No Problem

09 Nov 2009

Emmanuelle, can you please introduce yourself for our readers?

I may put your readers or myself to sleep if I talk about myself. If anyone is really interested, my biography is available on The Idiot Cycle web site:

When did you decide to make a documentary about cancer? And why?

When I was 24 my mother lost both her breasts to cancer. I had started to make a documentary about a year in the life of cancer. I ended making Cancer, a Dogme 95-inspired short film.

Throughout my mother’s illness, the question of what caused the cancer kept coming back. We don’t have a history of family cancer, she never smoked, she ate well, she was an athlete. The “genetic” explanation seemed vague and insufficient.

I started reading medical journals (my sister is a doctor) and that’s when I began the research and writing for The Idiot Cycle. I worked on the film for three years before going into production.

Over the past five years, friends of mine, who were between the ages 20-30, began to be diagnosed with cancer. Half of my friends have lost a parent to cancer or have a parent fighting cancer, these people are not old. Most were diagnosed with cancer before turning 50.

We are the first generation that will not live as long as our parents. We’re getting more cancers at younger ages. When my parents were growing up, they could not think of one friend under 30 who had cancer. I wanted to know why.

It’s often seen as a ‘taboo’ issue, isn’t it?

Cancer is a very personal and emotional subject. If you have questions that people don’t have answers for, especially the cancer establishment, it becomes touchy. People also downplay the conflicts of interests, which should be taken seriously. They are affecting the science that’s being done, and the science that is being ignored.

The prevention of cancer is certainly taboo, and I’m not sure why. The cancer establishment has defined prevention as “early detection” or “eating five fruits and vegetables a day” or “not smoking”. Yes, these are important and should be done, but that is completely insufficient. It’s not even half of the picture.

Look at anything in your home. What doesn’t contain carcinogens? What didn’t emit carcinogens when being produced? Look at benzene alone. Car exhaust, cosmetics, construction materials, pesticides … we’re being bombarded with toxic chemicals everyday and the cancer establishment thinks eating five fruits and vegetables is enough! What if those five vegetables were contaminated with chlorinated pesticides? Then how is that preventing cancer? Not many people want to challenge this because it means changing fundamental things in our economy.

There is a lot of information being left out by the cancer establishment, which has close ties to the chemical industry, information that is vital to people’s health. It’s not illegal, but it is downright irresponsible. Whether that oversight is caused by conflicts of interest or disinterest, I don’t know.

We can prevent cancers: by riding bikes, by eating organic, by consuming less, by using safer non-toxic alternatives. But most importantly companies should test chemicals, GMOs and drugs for long term health effects before they are licensed. It would be irrational, irresponsible and criminal for governments not to require this.

Another interesting question is: why scientists always talk about the ‘cure’ for cancer, but no one really talks about the causes?

It’s easier to get funding to do research for a cure. A “cure” keeps people hoping. It keeps people from thinking about things like causes, which is more complicated. If people focus on the causes and less on the cure, then research funding for cures dries up. But billions of dollars and decades later, we’re still putting all our efforts into the cure for cancer and avoiding major contributors – carcinogens.

It’s a lot more glorious for the scientist who finds a cure than for the scientist who finds a cause. Look at what happens to scientists who find products to be carcinogenic. They’ve been fired, reputations have been destroyed, they’ve been threatened. I can understand the scientist that goes the “cure” route.

We, at Slow Food, are particularly concerned about the food we eat every day. What did you discover about that in your documentary?

I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know what genetically modified foods were before starting this film.

I grew up in Canada (15 years), then lived in the USA for 8 years. The only thing I remember was the FlavorFlav tomato fiasco when I was at UCLA. But even then, no articles really explained what they were, they just referred to the incidence as a few “bad tomatoes”. I thought it was a bacterium on the tomatoes. No one talked about genetically modified foods.

Since making this film, I discovered I don’t want to eat GM foods and now I only buy organic, local (whenever possible) food.

I also discovered that the Canadian government has been the worst government in the world on the GM food topic. They are the only government in the world to push the United Nations to lift the ban on the Monsanto Terminator Seed (a seed that is sterile and can’t be saved or used for the following planting seasons). We tried to get interviews with Health Canada and the Ministry of Agriculture in Canada for months, but they declined.

The big debate in Canada was about labeling GM foods or not. How ridiculous. We are debating labeling before we’ve even done any testing or debating about what these new foods will do to the health of people! We completely skipped over the most vital and important issue – health testing.

I listened to the Canadian parliamentary debates about labeling of GM foods or, as the Canadian government refers to them “novel foods”. It was so littered with half-truths my eyes nearly popped out of my head. We elected some of these clowns? I felt like a few members of parliament did five minutes of research on the internet ten minutes before the debates. That’s what their arguments reflected.

We tried to get statements and interviews with those members of parliament as well. They never responded. We tried to get interviews with CropLife (a pesticide advocacy group), Greg Conko of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (he wrote a book about the greatness of GM foods), none of them wanted to speak with us.

I live in Europe now, and I hope Europeans continue to preserve their food culture. It’s refreshing to see people engaged and curious and interested in topics like food, cancer and chemicals. Everyone loves to eat, so everyone should be concerned.

GM foods are under the spotlight: produced by the largest chemical companies, that are also the largest pharmaceutical companies and the largest pesticide producers in the world. It seems they have a big interest in not letting people know what they are ‘really’ eating…

Yes, it’s not in the companies’ best financial interest. It’s funny, but outside of London, at a former Monsanto pesticide making facility, the workers pushed to get GM foods banned from the cafeteria. Greenpeace and Monsanto do have things in common!

But really, it’s the governments’ responsibility to require companies to do long term health testing before they license chemicals, GMOs or drugs.

EFSA (European Food and Safety Authority), for example, doesn’t even require health studies to be submitted for each new GM food presented.

The Canadian government actually develops GM crops, and sometimes with biotech companies. The Canadian agriculture department is not only responsible for regulating these “novel foods”, but they’re also developing them. There is a real conflict of interest. The government’s job is to regulate, enforce laws and protect its citizens, not to engage in business ventures—that’s not their job.

We haven’t got any long-term study on GMOs and their effects on soil, underground waters and on the bodies of the animals that usually eat them (humans included). What do you think about that?

When I heard the CEO of Monsanto say GM foods were the “most extensively studied arena” in “the food arena”, I thought to myself, where are these extensive studies? Please do share. Seeing the dismal level of “testing” being done by the Canadian and American governments these days, it can’t be very difficult to make such a statement. But what are these studies he’s referring to? It’s such a vague statement.

On their “technology agreements” Monsanto makes it illegal for farmers to share or give any of their seeds to third parties, including third parties for “research” purposes.

The CRIIGEN had to appeal to the European courts to force Monsanto to make a Monsanto study public. The study was done on a small sample of rats for only three months. Monsanto appealed to block the publishing of this study. After hearing the scientist who reviewed the study, I can understand why Monsanto wanted to keep that study to itself.

Also, the CEO of Monsanto, as well as members of the Canadian parliament continually refer to a group of studies that were done by the European Union that shows GM foods to be safe. Again, please do share, and what exactly are they referring to, because they never say exactly. They may be referring to EU’s former Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin’s 15-year study from 1985-2000. If that’s the case, many studies were done by biotech companies themselves and not independently reviewed, and 4 studies focused on “food safety”. They were not long-term health studies. But maybe Monsanto’s CEO can clear things up and explain in more detail.

In the trailer of your movie there’s a very disturbing question: “Are we being used as guinea pigs’? What have you found about that?

We are being used as guinea pigs. Not in a forced way, just in an ignorant way.

The Nuremberg Protocols outline that experimenting on people without their permission is illegal. Maybe most governments have forgotten about the Nuremberg Protocols.

I certainly don’t remember ever being asked if I wanted to eat GM foods. I ate them unknowingly in Canada and the States, that’s for sure, but I wasn’t asked if that was okay. And it’s not okay.

What I think would put everyone’s soul at ease is if the board members and CEOs of Dupont, Dow, Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Astrazeneca, Syngenta, Novartis, etc. ate nothing but genetically modified crops for 3 years, so we can do some testing and a study on them.

And I don’t mean one symbolic meal of GMOs. Only a three-year study will let us know what the long term effects will be. If these G.M. foods cause cancer, I’d like to know before I’m eating them.

Are you happy about your documentary? Have you had any problems in gathering information, shooting and make it come alive? I mean, have you found hostility?

It’s very tricky making a documentary about the chemical industry, they have very close ties to governments, because they have played and still play a big role in the defense industry.

When we were filming in Sarnia, Canada, home to 40% of Canada’s petrol-chemical facilities, for example, various company security vans came to take our information while we were filming the factories at night. That’s fine, I know they’re being cautious.

However, the chemical industry is a little contradictory, since they lobbied against legislation that would require tighter safety measures around chemical facilities to protect from terrorist attacks.

I’m also having a hard time understanding how they can justify “protecting” their facilities and the community while they dump carcinogens on their community, transport dangerous chemicals, have regular explosions and leaks and cause slow illnesses like cancer.

Once again, the industry says one thing and does another. It’s completely irrational.

We had to do the film independently because every one was scared. If a TV station had been involved from the beginning, they may not have allowed us to make the film that we thought was important.

Newspapers and TV are sometimes forced to make decisions to protect their advertising income. Look at the New Yorker magazine. I’m subscribed, it’s a magazine I like, but since I’ve been reading the magazine, they have never done a investigative piece on toxic chemicals or GMOs. Coincidence? Well inside the magazine there’s a two-page ad from Dow Chemical, a one page back ad from Monsanto, a side ad from BASF.

When there are no articles, people don’t think the problem exists.

If the film is able to accomplish one thing, I hope governments decide to require companies to submit health studies before licensing chemicals, GMOs and drugs. Anything else is unacceptable. We need to put our health first.

Have you any ideas whether we’ll be able to watch your movie in Europe, and particularly in Italy?

The film is being released in Canada this September, then in some European cities in December. We hope the film will be out very soon everywhere, the website will keep posting dates:

Translation by Luisa Balacco

Nicola Ferrero is head of the Slow Food internet office

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