Modified: A Groundbreaking Documentary About What’s In Our Food

We spoke with filmmaker Aube Giroux about her journey to uncover the truth behind Genetically Modified Foods.

The debate surrounding GMO foods is a hot one for sure and a new Canadian documentary hopes to shed some light on this important topic.

Modified is a first-person documentary-memoir that questions why genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not labeled on food products in Canada and the United States, despite being labeled in 64 countries around the world.

Interweaving the personal and the political, the film is anchored in the filmmaker’s relationship to her mother, a passionate gardener, and food activist. Their intimate mother-daughter investigative journey, fueled by a shared love of food, ultimately reveals the extent to which industrial interests control our food policies, making a strong case for a more transparent and sustainable food system.

We sat down with Aube Giroux, the film Director, to chat about what she hopes to accomplish and what she wants people to take away from this film.

Should we be worried about the future of food?

Yes, we should. Healthy food comes from a healthy planet. Yet our climate is changing faster than predicted, pollinators are in decline, oceans are on the brink of collapse, and scientists warn that mass species extinction is underway. With its over-reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, industrial agriculture is polluting our soil, water, and air and this has far-reaching impacts along the whole food chain. It’s tempting to believe that genetically modified plants and animals (GMOs) might be the quick technological fix we need to tackle these challenges but it’s a dangerous oversimplification of the complex issues that underlie sustainable food production.

How long have GMOs been a factor in agriculture and where do you think the anxiety surrounding GMOs started?

The first GMOs were introduced in the mid-1990’s, with GM herbicide-tolerant and insecticide-producing canola, corn, and soy. Concerns around GMOs began before they even appeared on the market, with scientists (including the FDA’s own scientists) warning of the unique risks of genetic engineering and the unintended effects and mutations that can occur in an organism that is modified using this technology. Farmers and environmental groups voiced concerns about the development of superweeds and super pests. Farmers were also worried about economic risks. For instance, Canadian farmers lost $25 million after GM flax accidentally contaminated flax shipments intended for European export.

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Experts warned that the GMO regulatory systems in Canada and the US were woefully inadequate. In 2001, the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on Biotechnology issued an in-depth report strongly criticizing the Canadian regulatory system and making 53 recommendations to bring it in line with sound science and the precautionary principle. To this day, however, only 2 of these recommendations have been fully implemented. Citizens and civil society groups echoed the Royal Society’s concerns about an industry that conducts its own safety studies (which are kept confidential and do not require scientific peer review) and government regulatory agencies that simply assess these industry studies without conducting any independent tests. In light of the serious shortcomings of our GMO regulatory system, it isn’t surprising that Canadians and Americans have repeatedly asked for GMOs to be labeled (just as they’re labeled in 64 countries around the world) so that they can make their own personal choice about consuming GMOs.

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Some people say that GMO foods are the only way to have a sustainable food source for the future. What do you think about this?

Sustainability refers to the capacity of “being sustained over a long period of time”. When farmers are dependent on the world’s largest chemical corporations for patented seeds that can’t be saved and replanted, and those seeds are the product of a heavily subsidized system reliant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, you end up with the opposite of a sustainable food supply. When the National Academy of Sciences studied the last 20 years of GMO agriculture, it found that contrary to what the biotech industry had claimed, GMOs have not increased yields. This isn’t to say that genetic engineering cannot have its uses. But to claim that GMO agriculture is the only way to have a plentiful, sustainable food source is a deeply flawed and unscientific argument. It’s important to remember that small family farms actually produce 80% of the world’s food. My mom was a prolific gardener and one thing I learned from her early on is that our food is only as good and plentiful as the quality of the soil in which it grows. Studies show that organic farms have healthier soils: soils that are higher in microbial activity, better at trapping carbon, and whose crops perform better than conventional crops (including GMOs) under drought conditions. Unsurprisingly, studies also show organic food is more nutritious.

What are your thoughts on movies like FOOD EVOLUTION (delves into the positive side of GMOs on sustaining the human food supply): 

Food Evolution was funded by a food technology industry group very keen to sway public perceptions of GMOs. The film has been widely critiqued as one more cog in a well-oiled industry propaganda machine. It encourages a divisive attitude towards people who have legitimate concerns over how GMOs are regulated and how the technology is being used, painting them as ‘anti-science’ and uninformed. The film frames GMOs as the solution to world hunger. But instead of looking at the actual GMOs on the market (corn, soy, canola, cotton, sugar beets), it focuses on a GMO that is still being developed, one that could eventually help combat banana wilt in some African countries. Of course, this is a unique example of a GMO that many people, myself included, could theoretically get on board with should it be proven to perform, and given an adequate risk assessment at arm’s length from industry. What the film fails to mention, however, is that lower-cost, grassroots solutions to banana wilt already exist. Clearly, the film’s purpose is not to foster a nuanced discussion. Rather, it feeds directly into the biotech industry’s current strategy to portray anyone who expresses concerns about GMOs and how they’re regulated as irrational hysterics whose intransigence will lead to mass starvation in Africa. 

In the GMO debate, both pro and anti-camps claim science is on their side. How can the consumer really know what is the right path to follow?

The consumer can now look at the reality of 20 years of GMOs on the market: GMOs have not increased yields, nor have they lessened overall pesticide use, as we were told they would. That said, I don’t believe the issue should be reduced to a divisive pro-GMO or anti-GMO debate. When someone expresses concerns about how GMOs are regulated and asks for them to be labeled, it does not necessarily mean that person is ‘anti-GMO’. We need to move beyond alienating labels in order to have more constructive discussions. When scientific claims are made, we also need to ask, which science? Independent science or industry science? Studies repeatedly show that when scientific research is funded by industry, the findings of that research are often skewed in favour of the funder – our experience with the tobacco industry is proof of that. It’s important to always look at who is funding the research and to make sure that research is peer-reviewed and therefore also in the public realm (which isn’t the case for the studies our governments use to approve GMOs). We also shouldn’t reduce the issue to simply whether GMOs are safe to eat or not. There are many more questions to consider as a society. How robust are our regulatory systems? How tied to industry are our regulatory agencies? What kind of agriculture do GMOs encourage and is it sustainable? What are the long-term environmental impacts of herbicide-resistant and insecticide-producing crops which make up the vast majority of GMOs? What are the economic costs of GMO contamination for farmers? Should living organisms be patented? Should people be able to make up their own minds whether they want to eat GMOs or not?

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Can science win over people whose views are value or emotion based?

I would counter with another question: should we live in a society that places science over other human skills, values, and knowledge? Scientific technologies are neither inherently good nor inherently evil. Nuclear technology can blow up the planet, yet it also helps us diagnose disease and save lives. As a society, we must use our shared values, our moral compass, and our ethical intelligence in collaboration with our scientific knowledge to help us determine how to use and regulate science to best benefit humanity and the world around us. One should not win over the other, they should go hand in hand.

Following the film’s release to the public, what sort of reaction have you received, both pro and con?

The reaction has been deeply moving and heartening. People often come up to me after screenings and say “it wasn’t what I expected it would be!”. Perhaps because the film is critical of our regulatory system and calls for transparency and labels, there is an expectation that it might be an angry, anti-GMO film. Audiences say they feel inspired by my mom’s spirit and the values she passed on to me. They also say they learned a lot about how GMOs are regulated, and wonder why it’s been so difficult to get them labeled in Canada and the US. Of course, I’ve also had my fair share of aggressive pro-GMO trolls leaving offensive comments on my social media sites (none of whom have actually seen the film) which doesn’t come as a surprise given the hostile discourse currently fostered by the biotech industry.

Is the discussion of the genetic engineering of our food a distraction from the real problem (because all foods and living organisms are made up of genes, whether they are GMO or not)

The discussion around the genetic engineering of our food is inextricably linked to one of the most critical problems in our world: the tremendous power that industry wields over our elected representatives and our democratic institutions. Should society and its governments regulate new technologies, or do we leave that to industry? I made this film because I was fascinated by this question which directly addresses the problem of regulatory capture and the stranglehold that the world’s most powerful corporations currently have on both science and democracy. Until we address this fundamental problem, we will continue to see the pollution of our air, water, soil, food, and our bodies.

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How do we ensure that our global food supply is safe and that everyone has enough to eat?

It’s impossible to speak of a safe and abundant food supply without speaking about the state of our environment. It’s crucial that we support small, sustainable family farmers. The “get big or get out” approach to agriculture has meant that industrial farms have taken over our rural communities as smaller farmers are pushed out. When our elected officials make decisions on food and agriculture policies, we need to ensure they are listening to citizens, instead of the large corporations and industry lobbyists that often have so much influence over them. And we need to vote with our forks. As my mom says in the film, “every meal is an opportunity to vote for the kind of agriculture we want and the kind of world we want to live in.”

How do we feed the world while also protecting the planet?

Small-scale farmers and rural communities around the world already have the solutions in their hands. We need to support them and localize our agricultural systems. We need to reward farmers who don’t pollute instead of penalizing them, as we do now, with added organic certification fees. We need to vote for politicians who support organic agriculture and fund farmer-led, cutting-edge scientific research that promotes ecologically sound agricultural practices. We need to hold our governments accountable for the agricultural subsidies they approve. We need to ensure our regulatory agencies are operating at arm’s length from industry and call them out when they do not. We need to provide transparency and access to information so that consumers can make more informed food decisions. We need to reduce food waste and, most of all, to teach our children about healthy, conscious eating.

Has genetic engineering increased or decreased pesticide use?

This is a question that is often misunderstood because pesticide is an umbrella term that includes herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. As predicted, herbicide use increased with the use of GM herbicide-tolerant corn, canola, soy, cotton and sugarbeet. In Canada, herbicide sales went up by 130% since the introduction of GM crops, and data from the US government show a similar increase. Since many weeds have developed resistance to the most common herbicide used on GM crops (glyphosate), additional herbicides (such as Dicamba and 2, 4-D) are now being used, often in combination with glyphosate.

One study done on insect-resistant crops suggests that genetic engineering has reduced the use of external insecticides on corn crops by 11.2 percent. But that’s because the crop is engineered to produce the insecticide internally, within every cell of the plant. However, the decrease in insecticides does not hold true for every GM insect-resistant crop. For example, in India, the main target pest of GM insect-resistant cotton developed resistance, leading to unanticipated insecticide use.

It’s important to note that as both insects and weeds develop resistance to GMOs and their corresponding pesticides, they are rendered less effective over time, necessitating the use increased or different chemicals than what was initially intended.

Modified will have its US premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 1 at 4pm and February 2 at 10:20am at the Fiesta 5 Theatre in Santa Barbara. 

It will also screen in Victoria, B.C. on February 8 & 10 at the Victoria Film Festival, and in Vancouver, B.C. on February 15th at KDocs Festival. Further screening dates will be announced on the film’s website and Facebook page.

what you need to know about GMO foods Documentary Aube Giroux

(All (photos courtesy Aube Giroux & Unsplash)

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