If it's true that "we are what we eat" -- then the new wittily titled documentary "GMO OMG" is no laughing matter.
In his globetrotting film, which opens today, Jeremy Seifert explores the 21st century development of Genetically Modified Organisms. He explains what they are, how pervasive they are, and he identifies who invents and disseminates them.
Most importantly, as the top three seed and chemical companies of DuPont, Syngenta, and Monsanto lead the genetic charge that is transforming agricultural production and consumption, the filmmaker ponders the big question he's still asking towards the end of this 90-minute doc: "I still don't know if there are health risks from GMOs," such as pesticide contamination of the food we eat.
Like that other nonfiction writer/director/producer Josh Fox of "GasLand" fame, Seifert also puts himself into "GMO OMG's" action, as he did in his 2010 dumpster diving short "Dive!"
Through the prism of his young North Carolina family, which includes wife Jen, two young boys and a baby daughter, Seifert embarks on an epic odyssey as he examines how the increasingly all-pervasive high-tech Big Ag will affect his children.
According to the film, they -- and we -- are growing up in a brave new world wherein 80 percent of processed foods have GMOs (which, Seifert alleges, are even sold by that supposedly organic bastion Whole Foods), 93 percent of soy and 85 percent of U.S. corn are genetically modified, in a country where 165 million acres are planted with GMO crops, and so ones. Seifert muses that agrochemical companies "play god" with the Earth's food supply, even though they claim to be "feeding the world."
Seifert's cinematic quest takes him from the tropics to the Arctic as he explores the phenomenon of what foes dub "Frankenfoods." Like Michael Moore trying to track down GM's Roger Smith in 1989's "Roger & Me," Seifert is repeatedly denied interview access, as the filmmaker is snubbed from corporate headquarters to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
As in the anti-marine life theme park doc "Blackfish" this stonewalling may explain why there isn't a strong pro-GMO viewpoint expressed on camera.
Be that as it may, rank and file farmers and activists to high profile politicians, environmentalists and scientists are not only available, but downright eager to speak on camera with the youthful documentarian.
While still in office U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (whose wife, Elizabeth, shares executive producer credits) declares: "Of course they should be labeled. I don't know what consumption of genetically engineered food does to the human body. That's why they should be labeled. Precautionary principles dictate that you should give people a choice whether or not to consume [GMOs]. If they do so they should do it knowingly.
Swiss scientist Hans Herren, a 1995 World Food Prize recipient and president of the Washington-based Millennium Institute, adds: "In Europe [GMOs] are labeled, so people leave them on the shelf. That's why they don't want labeling." The "they," but of course, are agrochemical companies such as Monsanto, which, as Kucinich put it, "went to work" to prevent the former Congressman's pro-labeling proposal.
The doc claims Big Ag spent $45 million to defeat California's GMO labeling Proposition 37, the Golden State ballot measure narrowly voted down in 2012 -- although 60 countries around the world regularly label GMOs.
The film also contends that from 1999-2009 the industry spent $547-plus million on lobbying in the U.S., and that 300 former Congressional and White House staffers went on to work for biotech firms.
The sprawling documentary visits post-earthquake Haiti, where hard-hit peasants protest a Big Ag company's offer of 475 tons of genetically engineered seeds -- its distribution to be handled by USAID -- chanting "Monsanto is poison for the people." The firm, however, is no "MonsantosClaus," as one U.S. grower cleverly calls the agrochemical company. Concerned by the firm's patent restrictions, Haitian agronomist Jean-Baptiste Chavannes says: "To defend the seeds of the people is to defend life... The seeds are like the stars, owned by none, shared by all."
The private property stipulations accompanying GMOs are a major concern of the film. As an American famer says: "You can't save the seeds to replant them because they are copyrighted."
Author Gene Logsdon, the so-called Contrary Farmer, laments: "They are trying to patent nature. They own it... I don't think it's moral but it's now accepted practice." The film claims Monsanto sues for patent infringement and is "bullying."
While a woman at Seed Savers Exchange strives to "save genetic diversity," Seifert says: "93% of crop diversity has vanished, replaced by corporate monoculture," while family farms wane.
In an interview, 350.org founder Bill McKibben cautions, "Anything too big to fail is too big."
Indian environmentalist and author Vandana Shiva exclaims: "There's something wrong when governments are captive to non-renewable, debt-creating seeds that destroy independence and self-reliance."
The director travels to Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where 700,000 seed samples are stored to prevent crop extinction and preserve diversity on an arctic isle 810 miles from the North Pole.
Perplexed and troubled that the jury is still out on the science as to whether or not GMOs are, indeed, hazardous to our health, Seifert alights in France. There he interviews scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose tests regarding GMOs were being conducted while this documentary was being shot. Doctor Séralini discusses his alleged results on camera, contending that rat exposure to the herbicide Roundup created big mammary tumors in the females, while male rodents experienced kidney problems and higher rates of estrogen.
Regarding humans, the Frenchman opines, "GMOs could contribute to women's breast tumors... We should request to forbid these products."
The film acknowledges that Séralini's study is disputed, including, allegedly, by scientists with ties to the biotech industry. In any case, as Kucinich warns: "We do not know the effect of this grand experiment that is being visited upon humanity by the purveyors of GMOs." Herren adds: "Why are we doing this? The answer is because it's huge money... In the end a few companies will control what farmers grow and the consumer has on his plate."
"GMO OMG" arguably does for Genetically Modified Organisms what Al Gore's 2006 Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth" did for climate change.
Seifert's thought-provoking documentary opens with Wendell Berry's poem "The Peace of Wild Things" and near the end, closes with Willie Nelson's harrowing song "I've Just Destroyed the World I'm Living In" to help make its powerful points.
"GMO OMG" premieres Sept. 13 in N.Y.; plays at Hollywood's Arena Cinema Sept. 20-Oct. 3; and opens in Seattle Sept. 27. For more info see: www.gmofilm.com/.
L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell's co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book, which will be published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing in October.