A woman walks into a rural Iowa grocery store clad in jeans, sneakers, and an old baseball cap. She picks up a can of chicken soup, scans the ingredient list, and puts it down as if she’s seen a ghost. She does the same with a box, a bag, and, eerily, a green bell pepper. She shudders at ears of corn suffocating in plastic. She picks up a potato, sees maggots feasting on another one under it, and screams. Shaken, she runs from the store as if haunted and pursued.
The woman is Sophie, a single, working-class mother who fears that the source of her son’s undiagnosed and mysterious illness is the food she feeds him, food laden with genetically modified organisms that come from a nearby corporation and permeate the farms that surround her. She is the center of a new film, Consumed, which opens nationally December 9 through Gathr Films.
Consumed is the first dramatic film to present the GMO debate onscreen, pitting those who believe that GMOs in our food are extremely safe against those who believe they’re contributing to chronic health issues. Offscreen, in real life, no long-term studies have been done with enough clarity to shut down either side. Small farmers fight huge farming corporations. Health companies fight food producers. Politics and economics muddle research.
Of course, this kind of material runs the risk of being snore-inducing when projected onto the big screen. But filmmakers Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones were prepared for that. They started their research seven years ago, and the public debate became incredibly personal.
“We were seeing farmers embroiled in lawsuits with big biotech companies over patent infringement over their seeds,” says writer-director Daryl Wein. “They were spying on farmers and bullying them. There were all of these novel foods that biotech is trying to create to feed the world. It just had all of the elements of a dramatic thriller. And so we thought that there is an entertaining, suspenseful story in that that we could put on the screen.”
Consumed follows the stories of fictional characters based on those in the real GMO debate, played by a stacked cast of talent (doubly impressive for a privately financed small film): There’s the fourth-generation organic farmer about to lose his organic status because of contamination by a neighboring farm, played sympathetically by Danny Glover; Dan Conoway (Victor Garber), the well-meaning CEO of “Clonestra” who believes his genetically modified foods will cure starvation worldwide; and a conflicted scientist, Serge Negani (Kunal Nayyar), whose research is funded (and buried) by Clonestra itself. There’s eye-candy too; Eddie (Taylor Kinney), a former cop who gets paid well to muscle — unknowingly — for Clonestra. And there’s Sophie (Lister-Jones), a mother who loses her small savings (and her sanity) trying to unearth the mysterious source of her son’s sickness, to no avail.
Lister-Jones’s Sophie is raw and vulnerable, easy to relate to and sympathize with. She’s on a mission not to change the world, but, in an Erin Brockovich–like parallel, simply to fix one flaw in a huge system that will snowball if left in the shadows.
The film itself is not propaganda for a cause, per se: “It was important for us to not vilify Big Ag,” says Lister-Jones. “We wanted to present a balanced view and to give a voice to both sides so that audience members could leave making their own conclusions. More than anything we want them to leave with questions, because that’s what all of us can have. There have been no long-term studies; there are many regulatory loopholes. So I think without either side being able to make claims regarding safety, the biggest thing we can do is to start asking more questions.”
Those questions are directly relatable to a hotly contested debate on deck right now: the mandatory labeling of GMOs on all products made in the United States. Currently, Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont have approved some sort of labeling law. But the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling,” or DARK (Denying Americans the Right-to-Know), Act would make it impossible for states to enact and enforce such mandates. It recently passed through the House of Representatives and is on its way to a Senate vote. While Wein cites studies that only 50 percent of the American public are aware of GMOs, he claims 90 percent of those who are aware believe that products that contain them should be labeled accordingly. And while the financial expense of organic and natural foods is often a deterrent to consumers, Wein and Lister-Jones deliberately made their central character of little financial means to make the point that all Americans deserve access to clean food.
“I think a lot of people who question GMOs or promote an organic lifestyle are often dismissed because of this idea that it’s a bourgeois issue,” say Lister-Jones. “Something that needs to be discussed on a larger scale is what our government is [providing subsidies for]. If our government subsidized farms rather than cash crops like corn and soy, which are going into biofeeds, cattle farms, and processed foods — none of which are helping feed a healthy population — then organics would be much more accessible to the lower and middle classes. It doesn’t have to be an elitist issue.”
So, yes, Wein and Lister-Jones are personally on the side of avoiding GMOs. They eat only organic food at home (and as much as possible when dining out). They cook dishes that are “all very clean with not too many ingredients,” like organic beef with a side of organic broccoli, green beans, or spinach. “Daryl makes a mean roast chicken,” says Lister-Jones.
At times, Consumed unloads a lot of information — public policy up for vote, scary-sounding words that should be limited to laboratories but find their way into supermarkets — but at its core, the movie is a thriller tracking a mother who’s fallen down the rabbit hole while discovering what’s been hidden from her and what is vehemently denied to the public by those making a profit.
“We made this movie for people who don’t have anything to do with these issues, too,” says Wein. “It’s a fun thriller: modern, edgy, exciting, dramatic. I think you can turn this movie on and get caught on the ride of the suspenseful journey.”
Update: Consumed will be available on digital and on-demand platforms March 22nd, 2016. For more information or to become involved, go to www.consumedthemovie.com, where you can join the team and the Organic Consumers Association, Just Label It, Food Democracy Now!, the Center for Food Safety and the Environmental Working Group in signing petitions, calling Congressmen, and getting the word out. Follow @consumedmovie on Instagram and Twitter for updates.