glyphosate, is hundreds of times less toxic than atrazine, the chemical it largely replaces. There have been more than six hundred studies published that address the relative risk of genetically engineered products; he might have read a few. Instead, Seifert relies heavily on research published, last year, by Gilles-Eric Séralini, which has been widely denounced throughout the world for its lack of statistical rigor, poor study design, and small number of controls.
Seifert even manages to mangle the points worth stressing. He says that weeds have become resistant to glyphosate; that is, to some degree, true. It is also true of every other pesticide or drug ever used. It is explained by a process called evolution. People with H.I.V. or tuberculosis, for example, take cocktails of medications; if they took only a single drug, the bugs would become resistant to it soon enough. That doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done about resistance or pests—or that it isn’t a problem. But better farming practices, like rotating crops and using cover crops, would help. So would lessening the practice of monoculture—planting a single crop, such as ten thousand acres of corn, and nothing else—which poses an equal danger to conventional and engineered products.
By themselves, genetically engineered crops will not end hunger or improve health or bolster the economies of struggling countries. They won’t save the sight of millions or fortify their bones. But they will certainly help. First, though, we have to adopt reality as our principal narrative. For people like Jeremy Seifert, that may be too much to ask.