Jeremy Seifert's new documentary GMO OMG, opening Friday in New York City, poses an alarming question: "IS THIS THE END OF REAL FOOD?"
As part of his quest to understand genetically modified crops (GMO = "genetically modified organism"), the companies that make them, and what their impact could be on the millions of humans who eat them, writer and director Seifert filmed himself walking into a Monsanto facility "to see if they'll chat me up a little bit."
Monsanto, in case you're not up to speed, is one of the world's most successful and intensely loathed biotech companies — successful enough to have just contributed $4.5 million to fight Washington state's Proposition I-522, requiring labels on food containing GMOs, as well as spending $8.1 million to help defeat a similar law in California last year. Monsanto is the biggest of the big three companies (along with DuPont and Dow Chemical) that make up well over half of the world's proprietary GMO seed industry (seeds that are patented and owned by the companies that develop them, rather than the farmers who grow them): they produce about 90% of all the soybeans in America.
Well, here's how the visit worked out:
"I know people are comparing this to Michael Moore," Seifert told BuzzFeed (they are). "But I was trying to not go into the building with the camera man and his huge camera right behind, because then of course you're going to get kicked out. The mic was totally hidden, and the hope was that I would just be this dude walking in with no camera, so it wouldn't be threatening in that way."
Seifert says that he went into the situation with an open mind. "The primary question I had was, 'I'm a father, I'm raising children, and I can't avoid your company's product. I want you to comfort me by explaining the process and really verifying that this product is safe.'" Beyond that, he says, "I was hoping to have a candid conversation about other things, like patenting seeds. I want to remain open to the idea that there's a real reason for it, even though it seems really ass-backward. I want to talk and listen."
But no dice: It only took just a little over a minute for about five building employees, including "two big burly dudes," to form a solid line of defense and to tell Seifert in no uncertain terms that he had to leave.
Given Monsanto's size and reputation, it seems hard to imagine the filmmaker was legitimately expecting a warm welcome. But he thought he might get further than he did. "Maybe I'm completely naive," he says. "But I thought that at least someone would talk to me and say 'OK, we're really proud of what we make and it's totally safe and let's show you.' So I guess I was surprised, and I think maybe part of the surprise is that it was such a sharp contrast to any organic farm we would go to, where it was, 'Come, welcome, let us show you everything we do.'"
Some reviewers of GMO OMG have criticized the film, calling it "[a] partisan, oversimplified survey" and making the accusation that his (adorable) children, who play a significant role in the movie, "become props in Dad's dumbing down of this issue."
"It's a huge issue," Seifert is quick to agree. "So you have to choose what you're going to cover. This issue touches almost everything, including climate change, including fracking. It's soil depletion, the pollution of water through herbicides and pesticides, and that whole $52-billion GMO seed market worldwide. So you have to find a way through it."
"I think that's such bullshit, because there hasn't been a debate," he says in response to accusations that he has dumbed down the GMO issue. "Maybe among the few people who have been paying attention there's a debate going on, but the average person out there doesn't know what a GMO is. We never had the conversation in this country. We just didn't. So I'm hoping that the film lets us have that debate, and I'm totally open and willing to continuing to discover. I certainly have more questions after making the film, but it's important for all of us to have the conversation and for the debate to begin in earnest."