Jonathan Matthews reviews Paul Moreira's award-winning film
Recently I talked to the investigative journalist Paul Moreira about his sensational video of Patrick Moore offering to drink a glass of Monsanto's controversial glyphosate weed killer before rapidly withdrawing the offer. Here's my review of the remarkable film the Moore interview comes from.
Transgenic Wars is the English language version of Moreira's “Bientôt dans vos assiettes” (“coming soon to your dinner plates”), a documentary first broadcast on French TV last autumn. The English version of the film has already been shown on Dutch TV, despite Monsanto's best efforts to block the broadcast. It's now available at a very reasonable price as a video on demand via Vimeo. It's also available on DVD.
Although the film was made primarily for French TV, it's international in scope and for a non-French viewer it isn't unduly focused on France. At 52 minutes in length, it's significantly shorter than the French original, but it works well at this length. It's a taut, well-paced and absorbing documentary that takes us from Europe to Latin America and back again, all the time bringing out the geo-political significance of the GM debate while effectively illustrating its points by focusing in on specific individuals and events. With not just the narration but many of the contributions in English, it doesn’t really feel like you’re watching a foreign film.
The film kicks off in Denmark with farmers talking about their experiences of deformity, illness and death among their livestock, and how they believe these problems connect to the GMO feed they've been using. The film then moves from the animal casualties of the transgenic revolution to the human victims.
We meet these in Chaco, a region in the north of Argentina where much of the GMO soy in European animal feed comes from. Here local communities are facing an exploding health crisis. This includes children suffering from strange genetic defects.
Chaco's landscape is dominated by GMO soy. Because of the explosion of weed resistance, farmers are having to massively increase the amount of glyphosate they apply to their fields. What the film also shows is that they're also adding three, four or five other chemicals to the mix. These glyphosate cocktails typically include atrazine, a chemical banned in Europe, and 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange.
Monsanto refused to respond to the film makers' requests to discuss this issue but every night there are reassuring Monsanto ads on Argentinian TV. For Monsanto, Argentina is a hugely lucrative market. It's one of the world's largest producers and exporters of GMO soy. But a paediatrician tells the film makers that what's happening to local people constitutes something approaching genocide: "A lot of people are dying prematurely from really aggressive and painful diseases. They suffer a lot."
Even Argentina's strongly pro-GMO science minister freely admits to Moreira that "the toxicity of all these chemicals mixed together has not been tested" and that the epidemic of deformed children is linked to these glyphosate cocktails. Argentina's health ministry is doing nothing about this growing crisis. But the National University of Rosario's medical school has undertaken its own epidemiological study of GMO soy-growing communities. We see their many student volunteers undertaking huge house-to-house surveys of the diseases the population of 90,000 are suffering. Their findings are shocking, showing spectacular increases, for example, in cancer rates – up 40% in one year, an almost unbelievable 250% in another.
In this context it is no surprise to see big demonstrations against Monsanto in Argentina. It might be tempting to dismiss these as expressions of the traditional hostility of Latin America's left to the machinations of US multinationals and government agencies. But in this case, the film argues, there is good evidence that their concerns are no conspiracy theory.
To show why, the film comes back to London and the release by WikiLeaks of cables showing how US diplomats have been turned literally into biotech industry salesmen. In Buenos Aires, for example, the US Ambassador organised an all expenses paid trip for journalists to Monsanto's HQ in the US. In Paris, the ambassador advised the US President to consider banning imports of champagne in retaliation for France's reluctance to adopt GMOs.
The film also shows a senior US official, Jack Bobo (known to some as "Mr GMO") spelling out how the State Dept takes a close and active interest in agriculture because of its huge economic and political implications, including for national security. The film suggests that for Bobo and the US government, "GMOs are like weapons or oil - a power asset."
And in the frontline of the global war to impose GMOs are what the film calls "the influence peddlers". Here the film cuts to Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union and a hive of corporate lobbying. It takes us inside a pro-GMO strategy event organized by EuropaBio, the biotech industry's main lobby group in Europe.
It's here we come across the then UK government minister Owen Paterson trying to dodge the cameras. But the film makers manage to surreptitiously record him giving strategic advice behind closed doors: "The golden rice battle is absolutely fundamental," Paterson tells the industry's reps. He sees it as the key PR weapon for breaking the dam on GMO authorisations in Europe.
The other keynote speaker at the event would seem to agree. Patrick Moore tells one of Moreira's team that the parents of children in the developing world "are watching [their children] die" from Vitamin A deficiency and that genetically engineered "golden rice is the cure" that could prevent this. Moore goes on to claim that it's only Greenpeace telling lies that is stopping golden rice's use, thus causing the deaths of millions of children – a crime against humanity.
Several weeks later Moore is interviewed again. This time by Moreira himself. They return to the topic of golden rice. Moreira points out that the IRRI, the institution overseeing the release of golden rice, says it is not ready to go into farmers' fields and needs significant further development. Moore denies this and says that the only thing that is stopping golden rice from being commercialised is the ridiculous regulations on GM crops. This of course is an outright lie. IRRI has been unambiguous in its public statements about the reasons for the delay and they are primarily technical.
Then the discussion turns to Argentina. Moreira shows Moore the Rosario epidemiological study but Moore rejects it out of hand: "I know this document, it's a lie." What we don't see in the film is that later in the interview Moore – still on camera – admits to not knowing the study. In this way, as Moreira told me, Moore doesn't just contradict himself but exposes his earlier confident rejection of the study as another outright lie.
It's in this context that they turn to the subject of glyphosate with Moore asserting that it's so safe you could drink a whole quart of it without it hurting you. The rest, as Moreira brilliantly calls Moore's bluff, is the comedy gold that went viral on the net.
The final part of the film looks at the transatlantic trade treaty known as TAFTA or TTIP, and the potential that harmonising European and US regulations has for lowering food and environmental safety standards, making it harder for countries to resist GMOs. It also looks at the powers TTIP will remove from national courts and give to trade arbitrators. The film shows how some arbitrators are also business lawyers and even industry lobbyists, giving the specific example of a trade arbitrator who is a former Monsanto lobbyist!
The amount this film packs into just under an hour is quite remarkable, particularly because its treatment of all the different strands is far from superficial. Its particular brilliance is in connecting all the dots and in exploding the PR myths the biotech industry depends on. The industry wants us to talk about the promise of unavailable GMOs like golden rice and to declare its critics the enemies of humanity. But Moreira shows us both the dark reality of the GM revolution on the ground in places like Argentina, and the bogus nature of the PR myths, not to mention the shabbiness of the mythmakers.
It is no surprise that this film recently won a prestigious award for its investigative journalism. This is almost certainly the best film on GM since Marie-Monique Robin's The World According to Monsanto. The French are blessed in their documentary makers.
First broadcast: September 1st, 2014 prime time on Canal+
WATCH THE FILM: English version video on demand.