Calm, careful, potentially revolutionary, "Food Evolution" is an iconoclastic documentary on a hot-button topic. Persuasive rather than polemical, it's the unusual issue film that deals in counterintuitive reason rather than barely controlled hysteria.
As directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, "Food Evolution" wades into the controversy that makes the term GMO (genetically modified organisms) what Jon Stewart once called "the three most terrifying letters in the English language."
For what right-thinking citizen hasn't quailed at the thought of armies of artificially conceived zombie fruits and vegetables marching in lockstep under the command of monster corporation Monsanto until they take over the world.
As environmental activist Mark Lynas says, "it's difficult to pay Monsanto a compliment. It's like praising witchcraft."
But taking as his theme a quote attributed to Mark Twain that posits, "It's easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled," filmmaker Kennedy wants us to consider the notion that much of what we feel about GMOs may be wrong.
Previously responsible for the splendid "OT: Our Town" and the Oscar-nominated "The Garden," about the plight of a 14-acre community garden in South Los Angeles, Kennedy is a veteran documentarian.
Here he's engaged the mellifluous voice of science celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson as narrator and made sure to talk to people on both sides of the issue, partisans who, ironically, all have the same goal: safe, abundant food for everyone without the use of excessive toxic chemicals.
It is in fact the question of how to feed the staggering amount of people in the world — more than 7 billion now, 9 billion by 2050 — that was one of the stimuli that started Kennedy on this project. And he wants you to remember that trying to modify plants to emphasize desirable aspects is something farmers have been doing for a long time.
"Food Evolution" begins in Hawaii in 2013 when the big island's Hawaii County Council held hearings on whether to make the location into the world's first GMO-free zone.
That was ironic because Hawaii turns out to be a state with a major GMO success story, the rainbow papaya, which enabled papaya farming to come back from the dead after a devastating attack of disease in the 1990s.
While anti-GMO activists like Jeffrey Smith talk darkly of GMOs as "thoughtless, invasive species," the other side wrings its hands about pervasive doomsday tactics and distrust of scientific data.
"It's so much easier to scare people than reassure them," says writer Mark Lynas, with food authority Michael Pollan adding, "I don't believe fear-mongering has helped. I'm careful never to say GMOs are dangerous."
One statistic the film cites reveals the considerable gap — 88% versus 37% — between what scientists and laypeople say about whether GMOs are safe to eat.
"Food Evolution" takes time to carefully parse several issues that arise in the debate, like tumors in rats who eat GMO food (they get tumors no matter what they eat) and poundage versus toxicity in pesticide use.
The film also emphasizes that decisions made in the developed world can have global implications, exploring difficulties farmers in Uganda are having gaining access to the GMO bananas they want to combat decimation by disease.
"Food Evolution" certainly understands the larger factors that put GMO foods in the crosshairs: societal fury at corporate lying and greed, and distrust of Monsanto in particular as the developer of DDT and Agent Orange.
But finally the film is more troubled by the erosion of trust in science and by anti-GMO activists like Zen Honeycutt who says on camera that she trusts personal experiences of mothers more than the conclusions of scientists. As writer Lynas says, "If you throw science out, there is nothing."
Though it ultimately sides with the pro-GMO camp, "Food Evolution" makes some fascinating points about human behavior along the way, about how we don't make decisions based on facts as often as we think we do. This documentary may not change your mind, but it will make you consider what caused you to decide in the first place.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica