As documented in the film, The Future of Food, genetically engineered foods have quietly slipped onto our food shelves in the last 10 years--with many of us unaware.
Genetically engineered foods, or GMO (genetically modified organism) foods, are those whose genetic code has been scientifically altered to produce benefits--such as a resistance to pesticides.
Monsanto's Bt corn is one example. As outlined in The Future of Food, the corn itself is registered as an insecticide, because every cell has been engineered to manufacture Bt, a natural bacterial toxin. If a corn-borer eats the plant, the borer will die.
Filmmaker Deborah Coons Garcia (widow of Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead) says 40 percent of the corn grown in this country is genetically engineered. She says other genetically engineered foods on the market include cotton, soy, canola, Hawaiian papaya and squash. But because labeling is not required in the United States, you cannot know for sure whether food items are GMO or non-GMO.
Garcia says many of the GMOs are found in processed foods and candies. Corn syrup in soda, cookies and cereal is one example. Soy lecithin in candy is another.
We know that an overabundance of soda, cookies and sweets is not good for our health, but there's no concrete evidence of how GMO foods affect us. Garcia says thorough health testing (10 or 20 years on animals) has not occurred, with only introductory testing completed.
"In some preliminary tests, there may be problems with the immune system, organ growth rate and stomach lesions. These are some of the (results) found with preliminary testing on rats.
"The companies do the testing themselves and send the results to the FDA," says Garcia. "And if you read the government reports, they say that they've seen the testing (results). They don't say we've approved of the testing. So no one is being held accountable."
Garcia wrote, directed and produced The Future of Food to educate and alert the public on the GMO issue. As quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, she says, "Someone needed to make this film, because if this technology isn't challenged and if this corporatization of our whole food system isn't stopped, at some point, it will be too late."
The 90-minute documentary begins with a look back at traditional farming before the widespread use of fertilizers and pest-killers. It outlines the modern history of agriculture, from the creation of insecticides from a byproduct of World War II nerve gases to today's harsh realities, including Monsanto's monopoly-like hold on farmers.
The film shows how chemical companies have patented their seeds, creating a virtual living hell for farmers "caught" violating patents. Garcia profiles Saskatchewan grain farmer Percy Schmeiser and tells his story of being sued by Monsanto. It's a David-versus-Goliath epic of Schmeiser standing up to Monsanto, which accused him of planting its GMO canola in his field. He is one of many farmers sued by the corporation after its canola drifted off trucks into unsuspecting farmers' fields.
The Future of Food takes a look at the lack of rigorous testing and absence of labeling in the United States. (Labeling is required in Europe.) It outlines the spread of genetically modified crops from zero acres in 1980 to 100 million in 2003 and examines new foods being tested. The film ends with a call to action and greater awareness and action from its viewers.
"One thing people should be aware of is there are consequences to their food choices. Consumers really hold the power; we just have to exercise it," says Garcia. "To my mind, the worse-case scenario is if Americans don't stand up and demand that we have freedom not to eat this, and we end up with genetically engineered wheat, rice, lettuce, apples and everything else. I hope we avoid that."
Garcia's passion for food and agriculture began at the age of 15, when a science-fair project examined plant manipulation: She got a first-hand look at the effects of genetic engineering. She was introduced to filmmaking at the undergrad level and later received a master's degree from the San Francisco Art Institute.
She started her first film company, Signs of Life, in 1984, producing Poco Loco, All About Babies and Grateful Dawg--about the friendship between Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. The Future of Food is the first production under her Lily Films label, started in 2000. The film was released one year ago and has played in 25 cities (as of our press time).
The DVD will be available on Dec. 1 at www.thefutureoffood.com. The special-edition DVD includes many extras, including a Taking Action Toolkit.
"People should try to learn and educate themselves about where their food comes from, what's in it and how it affects their health," says Garcia. "When you go into a store, talk to the produce manager. Contact representatives in Congress, the Senate and local representatives. ... Tell them, 'I don't want to eat genetically engineered food.'"
As she encourages people to take action, Garcia also notices a positive trend. "The message of hope is that there's an increased demand for farmers' markets, organic food and locally grown food. That demand has sky rocketed. When given a choice, people will choose healthy food. The work is to make sure this is available more and more."
The Future of Food opens on Friday, Nov. 25, at the Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd., 795-7777. It's scheduled to be shown daily at 5:15 p.m. through Dec. 1. $5.