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REVIEWS

THE FUTURE OF FOOD

VICTORIA GILMAN, C&EN WASHINGTON

Possibly the best information I took away from the biotechnology documentary “The Future of Food” is the location of a great little Mexican restaurant right around the corner from the theater hosting the screening. And let me tell you, if you plan on seeing this film, you will appreciate knowing where to find good Mexican food when it’s over.

Mouthwatering shots of tortillas and tacos serve to highlight one of writer/director Deborah Koons Garcia’s main concerns about biotech crops: Despite our best efforts, genetically modified (GM) plants can spread their genes where they are not welcome. In rural Mexico, considered to be the birthplace of corn, Koons Garcia worries that some protected varieties are being contaminated with transgenic corn from the U.S., threatening biodiversity.

Depending on your perspective, it might not help that her argument is based exclusively on research by a University of California, Berkeley, professor whose paper on the subject was retracted from Nature five months after it appeared in print.

But then, how a viewer reacts to the messages in “The Future of Food” will be entirely based on perspective. When the house lights went up, fellow moviegoers either patted each other on the back for buying only organic foods or walked out grumbling accusations of propaganda. Phrases like “preaching to the choir” and “fear-mongering” also rippled through the crowd.

In general, Koons Garcia glosses over the science of genetic engineering, instead focusing on the legal ramifications of “patenting life” and whether GM crops have enough federal oversight to protect public health. Simple animations of gel electrolysis and recombinant technology were significantly less memorable than the repeated images of crop dusting and the weepy faces of family farmers caught in a corporate power struggle.

In one segment, Koons Garcia chronicles the story of a Canadian farmer whose livelihood was compromised when Monsanto found samples of its patented Roundup Ready canola on his field. Aside from perhaps justifiable allegations of corporate greed, both farmer and filmmaker seem horrified that scientists are tampering with the genes of a popular and economically vital crop like canola.

Koons Garcia never mentions that canola—short for Canadian Oil—was created in the 1970s when a pair of plant breeders used a scalpel and gas chromatograph to engineer an oilseed rape plant with low levels of erucic acid, a potential culprit in heart disease. The technique was less sophisticated, but the results were the same: a genetically modified version of a common crop.

Such oversights, combined with a proliferation of voices from only one side of the fence, ultimately undermine the film’s credibility. The lack of balance is especially frustrating because the film does present several valid concerns about the biotech revolution: Should businesses have the right to patent genes? Will we be able to control crossbreeding between wild and transgenic plants? How will people physically react to designer foods, and will we even know when we are eating them?

These concerns are not new, however, and the film adds little information about efforts to address them. Koons Garcia’s proposed solution is that we the people should ban GM crops completely and demand organic farming, which in the end makes “The Future of Food” seem less like a documentary and more like a 91-minute advertisement.