Bill Nye and GMO’s

Never been a particularly big fan of Bill Nye the Science Guy.  He’s alright, but, whatever.  Anyway, I had not been aware that he was opposed to GMO’s until learning yesterday that he has changed his mind on the issue after, you know, paying attention to the actual science.

But on another hot-button issue involving science — genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — Nye has actually angered many scientists. Over the years, including in a chapter in his 2014 book “Undeniable,” Nye has suggested that there’s something fundamentally problematic with foods containing GMO crops. He has argued that GMOs may carry environmental risks that we can never rule out with certainty.

Now, Nye seems to have changed his mind. Backstage after an appearance on Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” Nye said an upcoming revision to his book would contain a rewritten chapter on GMOs. “I went to Monsanto,” Nye said, “and I spent a lot of time with the scientists there, and I have revised my outlook, and I’m very excited about telling the world. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”

In love?  Okay.  Zeal of the convert.  Anyway, Bill Nye, now actually the Science Guy.  But what I really appreciated was how nicely Puneet Kollipara summed up the core issues:

The mere fact that something is a GMO doesn’t tell us all that much, however, about how the plant actually functions. Rather, the way a GMO plant works stems from the new genes and traits themselves, whether they were inserted by scientists or came from the same species. So scientists assess GMOs’ safety based not on whether they’re GMO, but on what their new genes actually do and the resulting changes in the plants.

And since GMOs cover such a wide range of traits, we have to assess them one by one. [emphasis mine]

Yes!  I’m not some sort of GMO pollyanna, it’s just pretty obvious that we need to rationally analyze each of these products based on what they bring to the table (metaphorical and literal) and their potential risks.  And, when we do do that, the science is pretty clear on the vast majority of these products:

Over the years, as peer-reviewed scientific studies on GMOs have piled up, scientific organizations ranging from the National Academy of Sciences to the World Health Organization have analyzed them and reached similar conclusions: GMOs on the market today are no riskier for your health than their non-GMO equivalents.

A recent analysis of the scientific literature also found that GMO crops haven’t been worse for the environment than their non-GMO counterparts and, in some cases, have been better, for instance by reducing pesticide use. That finding echoes a 2010 NAS report that said GMO crops, generally speaking, “have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally.” …

And Kollipara’s conclusion is right on:

I’m not saying GMOs are a silver bullet to end world hunger or that I love Monsanto. And I’m not saying that there aren’t cases where individual GMOs might result in environmental issues, such as pest resistance. Debating GMOs’ benefits and risks is healthy. But making GMOs the bogeyman while giving other crops a pass isn’t.

I also find it interesting though, how he has to assert his credibility by being not in the tank for Monsanto.  Why should he or I, or anybody have to do this?  Can’t we just follow the science?!

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

4 Responses to Bill Nye and GMO’s

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    So – is it true that monarch butterflies are threatened with extinction because of GMO altered crops, crops which are genetically altered to have high resistance to pesticides? As a result much stronger pesticides can be used to destroy weeds in GMO fields, resulting in damage to edge of field weeds and wildflowers, crops that are not GMO in adjacent fields, and farm workers maybe. And what about beneficial bacteria and organisms in the soil?
    If true, I don’t think the benefits of GMO are worth the cost.
    Where can the public find the science to answer the questions and inspire confidence? Monsanto?

    • Steve Greene says:

      1) If particular crops are damaging ecosystems, that obviously has to be weighed and we probably should be using them. That’s fine. It is blanket opposition I so strongly object to.
      2) Lots of this research is done by academic scientists. Sometimes they have financial conflicts of interest, but very few of these scientists got into the field to pursue money (as opposed to say, Wall Street analysts).

  2. Itchy’s wife says:

    I believe R. Jenrette means to say “herbicide” rather than “pesticide” in both instances where “pesticide” was used. If so, there is a potential degree of truth. However, there is a trade-off because without the use of herbicide resistance crops, more land is needed for the same yield. Clearing more forests for more farmland to feed our growing population is terrible for the environment and wildlife. Pick your poison. The answer is to reduce meat consumption (uses waaaay more crops to grow cows than to feed people beans and rice) and to reduce population growth.

    If s/he is actually talking about GMOs that encode pest resistance (i.e. BT toxin), then the statements are entirely untrue. Corn that is engineered with BT greatly reduces the need to broadcast pesticides which kill all insects in the vicinity, whether they are feeding on the crop or not. For the most part, crops engineered with BT only harm those insects that feed on that crop (not monarch butterflies).

    There are valid arguments against GMO crops, but those presented are not among them.

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