Touching Human Story, Tough Critique of Lack of Genetically Modified Food Labels
Beach Haven, NJ — The Lighthouse International Film Society and Pangaea Natural Foods will be screening the award-winning 2017 documentary “Modified,” directed by Aube Giroux, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 18, at the Long Beach Island Historical Museum, located at 129 Engleside Ave. in Beach Haven. It takes on the topic of genetically modified foods.
Would you eat, or allow your children to eat, genetically modified foods? You probably already are.
No fewer than 10 genetically modified crops are currently being grown and sold in the United States. They include corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets, canola, alfalfa, yellow summer squash and zucchini, papaya, “Arctic” apples that don’t brown and “Innate” potatoes that don’t bruise or brown. Corn is most important to this conversation because a) 85 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified and b) corn byproducts such as corn flour, cornmeal, cornstarch, corn oil, high fructose corn syrup and many others can be found in thousands of prepared foods on supermarket shelves.
Crops – and livestock – have been modified for millennia via selective breeding. But in the 1970s genetic engineering, the direct manipulation of an organism’s genes using biotechnology, was developed. The first GMO – genetically modified organism – was a bacterium generated in 1973. The first company that focused on genetic engineering, Genentech, was founded in 1976. By 1978, genetically engineered human insulin was being produced, and in 1994 the first GM food, the Flavr Savr tomato, was released.
The Flavr Savr tomato was engineered to have a longer shelf life. It did. Unfortunately for the company that developed it, the Flavr Savr may have been a saver, but it didn’t have much flavor and was a bust.
But food scientists continued their work, and for good reason. They have developed crops that are more resistant to insects, herbicides and extreme weather, leading to increased yields. A few GM foods even have increased nutritional value. Indeed, with the United Nations expecting the world’s population to increase from its current estimate of 7.7 billion to 9.9 billion by 2050, many scientists say GM foods will be essential to feeding the world.
The public, however, remains skeptical. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey showed that 49 percent of respondents view GM foods as less healthful than those without genetically modified ingredients. That was up from 39 percent in 2016.
Genetically modified crops in the U.S. are regulated by three federal entities, the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Those agencies have declared their approved crops safe. Many Americans, though, are not convinced.
But how do you avoid genetically modified foods when the U.S. and Canada – Giroux is Canadian – don’t require them to be labeled? After all, 64 other nations, including 28 European Union countries, Russia, Brazil and nearly a dozen Asian nations, have such mandates. That is the question that “Modified” asks.
The 87-minute documentary was an official selection at over 60 international film festivals and the winner of 14 awards, including four Audience Favorite Awards and the 2019 James Beard Foundation Broadcast Media award for best documentary. It tackles GM foods in two ways – personally and politically.
“Modified” is anchored around Giroux’s relationship with her mother, a gardener and food activist who battled cancer during the film’s production, which, by the way, lasted 10 years. However, the film also explores how big agribusiness controls food policies in Canada and the United States.
“It’s August 2002 and Aube Giroux is following her mother, Jali, through the leafy maze of her prized vegetable garden,” wrote Joan Baxter in reviewing the film for Medium. “Jali Giroux in on her hands and knees, digging into the soil with her bare hands to harvest potatoes and remarking that it is like giving birth, reaching deep into the soil to pull out the tubers this way.
“The younger Giroux, at this point in her early twenties, is recording it all on her very first video camera. Her mother agrees to be filmed, but admonishes her daughter, ‘Just don’t film my big butt.’
“‘My film isn’t about your big butt,’ replies Aube. ‘It’s about onions and potatoes. And the garlic.’ Then, as an afterthought, she adds, ‘Your butt isn’t that big.’
“Video clips like these, which capture the lighthearted but deeply affectionate exchanges between mother and daughter over the years, are interwoven into the powerful and poignant 2017 documentary film by Aube Giroux, ‘Modified.’”
But Baxter went on to say the film “is concerned primarily with genetically modified crops and how they are – or rather are not – regulated in North America.”
Giroux, for example, shows that in 2001 the Royal Society of Canada issued a report with 53 recommendations with regulating GMOs. Only two were ever implemented in Canada.
“For anyone who cares about what they put in their mouth, where it comes from and how it is produced – and I would like to think that is all of us – this film is a must-see,” Baxter concluded. “It is also beautiful beyond words.”
In a way, “Modified” is dated. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed regulations regarding labeling for GM foods. Implementation will begin on Jan. 1, 2020, and the mandatory compliance date is Jan. 1, 2022.
But, like so many government regulations, the guidelines are complicated and, critics say, not strong enough. FOODnavigator-usa.com reported the regulations, finalized last December, don’t mandate the labeling of highly refined ingredients from GM crops if no “modified genetic material” is detectable, but will allow manufacturers to make voluntary disclosures on such products in the interests of transparency. In other words, plenty of products containing genetically modified substances, such as high fructose corn syrup, won’t be labeled.
Expect GMO labeling to be big news in the near future, especially if AquaAdvantage salmon hits supermarkets in the United States. It is a genetically modified Atlantic salmon developed in 1989. The AquaAdvantage salmon can grow year ’round, not just in the spring and summer, allowing it to grow to market size in 16 to 18 months instead of three years. It is already being sold in Canada. The FDA has stated that “AquaAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.”
But critics already have a nickname for AquaAdvantage salmon: Frankenfish.
Admission to the showing is $5 but is free for Lighthouse International Film Society members. A Q&A, via Skype, will be held with director Aube Giroux after the screening.
— Rick Mellerup