He’s not making his popular children’s science show anymore, but Bill Nye the Science Guy is still making a public impact by going after pseudoscience and science denial. He’s railed against the idea of teaching creationism in public schools, and he’s come to the defense of climate science and vaccines.
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.”
Nye’s sudden about-face on GMOs might strike some people as suspicious, especially since it came after he visited a corporation that many food and environmental activists detest and that has practically become synonymous with GMOs. But Nye is telling us that, irrespective of the corporation’s business practices, he changed his mind after learning more about the science. Is he right?
Here’s some background information. Normally, humans would have to wait a long time for nature to create new crop varieties by natural selection. To speed things up, humans have performed “artificial selection” since the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Most commonly, humans have cross-bred plants with the most desirable traits over and over again.
Today, however, humans can skip the cross-breeding process in many cases. In genetic modification, scientists insert new genes directly into plants’ DNA. In some cases, we’ve given crops genes from totally different species.
The process might not sound wholesome or natural. And that’s one of the concerns Nye has raised. In his book “Undeniable,” he suggests we should stop introducing genes from other species into crops, largely because “we just can’t quite know what will happen to other species in that modified organism’s ecosystem.” Essentially, Nye suggested, we can’t cut out the possibility of harm with certainty.
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. Although technically it’s not mandatory to test GMOs for human health risks before they hit the marketplace in the United States (a concern of the American Medical Association), all current crops sold here have undergone voluntary review to test for potential toxins and allergens.
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.”
Those studies still might not have satisfied Nye. More and more of these studies and assessments could continue to pile up for decades. But just the mere possibility of an environmental impact, in his view, seems to have justified stopping the GMOs.
Nothing in science is ever 100 percent certain, however. For instance, we can’t be sure that our conventional and even organic crops are 100 percent safe, either. In theory, any crop, whether the result of cross-breeding or genetic modification or even mutagenesis (long used to create non-GMO crops such as rice and lettuce by exposing plants to DNA-altering chemicals or radiation) carries the risk of harming human health or surrounding ecosystems.
That all explains why Nye has found himself in especially hot water with scientists over GMOs. As University of Florida plant scientist Kevin Folta recently argued, Nye was being hypocritical: “Your logic and reasoning match the fallacies of climate and evolution deniers, the people you correctly criticize.”
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.