WRITTEN BY: Allison J. Samon, FNLP, CHHC
This article was originally published in Produced By Magazine.
“LUNCH!” Across 16 years in production, never have I heard a more magical word, especially after an early call and busy morning of shooting. By the time lunch comes, production people like me are hungry, weary and some of us really have to pee. A joyful, chatty line forms at catering. We delight (hopefully) over how good lunch looks, the aromas dancing under our noses, and trade stories about diet resolutions we’re making or breaking. Oh, and dessert looks decadent! But rarely do we ever talk about what’s in the food we’re eating. You know, what it’s made of, how it’s grown, if it’s nourishing. In our defense, we just need to feed. We’re an army that marches on its stomach. And we don’t have a lot of time. But the truth is, production meals are very likely sourced in ways that may be hazardous to the environment and our health.
This topic is tough. Eating is such a primal, personal thing. We all hold strong opinions about it, and it’s challenging to change hearts and minds. And with debates (and cynicism) already raging over everything from sugar to gluten and dairy, many people just roll their eyes if you bring up something like GMOs, which in reality is a top polluter. But consider this: The United States Department of Agriculture has estimated some “50 million people in the U.S. obtain their drinking water from ground water that is potentially contaminated by pesticides and other agricultural chemicals” and “over one billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. each year.” That’s a staggering threat to the environment and human health. And many of us contribute to this problem one snack, one meal, one production day at a time, without knowing that we ever did so.
I’m Allison J. Samon, Certified Holistic Health Coach. I’m also an independent producer, script supervisor and an assistant director. Some of my coaching clients in the business call me a “food producer.” And I want to talk to you about the hidden environmental impacts of feeding our crews. This is not a petition for vegan or vegetarian productions, and carbon footprint is a different and important topic in its own right. Instead, this is an appeal for us to get thoughtful about how we source food for productions, both catered meals and craft services, and how it affects the environment, our productivity and our health.
Production of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, is the hottest topic in food supply-chain we’ve seen in a generation. It’s a relatively new science that “creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods” and involves much pesticide and herbicide use. The watchdog Non-GMO Project reports that “most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe and have significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of GMOs. The U.S. and Canadian governments, though, have approved GMOs based on studies conducted by the same corporations that created them and profit from their sale.”
Some GMOs are designed to secrete a bacterial insecticide called “Bt toxin,” so farmers don’t have to spray them. Once ingested, the toxin causes the bug’s stomach to explode. Studies have suggested it may do the same to the microbiota of our digestive tracts. That’s a huge health concern. But there are acute environmental concerns, too. Because GMOs invite, and some would argue are engineered to encourage, the generous use of toxic herbicides.
So, exactly how much herbicide? According to the USDA, between 1996 and 2008 alone, farmers sprayed 383 million pounds of it. And Washington State University has analyzed USDA data that shows a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use between 1996-2011. Over time, weeds grew resistant, forcing farmers to spray even more herbicides that continues to settle in our food, soil and water in ever higher volumes. Worse, GMO seeds can travel and cross-pollinate. Scientists predict that self-propagating GMO pollution will outlast the effects of global warming and even nuclear waste. Monsanto, currently the world leader in GMO seed, also produces “RoundUp,” the best-selling herbicide on the market. This is the same company, by the way, that created DDT and PCBs, two other highly toxic agents that don’t degrade and are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency to be “Persistent Organic Pollutants,” or POPs. And now it makes food.
Additionally, and often less talked about, is that GMO production degrades soil, which in turn affects the nutrient density of our food and how our bodies react to otherwise normal nourishment. More and more people are developing strange dietary sensitivities that affect their health and productivity. And because these are sensitivities (or “intolerances”), symptoms are often delayed and don’t appear to be associated with any one factor – unlike an allergic or acute reaction where, for example, someone’s throat immediately swells shut or their skin breaks out in a rash. Instead, many people have slowly become gluten intolerant or have developed digestive problems, brain fog and chronic fatigue. On set, over time, this makes for an army that isn’t marching very fast or far.
So, what can we do? I believe change must begin above the line, and it can start with producers demanding that catering and craft service vendors use foods whose production has been vetted by an accredited organization. The USDA Organic seal is one such option. The Non-GMO Project stamp is another. Here in California, there’s the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) seal. And there are several others. In my mind, this can and should be a supplemental certification that vendors can qualify for in the Green Production Guide. Perhaps it’s called a “Clean Food” certification. Participating vendors sign a pledge that all food resources they use are certified by one of the qualified organizations. And they maintain a list of brands on their website so producers can double-check.
I’ve had the opportunity to test drive this process a few times, most recently when filmmaker Christian Jean (pga) asked me to produce his indie short, Mojave Junction (2015), using green practices that included clean food. We implemented many green strategies, from carpooling out to our desert location, collaborating with the Bureau of Land Management on script changes that protected the desert ecosystem, and serving up completely non-GMO meals and craft services, supported by vendors like Erewhon in West Hollywood and Co-opportunity Natural Foods in Santa Monica. The result was a huge hit with our crew. Over two long days and nights, our people praised the food and couldn’t stop talking about how much energy they had. Just one example: there was no soda on our set (most contain GMO sugars), and nobody missed it. In its place, we offered filtered water and an electrolyte mineral formulation. People kept lining up for more.
Sure, it’s just one indie short produced with a crew of 13 people (and a horse) far away in the desert. And the cynics will argue that “organic” is too expensive, that contamination is so wide-spread that certifications don’t mean anything or, my personal favorite, that GMO production is a harmless non-issue. But on all accounts we know the opposite to be true. And consider that, once upon a time, the same arguments were made against removing lead from paint and gasoline.
Through leadership, we can send a message that production food sourcing matters. It matters to the environment. It matters to our health. We can vastly reduce the use of pesticides and toxic herbicides by making a few simple adjustments. And I believe this message can trickle up from an indie short made in the middle of nowhere to the biggest Hollywood blockbusters being produced on studio back lots. We just have to take the first steps.
Allison J. Samon is a Functional Nutrition and Lifestyle Practitioner, Certified Holistic Health Coach, Environmental Health Specialist, and the founder of Health Allie Lifestyle & Wellness. She’s also an independent producer, script supervisor and Emmy Award winning assistant director who advises productions on improving the supply chain of their meals.