Science Guy Bill Nye’s Views on GMO Foods Challenged

Bill Nye, The Science Guy, was recently challenged to a public debate to back up his claims about GMO foods in his new book, Undeniable. Dr. Kevin Folta,Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, wrote an open letter on Discover Magazine‘s blog addressing Nye’s beliefs about GMOs in response to Nye’s negative statements about GMOs in a previous Discover blog entry.

Nye said, “I stand by my assertions that although you can know what happens to any individual species that you modify, you cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem. Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better. So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.”

Folta responded on the blog that if Creationist Ken Hamm had responded like he had, Nye would have asked for evidence for those claims. “Nye’s whole argument against transgenic crops is not evidence based, not even fact based. What is he thinking? Here’s a guy that applied the gold standards of science to defend climate and evolution science, that here is using climate and evolution denier tricks to present his opinion on transgenic crops.”

The evidence that indicates the lack of insidious harm to human or farm animal health is quite immense. A 29-year study – published in Journal of Animal Science – compared the health of farm animals that ate non-GMO feed with those that ate mostly GMO feed and found no significant health problem differences between both populations. A team of Italian scientists published a review that examined almost 1,800 studies and have not “detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of [genetically engineered] crops.”

Despite this volume of evidence, there is still a widespread belief in the United States that there is a correlation between GMO consumption and poor human health, raising questions about why the belief persists.

“I believe that there are likely to be several reasons for why this has continued for many years,”  said Dr. George Allen, a recently retired professor of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University in an online interview with BindleSnitch. “In Europe, the anti-GMO movement was well-coordinated much like a political grassroots organization by several groups, such as Greenpeace. The primary people speaking in favor of GMOs at that time were from industry and several prominent plant scientists in Europe. The deep distrust in corporations that continues to this day resulted in accusations against the use of GMOs and resonate with the average citizen. Such distrust has merged with an increasing distrust in government. The combination results in many people questioning whether they are being told the truth about the safety of GMOs, despite reassurances given by scientists. This has impacted the scientists’ ability to communicate the importance of issues, such as vaccines, climate change, and GMOs.”

Dr. Allen refers to Mark Lynas, who is one of the activists who launched the anti-GMO movement back in the mid-1990s.  On March 2013, Lynas wrote an apology on The Hawaiian Reporter about what he started. “I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologize for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid-1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.”

“In addition, fear-mongering continues to be propagated by the media who appear to have turned this into a money-making opportunity,” Allen continued. “I won’t name specific people, but in many cases, these people stir the pot. That said, I think that there is a light at the end of this tunnel though. New GMOs are being released that have quality traits that make them more desirable to the consumer and not just producer traits, such as herbicide on insect resistance.”

“In a society with plenty of options, dollars, and calories, we can create problems that don’t exist. The myth is attractive in that regard,” Folta told BindleSnitch regarding the lack of evidence on anti-GMO activists’ claims, adding that most of those claims “come from one time reports with loose numbers and bad stats that were never repeated. It would be huge news if true.”

Folta further provided reasons why Bill Nye’s premises on GMOs are not true. “His main contention is that transgenic crops are not necessary and that we should not use them because of unforeseen potential issues in upsetting ecology. This is important to me because there’s no debate on the subject among scientists. We stand by the conclusions of our best scientific organizations. Biotech crops pose no more risk than conventionally bred crops, and they present specific benefits and limitations.”

Folta also mentioned that if people are concerned about adverse health effects, they should look beyond the food. “If you really wanted to test for adverse health effects, let’s look at production methods as well, like growing plants in organic compost or manures. There are thousands more gene expression changes, larger microbial loads and other putative hazards, like increased mycotoxins. If we’re going to prioritize our skepticism, let’s start with the most radical alterations. Plants make trace poisons and toxins. Your salad contains dozens of compounds that would kill you in high doses and would give the Food Babe a stroke if she knew they were there. She’d boycott anything in the produce section.”

“The harm of his statements is that it augments the undue skepticism and fear of good technology,” Folta continued. “It has done a lot for farmers and could be even more helpful worldwide – if the science was allowed to dictate policy and acceptance. His unsupported comments just drive more confusion.”

While Nye has not yet responded to Dr. Folta’s challenge, the professor speculated that Nye’s statements may cause a new surge of anti-GMO activists like those  who follow Food Babe. “It is important because we have an incredible problem with recognizing experts and thinking critically about claims. People tend to cluster around other people that share their beliefs more than those that challenge them. Nye just alienated scientists and gathered a new following of food-activists. When our visible public experts espouse positions that are inconsistent with science, then the public is not sure who to trust. Most folks can’t believe that someone so adamant about the use of evidence to back claims on evolution and climate would eschew hard evidence when it comes to transgenic technology.”

The purpose of the debate, as stated Dr. Folta’s open letter, is to arrange and conduct a “civil, evidence-based debate on the benefits and risks of agricultural biotechnology.” It is not a mean to ridicule or quarrel with Nye. When asked about what he thinks about the outcome may be like, Folta said, “I can’t imagine that he’d actually debate his assertions. They are not supported by science. Clearly, he’s a scientific thinker and after doing some debate prep, he would see that it was not a debatable situation. The absolute best outcome would be for him to use this as a way to show the beauty of the scientific process – that we can be wrong, and that we can adjust our views based on evidence.  That would be a very strong statement for him to make. Of course, if it came down to debate it would be a lot of fun.  I bet he’d be a great conversation.  Maybe he can convince me I’m wrong.  Won’t be the first time.  However, I know this literature pretty well and don’t see how his statements are supported by evidence.”

The debate may help other scientists, not just horticulturists, to educate the misinformed. However, that would be an uphill struggle. “Our ability to spread the word has become a real challenge because fear in GMOs seems to have transcended into belief, which makes convincing people by using scientifically-based arguments extremely difficult,” Allen said. “Scientists have to continue to try to educate everyone on the scientific method and re-build trust because the accusations of the anti-GMO movement are fear-based and will cause suffering of people who need GMOs the most – especially as the earth’s population continues to grow towards nine billion.”

If  Bill Nye accepts Dr. Folta’s debate invitation, it may be more challenging debate than the one he had with Hamm because he is confronting a real scientist. Even if The Science Guy is wrong, Dr. Folta reminds that this is win-win event. “It is also important because we revere Nye as a science ally, a person that can take science to the public. We need him to succeed. Nothing will harm his brand more than if he promotes and stands by non-scientific claims.”


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