A Conversation with Filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia

6 years ago

As consumer awareness grows and health concerns deepen over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food, agriculture documentaries are being released by the bushel. But eight years ago, filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia (also the widow of Jerry Garcia) first made waves with her startling 2004 documentary, The Future of Food. BlogHer GREEN decided to check in with DKG and see how she views the current food movement and if she sees a new "future" in the food revolution.

~Heather Clisby, BlogHer GREEN Section Editor

Image: Nic Coury.


When did the issue of GMOs land on your radar? Can you describe those early beginnings of awareness?

My story is I became vegetarian in 1970 in college and started educating myself back then about food and social justice. I also started making films and I always wanted to make a film about organic agriculture instead of industrial agriculture. Around 2000 or 2001, I found out GMOs, about Monsanto buying up the seed supply and patenting genes. I didn’t know this. I was living in Marin County, very educated and didn’t know anything about this. So, I decided the film would be about that. Americans didn’t know anything about GMOs then, really.

How long did it take to make this film?

It took about three years. I was researching it for several months before. I have a new film, Symphony of the Soil. It premiered at the Smithsonian but it won’t be available until fall. I also have a short film, Sonatas of the Soil.

The film included so many sharp spokespeople. Senior Staff Scientist (Consumers Union) Michael Hansen, oh my...

Michael Hansen, he’s in Symphony of the Soil.

We need an army of those guys...

Exactly! His brain holds everything. Go on the Organic Consumers Association website -- they have a report on the Vermont bill. Michael Hansen went up there to testify and the other side had all these claims and Michael just attacked them all, which is what you have to do: really bust the promotions of the other side. The companies say, "They are safe," and he reminded them, "No, they haven’t been tested for health, the companies do those tests themselves. There has been no independent testing."

Wasn’t there a recent report of Bt found in human cells in France?

I’m not sure about that, but I know of a study in Canada where they found the Bt toxin in pregnant women and their fetuses, which is strange. There’s two kinds of GMOs. The kind that has contains bacteria so you can spray it with Round Up as you kill the weeds. And Bt crops using bacteria found in the soil. These crops have to be registered as an insecticide. Anyway, they found this Bt toxin in women. They don’t really grow that much GMO crops in Europe, it’s a very small market. It’s mostly US, Canada and China.

And in the film it is mentioned that because GMO foods are required to be labeled and in some cases, banned outright, this is isolating us in the global market.

Yes, it still is. We’re the bio-tech bully. The Gates Foundation is very aggressive about promoting GMOs in Africa. He’s a technocrat, that’s the technocrat way. The foundation owns Monsanto stock and they are super promotional of Monsanto’s technology. He’s a tech corporate who likes to control everything. He’s helping to create a monopoly even though nature doesn’t like monopolies. And now he’s been drawn in to an agriculture business. Maybe one day they will change. It’s unfortunate. They need to help Africans remain local to not become dependent on Western aid.

[The film also discusses how the US has a policy of providing food aid to countries, as long as it is GMO product. In fact, when the country of Zambia refused to accept GMO aid, the US said, "Take this or nothing." Even though the country simply needed transportation to move cassaba from the northern half of the country to the southern half. -Ed.]

The film is now eight years old. Do you things have gotten worse since that time or better?

This was the first film to come out with anything about the agricultural system, the food system, it helped kickstart this whole food moment. Because of this film, people started to think about changing things - started farmers markets, joined a CSA or grew their own food. It was very successful as a feature film, but also as a grassroots film; it played well at the big organic conventions. It helped support this move toward organic, Whole Foods carried it, this counter-movement. That part is good! They’re actually doing it, living it, buying organic is getting more and more popular. So the film was really useful in popularizing that. The more weight that organic industry has, the stronger it will be.

But the bad news is that Obama has been super promotional of GMOs. Bush never let out any new GMOs the eight years he was in office.

Say what?

Corn, cotton, soy and canola -- those all came out during the Clinton administration. During the Bush administration -- he didn’t bring out new ones. Obama has started allowing things to be released -- GMO alfalfa. Now you have Roundup Ready alfalfa! Most alfalfa farmers didn’t spray anything to begin with so now they are starting this whole unnecessary chemical regime. The whole point? To create another takeover crop. That was quite disappointing. It’s not necessary to even spray alfalfa.

Also, Obama let out the GMO sugar beet and now maybe GMO salmon. It’s been depressing. So now, what’s coming down the pipeline is a resistance to Roundup Ready because that’s what happens in nature -- super weeds. Oh, yeah! So now they have to take these super weeds out with machetes -- they are so resistant. They’ve got these weeds resistant to 2,4-D, half of Agent Orange, instead of GMOs being more crop-friendly, they now require more pesticide use. So now they need a more potent weed killer. It’s just one ongoing chemical arms race which is not good, it deforms the whole system.

The film doesn’t go into the many health connections that we are aware of today, such as the rise of peanut allergies, autism, obesity and cancer, which have all paralleled with the rise of GMOs.

It is true that there is a huge spike in food allergies in 15-20 years since GMOs have come out, huge rise in food allergies for children. As a child in the 50s, we lived on peanut butter and now they don’t even allow peanut butter in the New York city school system. Something’s wrong!

There are some organizations doing great work. Pesticide Action Network North America -- Breast Cancer Action in Bay Area -- they try to get things removed from the environment that -- hello! -- actually cause cancer. There are so many chemicals -- disinfectants, cleaners, foods, household items -- it’s hard to tell what is the one thing that people are allergic to but there’s definitely a huge rise in all these health problems. That’s the challenge with trying to remove these things. It’s a toxic soup and very difficult to decipher.

The recent "Just Label It" campaign and resulting petition that was sent to the FDA kind of landed with a whimper. And the bill in Vermont is stagnating while Monsanto threatens a lawsuit if it passes. What else can we do here?

There is a very important resolution on the ballot this fall in California to implement GMO labeling. It’s a very, very important thing. We deserve to have our food labeled. This is the last stand. We have to demand consumer choice.

Also, state by state, this needs to become law. We have it here, I think they have something in Washington state. We really hope it passes, this is a last-ditch attempt. We have to stop this mentality from taking over everything. The companies that sell GMOs, they would be happy to have it contaminate everyone’s fields. I’m a great believer in the concept that freedom means saying, "No!"

What is your best advice for parents of children in public schools who want to improve school foods?

It’s such a tricky thing. It has a lot to do with where people live. I know here in California there are a lot of school districts paying attention. There’s a film called "Two Angry Moms" -- these women were upset about the low nutritional value in school lunches and they went about changing the school foods. It takes a lot of effort, the corporate forces against that type of change are so strong. There’s so much money in the USDA budget to find a market for commodity crops. There’s a mandate for food that may not be the best food for them to eat. Here in Marin County, there people I know with young kids, they’ll go to McDonald’s once in a while and the kids will say, “Yeah, it wasn’t very good.” The responsibility belongs to the parents in trying to teach kids that eating veggies and fruits is the way to go.

Also, I would be very careful about the kind of meat they eat. Anything that has hormones in it... and this applies to all dairy as well. There’s so many things around now, even in plastics, endocrine disrupters.... they interrupt all these things that are supposed to be happening in physical development. I know one set of parents, they are really into healthy food and after visiting their child’s school during lunch, they saw what they were eating and changed schools! Changed to a school where the food was organic. This is something that parents need to be aware of -- certain foods affect how their brain functions, their intelligence. Hopefully, this idea that cooking is fun will take hold with kids, that’s it’s fund to get together with their friends and do this. This idea of kids learning where their food comes from and bringing their kids to the CSA -- is just wonderful.

News headlines of Poland’s recent protest, beekeepers and farmers dumping thousands of dead bees on the government steps, I could only think, "Someday, I hope Americans get that angry."

Yeah, I know! It would be great if Americans were as aware of the whole food system. Americans, they don’t live as close to the land as Europeans do, they are far away from where food is grown.

A friend, a conservative, explained to me that -- like it or not -- there is an image problem with the word, "organic." People hear that word and immediately think of expensive food, crunchy hippies or snobby foodies.

This theory has since been confirmed to me several times since by others. Thoughts? 

I don’t think organic is a dirty word -- you have a legal obligation to apply it. I’m a great believer in the organic standard and being proud of organic. As for using the word "natural," people say, "Well, this is natural." Yeah, well, so is strychnine. People say it’s so elitist. I think that’s something that the enemies of change perpetuate. Foodies are one thing, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about healthy awareness - people buying in season, buying in bulk. You can eat organically without being a snob.

The outcome of the PubPat case against Monsanto was disappointing. I met one of the plaintiffs at an organic farming conference, actually the day the judge issued a decision in favor of Monsanto. It makes me wonder, if you can’t turn to the government to help and justice system is on the same track, where does one go from there?

Well, they can appeal. Tricky thing, this case. The judge said there were too many plaintiffs and then she said, "No one had been sued by Monsanto, because the farmers settle and they have to sign an agreement not to speak about it. If Monsanto sued you, they’ve won, or if you’ve settled and part of the agreement is you can’t talk." Anyone who has been sued by Monsanto knows this. That judge doesn’t understand how agriculture works. She said, "Oh, Monsanto won’t sue them. They said so on their website." What’s that got to do with the price of potatoes?

There will be many more lawsuits. But we’ll see what happens on appeal. The patent issue is very complex, very novel. They sued to stop the breast cancer gene from being patented, the appeal, goes on and will eventually make their way to Supreme Court. It’s important Obama stay in office so we don’t get another right winger on the Supreme Court when this case comes up. There are a lot of big things going on, a lot will be decided in the next 5-10 years.

With regards to this "elitist" claim, my own mother accuses me of cooking "too gourmet," so I must remind her, "I’m only cooking like YOUR mother did!”

Exactly! Yeah, both my grandmothers had gardens. They cooked fresh foods and it was fine. They had small markets back then, no supermarkets, no processed foods. A lot of it is a money issue but I don’t think it takes that much more money...process food v. organic. Pay now, rather than later for healthcare.

Maybe the best chance we have in changing things in the food system is to work directly with youth. I teach composting in schools where I live, and Curt Ellis (filmmaker, King Corn) has co-founded FoodCorps, a program that works like Peace Corps, only here in the US teaching kids about food.

That’s great! You’re absolutely right. In the 70s, we shamed our parents into recycling and now, kids are doing that with compost.

What are the top things people can do to make a difference in our food system?

The main thing is support organic agriculture. Also, I sign a lot of petitions. I don’t know if it makes any difference. We’ve got a million people saying "Change!" I think this labeling bill is important. Also, talk to stores where people shop. "I don’t see any organic produce here." Or "Why is this coming from 2,000 miles away? We want this, we want that." Even if just a few people saying it, it will make a difference. "We should get some stuff from local farms." Make it known what you want and support with your dollar. People who live in places where there’s a labeling bill should get behind them. Even in Boulder, Colorado, they now allow the planting of GMOs -- not sure if it’s city or county land -- but people need to be aware.

And with regards to the whole GMO thing, there’s a certain point where we won’t be able to go back. Obama has been full steam ahead on releasing GMOs. Right now, in California, there’s not many GMOs grown here because we don’t grow grains so here we’re pretty free of it. But if these companies get their way -- zucchini, carrots -- the list is endless. And the only reason is it makes it easier for farmers to weed. That’s fine but there’s the significant downside. There’s more going on here than easier weeding.

It’s about using technology to control nature. In some cases, that’s good. There’s some places using satellite technology to help with farming, not to mention drip irrigation. You see these current technologies about cover crops and rotations and treating the soil. But unfortunately, we’ve crossed the line.

The Future of Food is currently available on Netflix, and at Hulu.com where viewers can watch the film for free in exchange for watching a few ads. Also, the film can be viewed online for free at the official website, which also sells the DVD in a variety of formats, including one for educational use packaged with a college-level curriculum.

~Heather Clisby

BlogHer Section Editor, LIFE & GREEN; Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns; Proprietor, ClizBiz

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