His focus has been on scientific reasoning for supporting the use of vaccinations, addressing climate change and fighting against the teaching of creationism. So when he switched from being cautionary and non-supportive of GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) foods to being enamored of GMOs, his fan base was left scratching their collective heads.
What caused Nye’s 180 degree shift of opinion about GMOs? He’s not saying just yet, but the change happened after he accepted an invitation from GMO giant Monsanto to visit their facility and talk with their scientists.
Up until the visit with Monsanto scientists, Nye disapproved of the use and creation of GMOs. According to the Washington Post, Nye stated in his 2014 book, “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation” that the foods containing GMO crops are fundamentally problematic. The Post explained that Nye also said that GMOs could possibly have “environmental risks” that cannot be ruled out with any kind of certainty (1).
Yet, somehow one visit to Monsanto some 10+ years after aligning himself against GMOs, and Nye appears to be singing GMO praises. So what exactly happened during that visit? Was it the science as pro-GMO advocates claim that changed Nye’s opinion?
Bill Maher’s Interview with Nye
Backstage after his appearance on Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” Nye revealed that he’s revising the entire chapter on GMOs in his 2014 book.
I went to Monsanto,” Nye said during the backstage interview, “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.”
It’s not surprising that anti-GMO supporters are astounded by Nye’s change in his stance on GMOs. It begs the questions: Why did Nye decide to visit Monsanto after all these years? What was he shown or told that changed his long-held opinion?
To add more fuel to the conspiracy theories, Nye is being tight-lipped, citing his revised chapter will reveal all. However, Monsanto’s tweets reveal their immense pleasure in winning Nye over to their side.
Monsanto’s chief technology officer Robb Fraley tweeted:
Thanks @BillNye for visit & advancing #science understanding. Look forward to more discussion!” A photo of Nye and the Monsanto gang with faux bowties held in front of them for the photo accompanied the tweet. (2)
Around 3:38 Nye discusses his change on GMOs.
Nye’s Previous Opinion on GMOs
In his book “Undeniable…” Nye advises the reader that introducing genes from other species into crops should be stopped. He wrote, “We just can’t quite know what will happen to other species in that modified organism’s ecosystem.”
He even made one of his Eyes of Nye episodes on the topic of GEs and GMOs.
Short of time traveling into the future, no one can know with certainty if there will be any kind of repercussions to the eco-system or to humans from the manipulation of genes, such as adding fish genes to plant genes for the creation of “better crops.”
A well-known French study revealed rats fed a diet of GMO foods developed cancerous tumors was published, retracted by the journal and then republished in another journal. The scientists threatened to sue the retracting journal (3).
This is an example of the highly charged political controversy that surrounds GMOs. Monsanto countered with its own review of the study, citing multiple problems with the way the study was conducted (4).
In the wake of GMO food labeling battles and the ongoing controversy of GMOs and GE foods (5), the question remains: “What happened to change Bill Nye’s mind?” Clearly, his fellow scientists, who have been dismayed by his long-held stance on GMOS, find his change of heart welcomed and long-overdue.
To the general public, does this switch indicate that all the concerns about GMOs are unfounded and the Science Guy has finally gone over to the scientific side of reasoning? Or, does it carry darker undertones being spread across the Internet? Is GMO science determined by whoever is conducting the study?
GMOs and Scientific Research
Many GMO advocates point to various studies to validate their stance that these foods are harmless to humans and the environment. Some claim that GMOs don’t carry any risk to human health. Other studies claim to show that GMO crops haven’t had any negative effect on the environment.
In contradiction, Reuters reported in April 2013 that, “Heavy use of the world’s most popular herbicide, Roundup, could be linked to a range of health problems and diseases, including Parkinson’s, infertility and cancers, according to a new study” (6).
Monsanto executive Jerry Steiner responded to the study by saying:
We are very confident in the long track record that glyphosate has. It has been very, very extensively studied.”
But that kind of reassurance doesn’t cut the close scrutiny of the Internet age and the long-term memory of the same company confidently reassuring a concerned public and Vietnam Vets that Agent Orange was “harmless” (7). It’s a stigma the company still struggles to overcome 50+ year later.
In September 2014, a Forbes articles stated:
Although there have been more than 2,000 studies documenting that biotechnology does not pose an unusual threat to human health and genetically modified foods are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods, questions remain in the minds of many consumers” (8).
This sums up the consumer distrust.
Watchdog groups remind the public that such conclusions about the safety of GMOs (9) depend on which study is cited for proving or disproving a stance on GMOs. In February 2015, The Center for Food Safety published an article on the latest GMO food the USDA deregulated “Arctic® apple — the first genetically engineered apple” and how the media had reported that the safety issues of GMO had been settled (10).
The groups, including Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth and Pesticide Action Network pointed to a January 24 statement in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe — signed by 300 scientists, physicians and scholars — that asserts there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs.”
The Journal’s statement titled, “No scientific consensus on GMO safety,” cites a “concerted effort by GMO seed developers and some scientists, commentators and journalists to construct the claim that there is a “scientific consensus” on GMO safety, and that debate on the topic is ‘over’” (11).
In a peer review of GMO studies, it was “found that most studies finding GMOs foods the same as conventional foods were performed by biotechnology companies or their associates” (12).
Public Opinion about GMOs
The scientific studies proving that GMO foods are safe have done little to sway public opinion (13). A January 2015 Pew Research Center poll revealed that 57% of the general public believes “genetically modified (GM) foods are generally unsafe to eat.” Only 37% believe GMOs are safe.
To show a contrast between the opinions of scientists and the general public, the same poll revealed that “88% of AAAS scientists say GM foods are generally safe.” The gap between the non-scientists and scientists is 51%. According to Pew, “This is the largest opinion difference between the public and scientists” (14).
The distrust in GMO scientific proof is frustrating to scientists as they try to convince an unwilling public to accept what has been in the marketplace since 1996. Even when GMO advocates cite numerous times that the FDA (Federal Drug Administration), USDA (United States Department of Agriculture and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) all approve GE/GMO foods and give various data and studies that show these foods are safe – the majority of the general public refuses to believe it as fact.
Scientists blame anti-GMO groups for this distrust, but track records for each of these government agencies play a major rule in public distrust. When approval by the FDA is cited, critics point to former Monsanto researchers Margaret Miller and Susan Sechen, both employed by the FDA (15).
They also point to the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Michael Taylor, former Monsanto Vice President for Public Policy. Over the course of his career, Taylor previously worked for the USDA, two other times for Monsanto and twice for the FDA (16). In 2009, President Obama also appointed Taylor as Food Safety Czar.
These appointments with the FDA and USDA have fueled further accusations and spawned many conspiracy theories. Whether or not GEs/GMOs are safe, it’s clear that the Science Guy has re-evaluated his previous stance. Only time will reveal just what Bill Nye now thinks about GMOs and why he changed his mind.
References & Image Credits:
(1) Washington Post
(3) CBS News
(5) Food Safety News
(7) Wikipedia: Agent Orange
(10) Center for Food Safety
(14) Pew Internet
(17) Bill Nye