Genetically modified organisms

It’s a phrase you’ve likely heard recently—or maybe not—that sounds like it belongs in science class. It doesn’t sound like something that should be discussed at the dinner table. But genetically modified organisms, GMOs for short, have everything to do with what we’re eating. In fact, they’re often what we’re eating, as Colorado-born filmmaker Jeremy Seifert (pictured, left) attempts to point out in his most recent production, GMO OMG.

The documentary follows Seifert—across the country, through the aisles of Whole Foods, eating at his dinner table—in his search for answers about the mysterious GMO and how it fits into his family’s everyday life. This isn’t Seifert’s first film, he directed Dive!, a documentary on American waste culture, which was named best “Call 2 Action” film by the Boulder International Film Festival In 2010. GMO OMG, which debuted earlier this year, has already picked up publicity, as well as pointed criticism, from big names such as the Dr. Oz Show, and the New Yorker.

We sat down with Seifert, and his producer and Denver resident Josh Kunau (pictured, right), to dig into their experience making GMO OMG. We wanted to know what they learned, and why they think the rest of us should be paying attention.

Watch it: Catch a screening October 18–24 at Animas City Theatre in Durango.

5280: When did you first become interested in GMOs?

Jeremy Seifert: My imagination was first captured by the story out of Haiti. You have 10,000 rural farmers marching in the streets yelling out ‘Down with Monsanto,’ and they symbolically burned seeds. I didn’t quite understand why they would do that or what was at stake. I remember calling Josh and saying ‘Hey, what do you think about this story out of Haiti—it’s really fascinating to me.’

5280: What was the most impactful moment for each of you during the making of the film?

JS: The voice of the people, the man-on-the-street interviews. Ninety-eight percent of people that I asked the very simple question, Do you eat GMOs?, answered What the hell is that? Or if I said genetically modified food, they’d say Oh, like McDonald’s? But very few people knew what [GMOs] were. And, yet, we are eating them.

Josh Kunau: I think for me it was realizing that you have your chemical companies and the companies that produce GMOs saying These are safe, trust us. And then you start finding out that they’ve never released the raw data. You start finding out that [the products] were put on the market with three-month trials and studies, and that there are still questions about whether or not they are safe.

5280: Was it difficult to find science—on either side—regarding GMOs?

JK: We hired a person, who was from the University of Colorado and had his PhD in neuroscience, to go through of all of our research. He said the scariest thing for him was that every time one report came out against GMOs, the very next day there’d be 25 scientists attacking that person. Pro-GMO scientists will say it’s completely solid science, it’s safe, and yet the more we dealt and dived into it, the more we found it was just unknown. There’s uncertainty. The thing is, if you want to disprove a study scientifically, you need to repeat the study and get a different result, but no one in our government or the corporations is doing that or calling for that.

5280: Most of the negative press about the film is a critique of a lack of science and data. What has been your reaction to that?

JS: You just heard from Josh we hired a PhD in neuroscience for three months, and we had a Fulbright scholar on board for almost the entire film that headed up the research, and I was doing tons of research myself too. We interviewed and talked to a number of amazing scientists, but we decided to tell the story the way we told it because of that widespread ignorance. We tell a personal story. I remember, someone said, ‘Seifert dumbs down the debate on GMOs’. Well, there is no debate in the public. We haven’t had the conversation in this country, because most people don’t know what it is or that they’re eating them. So we told this story in this way, to wake people up to this basic reality. I would love to make a science film on GMOs: Take the top five scientists in the world who take issues with GMOs, and the top five that support them, and let them talk. But that’s a completely different film.

JK: If we were to make harsh claims based on some of the [science] we found, it would be easily criticized by the industry. And so it wasn’t that we were shying away from the science, we just found that it’s so confusing that we can’t make concrete statements.

5280: So, why should we all care about GMOs again?

JK: You know, GMOs involve a big spectrum: Is Roundup safe? Herbicides? Pesticides? It’s not even just as simple as are GMOs safe or not safe? It’s everything that comes along with that. The cautionary tale should say don’t do it until we’re sure. And right now, we’re not sure.

JS: We’ve been through this with the lead industry, the tobacco industry, the banking system…haven’t we learned that industry and big corporations will lie and say anything to stay on top and to sell their products? I mean, duh.

5280: Your family is shown quite a bit in this film; why did you feel that was important or necessary?

JS: I am a father of three children, and as I studied more and became more involved in the filmmaking process and this issue, I noticed that we were literally surrounded by GMOs. They were this inescapable food. I mean, literally, you couldn’t go to the supermarket down the street, or the ice cream truck outside of the house, or to any fast food, or even regular restaurants. Everything was GMO. It became more personal as a father because of that responsibility to care for [my kids] and feed them. And so that’s the twist the film took on—this is really more of a personal story and a story of discovery and what is happening right here in our own country.

5280: One of the most poignant moments of the film is when you go to a Monsanto building and try to speak with someone in person. What happened?

JS: It was just weird. When I walked in there was a woman on the phone and she said ‘yeah, hold on—Jeremy?’ I said ‘yeah.’ She said, ‘It’s for you.’ And it was a woman in a different facility that I had called the day before to ask if I could interview someone. And, of course, after a few minutes, there were a few other people standing there, like they knew I was coming, and like they knew me as soon as I walked in. It was a little unsettling. If I’m just walking in there saying ‘I’m a father and I noticed that you’re essentially feeding my children—I can’t escape your product, it shows up everywhere, and I want you to reassure me that it’s safe.’…and to basically be kicked out. I didn’t think they’d give me a real interview, but I thought surely they would at least talk to me.

JK: If they’re so proud of their product, why won’t these companies label it? They say ‘We stand for this,” but then why won’t they stand there and give an interview?

Jerilyn Forsythe
Jerilyn Forsythe
Jerilyn Forsythe is a freelance writer and editor, and 5280's former digital associate editor. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @jlforsyt.