Bill Nye challenged to debate GMOs

November 17, 2014 • 12:12 pm

Nine days ago I wrote about a discussion between a reddit questioner and Bill “The Science Guy” Nye about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The questioner asked Nye if he still expressed his doubts about GMOs that he’d previously aired in an “Eyes on Nye” television episode. Here’s that episode if you want to see it:

The video’s not a debacle, but I don’t think Nye presents the issue fairly, and, in a few acted-out scenarios, he raises the issue of sneaky companies passing off environmentally dangerous products for their profit. He also raises fears that “modifying organisms is a way of modifying the world,” i.e., endangering ecosystems (in the last two minutes Nye paints one harrowing but overblown scenario).  Finally, Nye says “we have enough food.” But as we know with cases such as golden rice, that’s not the only question at issue.

I agree with Pam Ronald’s assessment in this video that the benefits of GMOs far outweigh the risks. Throwing around names like “Monsanto” and “Big Agro” to demonize GMOs, as was done by some people in my earlier post, only serves to muddy this issue.

Ramez Naam has put together a page summarizing scientific organizations’ views on GMO, all of which attest to its safety of the process to date. Yes, of course one needs to think about the perils of such interventions, but right now there’s nothing obvious to worry about, and certainly nothing to justify the environmental “activist’s” trashing of fields and overheated demonstrations.

Nye responded to the reddit questioner by expressing his continuing doubt about GMOs, as well as some goal-post moving about “malnourished fat people” who “don’t need more food”. Nye:

We clearly disagree.

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.

But enough of that. Over at his Discover Magazine website Collide-A-Scape, Keith Kloor publishes an open letter to Nye by Kevin Folta, a professor of horticultural science and plant molecular biology at the University of Florida—a letter challenging Nye to a public debate about GMOs. (Folta is an advocate for GMO foods.) Part of Folta’s letter is below:

Last week you published a new book, Undeniable, again covering the harm of science denial with regard to evolution.  But then in the same text, and in later comments on Reddit, you expressed a belief-based criticism of agricultural biotechnology, or “GMO” technology.  No evidence, just “here’s what I think” coupled to arguments from ignorance, and positions that lay perpendicular to the scientific consensus.  Your logic and reasoning match the fallacies of climate and evolution deniers, the people you correctly criticize.

Over almost two decades agricultural biotechnology has shown to safely and effectively aid farmers, and offers future promise to deliver higher quality food, more sustainably.  Perhaps you were just speaking off the cuff from an uninformed opinion. We all can’t be experts in everything.

However, given your prominent status and huge media platform, you have a special responsibility to accurately communicate the science about this subject. GMO technology is backed by massive data and proof of concept, yet the topic is poorly understood and frequently misrepresented in the public discourse by anti-GMO activists. Agricultural biotechnology is not going away; the public would be well-served by a fact-based discussion, not one that is colored by emotion or ideology.

My hope is that you will consult with experts in the field and rescind your incorrect assertions.  But if you elect to stand by them, they should be challenged, and challenged publicly.

And here’s where Folta really has Nye on the spot, for since Nye has decided (vis-à-vis Ken Ham) that public debate is an appropriate way to air scientific disputes, how can he turn down this request?:

As a public scientist immersed in the biotech literature for 30 years, I am disheartened by your statements (so are many of my colleagues) as they do not reflect the current state of our scientific understanding. Let’s use public debate to articulate the science of this issue.  I am happy to arrange a forum at a major university for a civil, evidence-based debate on the benefits and risks of agricultural biotechnology. Consider this an invitation.  Three hours, same format as the Nye vs. Hamm [sic] debate.  Let’s talk about the science and make sure we get it straight.  Either I’m missing something you know, or you’re missing something I know, but it can’t work both ways.

Now I don’t think Nye will take him up on this, for I don’t think The Science Guy has done his homework, and Folta appears to know his stuff. There’s no gain in Nye looking like a fool by losing this debate. But if he really thinks that these kinds of issues should be debated verbally on stage (I don’t agree), he really should engage.

Ten to one he won’t. I’m not a fan of the new Science Guy, and see him as a self-aggrandizing person trying to capture his lost limelight more eagerly than he wants to promulgate science. But if he favors the debate route, and sees it as a way to educate the public, this is his chance.

h/t: Grania

169 thoughts on “Bill Nye challenged to debate GMOs

    1. Taleb is indeed very naive in his analysis of GMOs, as Novella rightly points out. I admit that I haven’t read the full article you’ve linked to, but from what I’ve seen, his argument hinges on assigning his own subjective, prejudged weights to the potential risks involved with GMOs, and on assuming that such risks will not be localized. This is unsupportable speculation. To claim that GMOs produce a scenario of “ruin” is to take a very naive view of the science – and perhaps more importantly, to ignore the empirical reality that nothing even close to a “ruin” type scenario has developed from GMO cultivation to date.

    2. Funny story, but one of Taleb’s complaints to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels was similar, he more or less said (I might be strawmanning a bit, so warning) that because he can concoct all sorts of wild speculations in his armchair of what might happen, therefore indeed the world is more violent.
      It is related to the “precautionary principle” in how he imagines things might go wrong with GMOs, and therefore it is actually in reality a problem.

        1. I’m sorry, glib answer, but I did honestly at times wonder if Taleb did read The Better Angels.
          But you can read his critique in the post linked in the link I provided, plus some of his further posts, and then Pinker’s reply.
          I have very little motivation to read Taleb again, as I found his writing arrogant, clumsy, incoherent and obfuscatory.

          1. So you don’t want the link to his latest paper in finance about how a “religious mindset” is necessary to achieve optimal asset allocation?

            Don’t worry, I won’t pollute this post with it. But I AM getting really tired of his “unknown unknowns” malarkey and all its variations. Sounds like the GMO thing is another “unknown unknown” to be feared for no reason.

  1. “You cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem”, but you can make reasonable assumptions about what will happen to the ecosystem. Nanotechnologies have a similar burden and physical solutions are easily tested with generalizable results that can be applied with regard to their accidental introduction into the environment.

  2. I’m really glad to see this. For decades I’ve been out of step with environmental activists I know because — aside from plants whose seed is sterile and problems of maintaining genetic diversity in food crop plants — I really couldn’t figure out why GMOs were supposed to be so bad. Or why foodstuffs should be labeled GMO. Nothing I know about digestion and physiology would lead me to believe that ingesting GMO crop foods would prove any more or less poisonous than all the other plants out there.

    1. Ditto the larger ecological impacts: as if “natural” crops (whatever that means after millennia of selective breeding and crossing) have had no impact on wild flora and fauna!

      1. Thank you. Can somebody (Mr. Nye, if you’re reading this) name an organism that you eat that doesn’t have mutated DNA?

        What is the argument? That random mutation won’t destroy the ecosystem, but human meddling will? Then I don’t understand why mother nature is given the benefit of the doubt.

        1. Worse, we are all GMOs feeding of GMOs.

          The only difference is that modern agriculture makes a more precise change than the mutations, or genetic sweeps, that promote negative fitness genes among the positives on an individual and/or population level.

        2. The problem as I understand it,(I’m a layperson)is that when they put the bacterial DNA into the genes they don’t know exactly where it goes and how it will function. Bt Corn is registered as a pesticide. The DNA is taken from Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacteria that produces a toxin that causes the insects’ stomachs and intestines to leak. Now when the corn or any products made with Bt corn, i.e. high fructose corn syrup, which is a common sweetener,the Bt DNA can be taken up by the gut bacteria and start producing the toxin which will cause the human intestine to leak. Is it coincidence that allergies in kids started to go up after 1996 when Bt corn was introduced. Sitting on the fence but the Bt corn is not right.

    2. There are no commercial GMO seeds that are sterile. The only reason you cant replant them is because of the contract (tech agreement) that you sign when you buy them. There really is no reason to worry about genetic diversity either. A 100 acre plot will have upwards of a dozen different varieties even if its all one crop.

      1. Not only can’t farmers replant the seed they must buy Roundup and now 2.4D to kill the weeds. 2,4D was added this year as super weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup. Ingesting residual glysophate and 2,4D, both carcinogens can’t be good for anyone. It’s not about feeding the world, it’s about making money and controlling the food supply.

        1. Agriculture business can’t make money without feeding the world.

          And they aren’t controlling “the food supply” anymore than travel companies are controlling travels.

    3. yup. IMO, the whole nonsense is the human desire to get attention and believe that they know something “secret”. The nuttery about GMOs, vaccines, religion, all comes from the same desire.

    1. Sorry, I don’t get your point. The purpose of the post is to call attention to Nye’s promulgation of scientifically unfounded views, and how he responds to challenges of them. It’s not to show that he’s fallible.

      1. I know, but people give him so much flak for just being fallible. Not necessarily saying that’s what you’re doing here, so I’m sorry if this came across a bit knee-jerky.

    2. And as a human being, he has he ability to improve upon his critical thinking skills and change his mind, and a responsibility when aiming to provide correct information.

      1. What’s more, he explicitly stated just such during his debate with Ham (in response to the “what would change your mind?” question). While I currently hold a much more favorable opinion of Nye than Dr. Coyne does, it will become considerably reduced should Nye not take up the challenge.

  3. kevin folta does great work at communicating this stuff to the general public. it’s a pleasure to read anything he writes on the topic. hope this happens as it could be a very informative debate for many.

  4. I am not very fond of the word ‘debate’, but a reasoned, intelligent discussion about GMOs is definitely needed. It is not helpful to use fear-mongering about big bad corporations nor should we be lazy about understanding the full implications of GMOs. But until we stop with posing the issue forcing people to ignorantly take sides, more discussions like the one proposed need to take place.

  5. I don’t think the real question is whether Nye will debate this or not: he won’t. That is, it would surprise me very much.

    In order to prepare for the evolution debate with a bonehead he consulted as many experts as possible. He studied and practiced and sat down with people who’d debated creationism before. So if he’s true to form he’d want to have all his ducks in a row on this one — and this time he knows it’s not a slam dunk, it’s not “for the kids,” and it’s not The Science Guy against the Religion Guy, it’s a science popularizer against genuine experts in a particular scientific field. His usual supporters have turned; he’s got crunchy granola hippies doing Naturalistic Fallacy poetry in his cheering section. He’d get creamed.

    The more puzzling question is whether he might recant. Even if he is, as Jerry suggests, self-aggrandizing, the limelight will shine brightly on a scientist coming out publicly and reversing/revising his views. It’s not just a headline, it’s a grand play of humility and modesty which I think goes well with a bow tie.

    1. Well said. The ‘I think we should be genuinely concerned’ attitude is going to get wrinkled if you come to the party with the ‘I can’t be bothered to work it all out’ attitude.

    2. My first thought as well. He really had to consult a lot of experts to debate Ham. Now he’d be debating a scientist in that scientist’s own field. Perhaps this will teach Nye a lesson: don’t give unevidenced opinions in public! You don’t see others like Dawkins doing this. If he doesn’t know something, he says so. It should be clear to Nye that he doesn’t have all the facts on this one.

    3. “true to form he’d want to have all his ducks in a row on this one — and this time he knows it’s not a slam dunk,”

      Agreed, and I suspect he’d convince himself he was wrong, or at least had no argument.

  6. Unlike creationism and evolution I think this is a debate that should be had, higher profile the better. Many people have a negative opinion of GMO’s not because it’s part of a deeply held belief system, but because they don’t know enough about them. A debate on this issue, unlike one on evolution, would likely change minds.

    1. I agree. As I said in the comments to Jerry’s last Nye story, imo the anti-GMO stuff is mostly scare-mongering. I’ve just watched the whole video above as I’d never seen it before, and it did nothing to change my opinion. Of course those working in the area should consider all potentialities, but Nye was unable to present any real evidence against GMO, only scary hypotheses. The benefits to mankind are huge.

      1. Again the benefits are to Monsanto. They sell the seed and the Roundup and 2,4D to kill the weeds. 3rd world farmers can’t afford the seed or the herbicides to put on them. GMO’s are not a benefit to mankind, they are a benefit to Monsanto’s bottom line. Super weeds are now resistant to glyphosate and now they’ve had to add 2,4D another carcinogen to kill the super weeds. The biotech companies want to control the food supply.

  7. Dr Coyne – I have read (cant recall source) that some insects (butterflies, bees) have been adversely affected by dining on or landing on (?) GMO tainted crops. No idea if true but perhaps it’s possible. There is misinformation on both sides, I imagine. If there are any fact-based doubts – seems sensible to go slow, or stop. Also – do you agree with Monsanto’s aggression towards farmers, who can be sued into bankruptcy by that corp (and others?) if they dont buy, every year, Monsanto’s seeds, even if their crop was tainted by neighboring GMO plants?

    1. Do you have an example?

      I have seen a couple of high profile examples that have been described as such. However, invariably (to anyone familiar with the industry), these cases have been deliberate and egregious violations of IP.

      Large multinational corporations (aka seed breeding companies) have also sued for violations of PBRs.

      In any case, no farmer is forced to buy licensed varieties or GMOs if they don’t want to; free alternatives are available. They choose to do so because they offer a competitive advantage.

      There is a case for examining what form of IP is appropriate for GMOs, but the exploitation of farmers is not one of them.

    2. The IP problem is orthogonal to wether the technology itself is dangerous.

      I work as a programmer and I don’t support software patents, for various reasons. A vibrant and useful community has arisen precisely because of open-source software. This blog runs on open source software from WordPress probably down to the Apache servers and Bind DNS you just used to look it up running on a Linux machine somewhere

      Now, software patents are not quite the same thing as genetic patents, but there are some strong parallels, and maybe the same disadvantages. Monsanto is what IBM was in the 1980s or Microsoft in the 2000s.

      We have a plethora of varieties of plants bred by various farmers, gardeners, orchid fanciers, nurseries and so on which do not generally have IP slapped on them. So there is a sort of open-source community available. I’m sure it is just a matter of time that the technology to create GMO’s is not beyond the talented amateur. I don’t have any biology training so I don’t know how feasible it would be, but creating good software is hard but people still do it and give it away for free, so why not good genes?

      1. Yes, there is something distasteful (no pun intended) with IPs in the food industry. Where health is concerned there ought to be some sort of secure mechanism for this stuff to be revealed. I don’t dislike IP itself, just don’t like its implications when it comes to public well being. I hold similar opinions about medications. I like the IP concept, but it’s bad outweighs its good sometimes.

    3. No. Round Up ready is getting blamed for the success of the product. Farmers are able to get rid of their weeds (which means higher yields) but that means milkweed is eliminated on productive farmland. So some are blaming the eastern population of Monarch butterfly decline on RR crops.

      The bee crisis is so overplayed its not even funny. The bee population is steady and has been steady with a slight increase for decades now. CCD has nothing to do with GMOs. Its a fungus and there is some evidence that neonicotinoids might weaken bees that allow the fungus to cause more damage. Problem is in reality eliminating neonicotinoids cause other problems to bees in the real world as seen in Europe this last year.

      No, there is not misinformation on both sides. The anti GMO side is the side with falsehoods.

      Monsanto is not aggressive to farmers. This is another BS myth by the anti side. They have sued less then 150 farmers in the last 18 years. They do this when that farmer breaks their contract they have agreed to or outright theft. They have never sued a farmer for accident contamination. They don’t sue if you don’t buy their product the next year.

      1. Monsanto is not aggressive to farmers. This is another BS myth by the anti side. They have sued less then 150 farmers in the last 18 years. They do this when that farmer breaks their contract they have agreed to or outright theft.

        Some of us are horrified at the mere thought that a company can sue a farmer for failing to pay Danegeld for the right to plant seeds.

        Sure, if these farmers were breaking into Monsanto seed warehouses and hauling off sacks of seeds, that’s criminal and worthy of prosecution by the State.

        But the doctrine of first sale damned well should apply to seeds as well as it does to books. Buy your seeds from Monsanto if you like their quality control or whatever. But if you want to plant those seeds and sell the offspring, that’s your moral right — and it’s up to Monsanto to compete on quality and price of product. Once Monsanto sells you that seed, either it’s yours or you’re just a sharecropper slaving away for Monsanto.

        “Only” suing several farmers per year is aggressive.


        1. I am horrified of the bogyman but that does not make it the bogyman real.

          First sale doctrine is for copyright not for Patent protection.

          Moral right? If you want to be a free loader that stops progress for all of us then go buy a seed that does not require a tech agreement.

          Your world is just naïve. Well maybe not since you are anti GMO that is a way to kill it to make it impossible for anyone to actually bring a product to market. The world you are suggesting would mean the first gen of seeds would be so cost prohibitive that only a free loading competitor would buy so they could make a knock off and sell it cheap in year 2. You would take away all incentives to improve crops. We have already seen what this has done when Stalin and Mao tried similar projects.

          1. Sorry, but we’ve seen what havoc intellectual “property” wreaks in other industries. Far and away the greatest technological innovation comes from the Internet and related technologies, and all the key players there are the ones doing the Open Source thing. All the software that powers Jerry’s site, from the Web server to the email software and all the rest, is Open Source. AOL, the most serious competitor to the Internet, was closed and has long since been relegated to the dustbin of history.

            Spare us the “Communism” boogeyman. If the BSD TCP/IP stack and Apache and Sendmail and all the rest fit your definition of, “Communism,” then your definition is meaningless. We don’t need intellectual “property” to prosper — quite the contrary. Intellectual “property” does far more actual harm to society than theoretical good, and all the good it does is to a tiny handful of CEOs and board members who just use their ill-gotten profits to fuck the rest of us over that much harder.

            …and you want your food to come with a Microsoft-style EULA!? Would you like to have to install a DNA analyzer in your toilet to ensure that you’ve paid the proper royalties to all the relevant “stakeholders”?

            Fundamental to the original concept of patents was that you couldn’t patent either nature nor math. Yet that’s all that’s getting patented today, and it’s at the heart of why it’s the 1% who control 90% of our society’s wealth.


            1. Sorry, but we’ve seen what havoc intellectual “property” wreaks in other industries. Far and away the greatest technological innovation comes from the Internet and related technologies, and all the key players there are the ones doing the Open Source thing.

              I think you got that one bass ackwards, with the later OS making havoc of the earlier IP market.

              Which IP market did work well. Now, if OS is working better, it deserves to take over. When farmers makes GMOs and make them OS and hence further agriculture, this idea has a standing. Stealing IP on an IP based market and possibly delaying GMOs, not so much.

              1. Er, no.

                Microsoft got their TCP/IP stack directly from BSD. The original Web browser was NCSA Mosaic. Apache remains the dominant Web server to this day. GCC is the most widespread compiler.

                I could go on for hours…but a cut-to-the-chase version is that Apple’s operating, Darwin, which is at the core of OS/X is an open source BSD system and their Server version is a pretty configuration tool on top of the most popular open source server software, and the big news in the IT industry this week is that Microsoft is finally jumping on the bandwagon by releasing their developer tools as open source.

                Proprietary software has been the nearly-irrelevant shiny consumer-facing stuff for ages, with basically all the heavy lifting done with open source software.

                Google, for example, would not exist without Linux, which I haven’t even mentioned at all until this point….


            2. you want your food to come with a Microsoft-style EULA!?

              That’s a terribly confused analogy.

              I can use my software however I wish; but I can’t resell or rent it to someone else unless I’m a software retailer, in which case I’m subject to a different licence than the EULA. Similarly, I can eat my food however I wish; but I can’t resell it to someone else unless I’m a food retailer (be that a grower, distributor, or grocer), in which case I’m subject to different regulations than whoever I’ve invited to supper.

              To answer the rhetorical question: of course not, but it’s irrelevant.

              1. Your knowledge of EULAs is at least a couple decades out of date. They do, indeed, place all sorts of restrictions on what you are and aren’t permitted to do with the software you don’t own — and many actually do permit you to resell or rent it in various limited circumstances.

                And the notion that this is any way of benefit to society or something any of us should desire or even tolerate, let alone see expanded past software to food….


              2. Your knowledge of EULAs is at least a couple decades out of date.

                I will simply note here that you seem a bit prone to exaggeration, and that you’ve completely skipped over the point, and I’ll leave it at that.

          2. 2. You would take away all incentives to improve crops. We have already seen what this has done when Stalin and Mao tried similar projects.

            I’d get your ducks lined up properly on this, if I were you Jim. Your misrepresentation of the Lysenko debacle is less than awesome.
            Lysenko’s misunderstanding of genetics, and his ideological sucking up to Stalin are reprehensible events which resulted in considerable losses of life. But the aim of the project was very bluntly and explicitly to improve crop yields.
            I don’t know what you’re talking about with Mao, but if you’re so badly mistaken about Lysenko and Stalin, then I wouldn’t be surprised if you had similarly misunderstood some piece of recent Chinese history too.

            1. That might have been the aim but the practice was to allow one mans view to guide a nations food supply though his own lens. There was not only no positive incentive for anyone else to produce a better seed their was a negative incentive of a brutal imprisonment in the Gulags. We know what the yields where like and their trend line.

              1. The results were terrible. The intentions weren’t. It does make a difference when you’re assigning culpability. So … for a current example, would you consider nuns who give pregnant women vitamin injections evil and malicious, deserving of death, or incompetent under-trained medical pseudo-practitioners?

  8. The issues aren’t only about the science of GMOs,but also the economics. Maybe (as seems probable to me)GMOs are not a health threat – but they are patented, thus corporations can control their use, prices, etc. Those matters deserve further consideration. I’ve heard that farmers who harvest superior quality GMO foods are legally prohibited from replanting their seeds for the next crop, but must buy more seed for next year from Monsanto or whoever at exorbitant prices. What about that?

    1. As has been pointed out in previous discussions on this subject, these objections are not unique to GMOs. Restrictions on seed-saving and patenting has been around much longer than GMO gene transfer technology has.

    2. There certainly may be problems with the economics around GMO, but I think these arise because of the usual suspects: cartels, monopolies and political favouritism.

      The GMO argument is often framed as the big agriculture corporation against the small time farmer. There may be a seed of truth in that they have competing interests, and as usual in these situations the large corporate interest is more powerful.

      It is only by extension that the actual technology is then demonised as the source of whatever problem may exist.

    3. What is the problems with the economics? If they money does not work out you don’t buy them. Farmers really are not stupid.

      SO what they are patented, seeds have been patentable since the passage of the 1920 Seed Act which farmers themselves pushed for. If you don’t like the tech agreement then don’t buy them. There are dozens to hundreds of seeds available. DeKalb (Monsanto) tried to raise prices in 2009 they lost market share to products with Clearfield trait.

      You have to buy need Maize seed every season. This has nothing to do with GMO it has to do with Hybrids which farmers have used now for about 80 years. Soy and Cotton farmers where moving towards buying new seed before the introduction of any GM products.

      There really is no price saving in saving seeds. By the time you account for the lost income from that land not producing a sellable crop while requiring inputs (N2, Water and pesticides). The extra cleaning of equipment. Cleaning of the seeds plus seed treatments. Trying to size them. You are just are not saving enough to make it worth while and you are missing out on a new trait that might exist.

    4. ” but they are patented, thus corporations can control their use, prices, etc.”

      Which is how they recoup their R & D costs. Patents do expire, you know.

  9. While I agree that ‘Throwing around names like “Monsanto” and “Big Agro” to demonize GMOs’ is misguided in relation to the science of GMOs I do have considerable reservations around the IP tactics of Monsanto and their ilk to gain control of the chains of production of some foodstuffs. Their dubious commercial tactics may be separate from the GMO science but they do help explain some of the hostility to GMOs.

    1. “Stalin was an atheist” explains a lot of the hostility toward atheists. That doesn’t make it a valid argument.

    2. Count me as one of those very leery of Corporate America. But the hostility to GMOs is so acute I’m hard pressed to understand it. The lay press is wholly against GMO (with a few exceptions, like Michael Specter’s piece on the propagandist Vandana Shiva). Even Consumer Reports, a publication with enormous credibility and think-tank activism, has engaged in the crudest bottom-of-the-septic-tank fear mongering against GMOs. Forget about Nye – he is just one individual. Someone needs to take on nefarious deeds of Consumer Reports.

      I suspect at the heart of this hostility is an intuitive revulsion to something being perceived as “impure.” It’s an itty bitty kernel of a feeling. And it dictates the rest of the discourse. This instinct, born of anxiety and unplumbed fear of a new technology had a parallel in the 19th Century when activists railed against animal husbandry. Hence an outsized hostility not seen with other sorts of corporate malfeasance. After all, one doesn’t stomp on an iPhone because an Intel ad was a bit too slick, or one doesn’t run to the witchdoctor because a pharmaceutical company underplayed the side effects of a sleep drug like Ambien. But let a few pests or weeds develop a tolerance to GMO crops touted with resistance and it’s ok to go ape-shit.

  10. I think the letter comes across as a little too aggressive and critical, and I don’t see why it needed to be. One could make the same assertions regarding Bill Nye’s opinions in a tone that says “hey, let’s talk” in an inclusive way. A cynic (or anti-GMOer) might think that’s indicative of the posture of a paid-for Big Agro prize stable pony; I reserve judgment.

    Why a debate? Why not a teach-in, maybe including some unaffiliated experts to balance and interpret for Bill? If the challengers have the science on their side, why wouldn’t Bil Nye welcome a come-to-Jesus (pardon the expression) on such a hugely important subject?

    I don’t get people sometimes.

    1. Well, the cynic would (or anti-GMOer) would then be a conspiracy nut. How is that better than accepting the letter at face value?

    1. oh my. I used to work in a meat department in a major grocery chain here in the NE. We had irradiated ground beef, having it in prewrapped chubs and used it in the premade “gourmet” burgers.

      People couldn’t even pronounce it right, much less understand what it was. If I entertained myself by telling them what it was (beef exposed to electromagnetic fields to kill pathogens, and oh yes the source could be radioactive), they’d run away. But if we said that it would allow you to eat your burger with pink in the middle without the tech details, they were all about it. Of course, we got some utter idiots who thought the stuff would make you turn into the Hulk.

      1. That one was a total PR / marketing blunder.

        Call it pasteurization and nobody would have gotten upset.

        Indeed, I vaguely recall that similar tech is used to pasteurize milk, but I’m not aware of anybody up in arms over irradiated milk.

        (And, yes, of course, there’re crazies who illicitly buy and sell unpasteurized milk. If you’re the one milking the cow, you’re probably fine with its unpasteurized milk. If you live on the next ranch over from the guy milking the cow and you’d be happy to have him take care of your own livestock, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. Everybody else is a fool. Many, but not all, raw milk products are going to be safe…aged cheeses for certain are okay; butter is as dangerous as milk.)


    2. I’ve never heard a hint of irradiated food being available at all in Europe, and hadn’t noticed mention of it in the US until now. Well, not since pictures in a 1950s-era “Boys Own Book Of Atomic Power Wonders”
      Is it actually generally available? It wouldn’t fuss me if it were on the menu, but I’ve literally never heard of it since that 1950s book.
      Why isn’t it even on the agenda here? I’d guess from people being used to living in the overlapping flash-kill zones of foreign nuclear bases. Certainly that was an attitude prevalent when I studied food chemistry in the days of my youth.

      1. Irradiation based mutagenesis is a common technique for genetically modifying plant genomes, but for reasons that make little biological sense, they are not considered GMOs. That means many or most of the products on the organic shelf are derived from irradiation/mutagenesis of seeds. That’s not the same as irradiation of food products for sterilization, but it illustrates an important contradiction in activist thinking that mutagenized plants are acceptable but transgenics are not. And you won’t see activists fighting for labels on foods genetically modified through mutagenesis!

        1. Ah, I wasn’t thinking of radiation-induced mutagenesis of crop varieties.
          That is slightly more dribblingly insane than normal irrational fear of irradiation-sterilised foodstuffs. Between the irradiation stage and the seed being ready for production are a number of generations of selection and amplification of the seed. Running screaming from that is as rational as refusing to breed with someone who has more than 50 cosmic-ray and environmental-chemical induced mutations in their individual genomes. That’s approximately 0 people per generation, by a factor of hundreds or thousands.

          1. Gotch you. I wasn’t sure if you were referring to irradiated food or seeds at first. Your point on generational mutation rates is well taken. I also think some of the original hysteria over irradiated foods came from early published work describing the formation of hydroxyl radicals after irradiation, which sounds scary enough. But the half life is on the scale of miliseconds. Unfortunately, the scary bit about radicals in the food was what stuck in the public discourse, if I remember correctly.

            1. With my normal jaundiced opinion of the chemical background of the man on the Clapham Omnibus, I’d expect there to have been fear and loathing at the concept of “chemicals” in their “precious bodily fluids”.

  11. I think we should strive to end the use of pesticides and herbicides altogether (whether in the form of sprayed chemicals, or GMOs), and that’s why I’m for development of vertical farming, aeroponics, and clean-room technologies that do away with the need for bug-killing toxins.

    1. The trade-off is that bug-killing toxins make possible the production of vast quantities of life-nurturing food for humans and other animals.

      Would you favor preventing a starving child from eating a corn plant that got sprayed for bugs?

      1. Vertical farms make possible the production of even LARGER amounts of food, with less land, and less water needed, and NO bug-killing toxins at all.

      2. The problem is that, if the vast quantities of life-nurturing food aren’t accompanied with equally-vast quantities of new-life-preventing prophylactics, all you’re doing is making more children who’ll eventually die in even larger numbers.

        I’m all for feeding the starving masses. But I’m very much more for not having masses who’ll starve in the first place.


    2. You still need to transport and sore food. This is where much of the loss occurs. You should see the trucks traveling I-5 in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

      And it is the micro-nutients in soil along with environment that makes one coffee different from the next.

    3. How much do you think we will have to pay for food grown in a clean room? Are you willing to pay $50 for an apple? Do you have any idea how this “pie-in-the-sky” agriculture will impact poor people who can barely afford food as it is?

      1. Funny how any new innovative idea is automatically called “pie in the sky”.

        Vertical farms built near cities reduce food transportation costs to almost zero (whereas currently it has to travel for more than a million miles on average), require 80% percent less land and 90% less water.

  12. BTW, does anybody know if the U.S instituted any new regulations regarding the use of pesticides linked to bee colonies’ collapse, and now also to brain damage?

    “The move stems from research on rats which concluded “neonicotinoids may adversely affect human health, especially the developing brain”. The newborn rats studied in the experiments found those exposed to one of the pesticides, called imidacloprid, suffered brain shrinkage, reduced activity of the nerve signals controlling movement, and weight loss. Another rat study found that exposure to the other pesticide, acetamiprid, led to reduced weight, survival and response to startling sounds.”

    1. I’m personally nervous about what BT crops might be doing to pollinators. How much BT is being expressed either in the flowers or the pollens?

      “Not much,” I’m sure…but I’d expect pollinators to have literally zero defense against pollen-born nasties. Pollen-producing plants “want” to do everything possible to make everything as idyllic as possible for their pollinators; a pollen-producing plant that poisoned its pollinators would itself quickly go extinct. Considering how many hundreds of millions of years and the short generational periods this symbiosis has been going on, it’s hard to imagine that any pollinator is going to be prepared for any sort of defense against something like BT pollen / flowers, even if the BT content is “negligible.”


      1. Ben, I’m generally nervous about the profit-motivated thinking that shapes the strategies of big corporations and puts profit before environmental and health concerns.

        And politicians? Well, I guess they still play the “I’m not a scientist” card. Millions of bees are dying each month, and their response is “there’s no way of knowing why”.

        Stephen Colbert was so spot-on with his analysis of the current situation on climate change, and the type of dangerous thinking he exposed goes clearly beyond the climate change issue.

        1. Yes, that’s a great point.

          Many of the people defending Big Agro are also some of the first to criticize Big Energy.

          All the arguments for using any possible technology to increase food production, consequences be damned, apply equally well to increasing petroleum production, consequences be damned.

          Why is is good to criticize Keystone and fracking and exploitation of ANWAR and the tar sands, but anti-science to criticize their agribusiness equivalents?


    2. It is enough to invoke precautionary principle. Frankly, for non-scientist people like me, it is common sense to support stop to pesticide use until further research can conclude one way or another.

      I have posted below in #22 that this ‘debate’ is not necessary. With the world producing enough food **right now**, urgency is in improving food distribution and waste habits. Instead, some of the world’s smartest people are engaged in debating serious science like it is some professional sports entertainment.

      1. Frankly, for non-scientist people like me, it is common sense to support stop to pesticide use until further research can conclude one way or another.

        Many people would die.

        1. Frankly, for non-scientist people like me, it is common sense to support stop to pesticide use until further research can conclude one way or another.

          Many people would die.

          Sadly, too true.

          But, also alas, we make our pesticides from petroleum…and, as you yourself know all too well, we don’t have all that much quality easy-to-extract petroleum left in the ground. As you’re fond of quoting your dad, the stuff’s too precious to burn…and, yet, that’s mostly what we do with it. We’ve got plenty to make all the industrial chemicals we could dream to make for centuries if not millennia…but it’s all going to get burnt up loooooong before then.

          Like it or not, we’re almost certainly going to have to significantly curtain our use of petrochemicals for food production.

          And many people will die as a result.

          We should have long ago figured out how to keep people fed (or from being born in the first place) without the use of mined petrochemicals. We didn’t, and many people will die because we didn’t.

          What we owe it to ourselves to do now is figure out how to make the best of the really bad situation we’ve stuck ourselves in.

          …and that situation is going to almost inevitably involve far less pesticide application, whether we like the consequences of that or not….


          1. Many people are going to die. Regardless of what we do or don’t do. Resource shortages aren’t going to help. Irrational use of resources (who, apart from an Apple executive, really needs to sell us a iPhone 7, 8, 9 …) isn’t going to make life any simpler.

              1. Not terribly up to date on actor’s names. But being deeply pessimistic about the environmental damage that we’re doing to the planet seems just plain sensible.

              1. And just precisely why do the various Scandinavians admit to a gloom – rich culture?
                Lars von Trier film festival, anyone?

              2. Because they’re honest?

                The real question is why they (and you!) stay so far away from Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, and who are afraid to let His Face shine full upon them.

                Not sure what other than perversion could explain such a thing….


        2. “Many people would die.”
          – Please cite peer-reviewed papers that back up such a grand claim. I do not believe such alarmist claims, especially if they come from rich countries.

          World produces enough food **today** to feed itself. Problems are in bad infrastructure and bad consumption habits. 40% of all food produced is wasted.

          1. Indeed. It’s hilarious to suggest that if big agri stopped using the bee-killing pesticides “Many people would die.”.

      2. Much of the “waste habit” occurs after harvest in the silos, railcars, and ships. Mold, fungus, rot, and insects – all requiring pesticides to get the food to market.

        You don’t want your grain silo to smell like a brewery.

        (Fire is one of the biggest problems.)

  13. Golden Rice isn’t necessarily the panacea for vitamin A deficiency. Beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A and contained in high quantities in golden rice) is fat soluble similar to vitamin A and still requires dietary fat to be absorbed.

    Vitamin A deficiency isn’t just caused by a lack of vitamin A in the diet of affected children. There’s usually other deficiencies, such as fat (and calories too).

    Michael Egnor in his blog Egnorance (before he pulled up stumps announcing that he was going away to write more for Evolutionnews – perhaps because he was getting tired of frequently being told he was an idiot) used to blog frequently against ‘greenies’ for ‘banning’ Golden Rice and DDT for malaria control.

    I used to note that DDT is a perfectly good malaria control when properly sprayed on ninternal walls, but that in the real world, the workers applying it often get too enthusiastic, spraying in areas they shouldn’t, such as adjacent chicken coops, killing the chooks.

    And chook eggs are a perfect food for vitamin A and fat, one egg a day being enough.

    So as a result DDT being used in malaria control (a good outcome) could also result in vitamin A deficiency and blindness.

    Golden Rice is a good idea, but it’s not necessarily a panacea. It’s not the perfect argument against GMOS opponents.

        1. Though when people no longer have to worry about basic necessities and survival, it’s been shown that birthrates subsequently drop.

          1. Very true…but we’re already seriously overpopulated now, and most projections are for “stabilization” at at least half again as many people as we have today. That people are comfortable with fewer children when their own survival isn’t as questionable is a good thing, and we should exploit that fact by doing everything in our power to promote a rapid and controlled population deflation so as to hopefully avoid the types of crashes that inevitably accompany the types of resource exhaustion and pollution problems we’re already dealing with.

            It’s very possibly too late, of course, and we could easily have the Four Horsemen do the job for us whether we like it or not. But much better to do it over a generation or three with condoms than all at once with chaos.


  14. Throwing around names like “Monsanto” and “Big Agro” to demonize GMOs, as was done by some people in my earlier post, only serves to muddy this issue.

    Perhaps…but it’s the Big Agro usage of GMOs that I and most of the others are objecting to, with no problems with Golden Rice and similar genetic modifications.

    Yes, most of what’s problematic with what Big Agro is doing with GMO crops has been a problem historically with non-GMO crops. But GMO crops are letting Big Agro behave even worse.

    It’s very much like questions over various nuclear technologies. Nuclear bombs are bad; radiation therapy for cancer patients is good. Nuclear power plants are somewhere in the middle…not as bad as coal for the environment in the short term, but still have all sorts of unsolved problems with waste disposal and decommissioning of end-of-life plants and more. Plus, despite the abundance of nuclear fuel for today’s usage patterns, it’d be no more sustainable over the long term than coal if we replaced all coal plants with nuclear ones…you run into the same absurd optimism about extracting uranium from seawater as we’re currently in trouble with over using tar sands for petroleum.

    We really do need to have a serious conversation in this society about the way we feed and otherwise provide and care for our billions…and that conversation needs to be preceded by one about why we have so many billions in the first place and why the universal unquestionable assumption is that we should want and / or expect several billion more. But that then leads to a discussion about birth control, which, in turn, runs smack dab into Christian prudishness and we wind up right back where we started.



    1. “…it’s the Big Agro usage of GMOs that I and most of the others are objecting to”

      My question to you would be this: Is there any “usage” of GMO technology by “Big Agro” that you would approve of? If so, please explain how you tell one from the other. If not, stop talking about GMOs and just address the reasons you dislike large corporations.

      1. Oh, that’s trivial. If they were engineering the crops for flavor and nutrition and the other things people care about, and if they were optimizing their general practices not for the next quarterly profits but for the next several centuries or millennia of sustainability, I’d stand up and cheer.

        But, instead, they’re engineering tomatoes that can be brutally abused between harvest and sale but that taste like shit, and they’re engineering corn that makes its own pesticides and laughs off overapplication of herbicides.

        Make a tomato that tastes good and you’ll get my attention. Make cotton that produces twice as much per acre with half the water and I’ll get excited. But if either also needs twice as much application of petrochemicals to pull off those feats and I’ll start booing and hissing again.


        1. I’d first like to note that there are no GMO products with features that people don’t care about, unless your definition of people specifically excludes the humans involved in GMO research.

          Secondly, I’ll point out that Flavr Savr GMO tomatoes were engineered to allow tomatoes to ripen on the vine, therefor improving how they taste. This is, presumably, something that the humans who qualify as people in your book might care about. But, of course, that attempt failed because GMO’s are scary.

          Your characterizations of what they are doing read like, I hate to say it so bluntly but…, paranoid ravings.

          1. Fantastic. And Golden Rice is great, too.

            Now, can you get the corporations to stop already with the BT-expressing and glyphosate-drinking crops?

            You’re beating up a straw man. I don’t know how I could possibly make it more clear than the repeated posts I’ve made across the threads that it’s not the technology I have a problem with, but the way the technology is most commonly (NOTE: NOT EXCLUSIVELY!) being used.

            If the topic was fertilizers rather than GMO crops, I’d raise many of these same objections, even though I’ve currently got a bunch of legumes and grasses I’m growing as “green manure” in my own to-be garden.

            If the topic was energy used in agriculture production, I’d raise many of these same objections, even though I’m planning on buying an electric tiller (which will be powered from the solar panels on my roof) for my own to-be garden.

            If the topic was depletion of groundwater levels, I’d raise many of these same objections, even though I’m planning on installing a high-efficiency computerized drip irrigation system for my own to-be garden.

            Just because you can find some odd exception here or there of how something is sometimes being used for good doesn’t make all the ways it’s being abused suddenly start smelling like roses.


            1. “…but the way the technology is most commonly…being used.”

              Have we had another example besides the bt/glyphosate usage?

              1. Those two are ubiquitous and, best I know, represent the overwhelming majority of GMO crops planted.

                I’m sure there’e hundreds if not thousands of GMO species in research labs and the like….


              2. Another example of unintended consequences IMO would be “high yield” wheat — one of Norman Borlaug’s innovations credited as one of the biggest pieces in the puzzle for his “saving one billion people”. (esp. if you remember the press release frenzy of 2 years ago).

                If I had been king of the world, I would’ve been pushing for GMOs on the other end of the spectrum — adoption and use of variants that were lower yield, but drought-tolerant. As I understand it, India is in deep, deep kimchee because of lack of access to clean water. And this problem has been greatly exacerbated by large scale diversion of water towards big agriculture to support cultivation of the thirstier high-yield varieties.

                So now they’re triple-hosed, esp. with the inevitable droughts to follow — a) exploded populations, esp. in rural areas with b) a heightened need for fresh water resources, and c) over-reliance on excessively water-hungry variants that will fail in droughts at the same time people are deprived of safe drinking water.

              3. And, on top of that, all the additional people putting the load on the system because there’s temporarily enough food to feed them. If every sack of flour was accompanied by a bag of condoms, we might not be in this mess….


              4. Darned friggin tootin’. In 2003 I attended a (social networks analysis) meeting in Thailand, the purpose of which was to air concerns in the field amongst a diverse group of researchers. One of them was a leading demographer in India (name escapes me). I made the mistake during a dinner when I was seated next to him of politely inquiring what he thought of India’s population problem. Whoops.

                He shot daggers at me, bruskly saying “there is no population problem in India”. No joke.

              5. Joke, yes…but not the laugh-out-loud kind.

                If Indian demographers don’t realize that we’re drowning in people, we’re truly fucked. And not in the oh-Jesus-YES way.


            2. I’m not beating up a straw man, Ben. I’m beating up phrasing like:

              “If they were engineering the crops for flavor and nutrition and the other things people care about…”


              “…they’re engineering tomatoes that can be brutally abused between harvest and sale but that taste like shit…”

              The use of the scary “they”, and loaded-but-useless labels like “Big Agro” and “Monsanto” as synonyms for “GMO”.

              This sort of framing indicates a bias that has little to do with rational discussions about technology and places you squarely within the ranks GMO conspiracy theorists.

              1. So…what, exactly?

                The overwhelming majority of GMO crops being grown are the overwhelming majority of BT and Roundup-Ready corn and wheat fields…but some research plot of “flavor-enhanced” tomatoes that’s years away from hypothetical production somehow invalidates all my complaints?

                How’s that homeopathic tomato flavor actually working out for you?


              2. If you insist on using the language of paranoid crank conspiracy theorists, you’ll just have to get used to being considered a crank on the subject. The following quotes are all either propagandistic opinion or demonstrably false. Or both.

                “Seed saving is, literally, the very foundation of civilization”

                “Monsanto pollen blew onto the guy’s field. The guy saved the seeds and planted them, contrary to the insistence from all y’all that farmers don’t actually save and plant seeds. Monsanto sued the guy.”

                “I would do away with seed patents in an instant. All they’re good for is CEO bonuses.”

                “BT crops are themselves insecticides, this is nothing but pure industry propaganda, and most transparent.”

                “Making it illegal to save seeds without paying Danegeld is as insane as making it illegal to breathe without paying Danegeld.”

              3. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to call me a crank because I identified agriculture as the foundation of civilization, there’s no point in even attempting to continue the discussion.


              4. The issue is not how agriculture began. The origins of agriculture are a very interesting subject (as a recovered archaeologist I appreciated this) but it is entirely irrelevant to the matter of GMO technology use.

                It is, instead, rather similar to the naturalistic fallacy. It operates as a scare tactic… suggesting by implication that GMOs threaten our very civilization.

    2. Unless “Big Agro” is a conspiracy theory, it refers to large companies.

      Those are not exclusive to agricultural markets, nor is their affording technologies smaller companies can’t.

      1. This is true. There are other sectors acting far more in the interests of their executives and preferred shareholders than the society, with Big Energy being the obvious example.

        But, last I checked, GMO crops are not a part of the energy industry, except very tangentially. I imagine most of the ethanol being produced is made from BT corn…but I don’t think the “look at the Golden Rice” crowd wants to draw much attention to that sort of thing….


      2. Indeed, all the scare-mongering of the “Big” label–Big Pharma, Big Agro, Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Finance, Big Sugar, Big Energy, yada yada, connotes conspiracy-type thinking of the easy-to-dismiss sort.

        We have national and international governments capable of addressing issues that could rein in corporations, if there were a public groundswell to do so; until that happens, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. Market theory is naturally going to result in pursuing the biggest markets.

        Big problems–overpopulation, unequal distribution, epidemic disease, climate change, whatever–require big solutions, infrastructure and investment. No amount of nostalgia for family farming or preaching about ZPG is going to get us any further than rhetoric. Demonizing the industries that produce life-saving drugs or increase agricultural yields isn’t going to do it.

        Some of us here are talking about some sort of middle ground; the idea that while knee-jerk GMO hysteria is ridiculous, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some legitimate concerns requiring oversight. But the discussion here seems devoid of any nuances like that.

        1. We have national and international governments capable of addressing issues that could rein in corporations, if there were a public groundswell to do so; until that happens, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.

          The problem is that Citizens United legalized the high-stakes bribery that was already common before. Individuals can’t get their alleged representatives to pay attention to them unless they’ve got more money than the Koch Brothers — and the only other entities who fit that bill are the “Big” corporations. “Corporations are people, my friend”…and they’re the only ones with enough votes / dollars to matter.

          Of course it’s the “Big” label entities who’re the problem; they’re the ones who own the politicians and who yank them around by the pursestrings like marionettes. Nobody else is even theoretically capable of doing that…Big <whomever /> can trivially buy a politician with a mere percent or less of their annual earnings. But, if you make the median income and tried to hand your politician a few hundred dollar bills to ensure his cooperation on a certain matter, you’re going to jail…not that that’d even be enough to buy a five minute meeting with him if it were legal.


  15. Its the dishonesty of its proponents that worries me!

    First we’re told no one will be made to eat GMO and no contamination will occur! A Lie!

    Second controls will be such that their use will not result in cross pollination with existing plants! Another Lie!

    We just want the scientists involved to be truthful please!

  16. I do not understand aggression of anyone on this topic. It is a fixed match, like in wrestling entertainment.

    World already produce more than enough food to feed itself. Problems are mainly of two types: one is bad infrastructure in poor countries and other is bad consumption habits in rich countries. Both types of problems result in 40% of food being wasted. It is staggering failure of humanity to waste so much food and let billions starve or live in chronic state of malnourishment.

    To be anti-GMO is not necessarily to be anti-science.

    1. The world does not produce enough food to feed itself. It currently produces about 2700 Calories per person. That is about what the average male needs. So sounds good. Problem is there is always going to be waste. Its impossible to eliminate. Not very difficult but impossible. People will always have some food left on their plate no matter how careful they prepare and plan. There will always be spoilage. There will always be pest damage.

      1. “The world does not produce enough food to feed itself.”
        – This statement is wrong. Here is one evidence to back my claim: . And if you search, you will find plenty of similar evidence.

        Also, please check Wikipedia page for food waste:

        Problem is that we want things to be easy. Food production is serious work and statements like, “Problem is there is always going to be waste,” are an insult to progressive thinking. It is **not** okay for food waste to be at 40% of everything grown and produced. We must understand scale of this human stupidity and act accordingly. No GMO seeds are needed to solve world’s food problem. Therefore, GMO debate is scripted fight, imho.

        On this website dedicated to science, where Carl Sagan can be quoted on environmental sustainability, your words come across as triviliasing food waste. Co-operation is order of day and seed economics is one area where modern science is not needed.

    2. There is also a desire to produce food (and other agro products like cotton) using less pesticides, fertilizer, water, sun light, or in hotter or colder climates.

  17. I would love a debate on the pros/cons of GMOs, because frankly, it’s been hush hushed by the corps who manufacture them. Sure, you can find articles here and there, but I have never seen anything with great media attention. I suppose they are afraid of a backlash from naive consumers.

    I also wonder why Europe has put a ban and/or labels GMOs. Are they just reactionary to their consumers and are ignoring the science? I have a vague sense that this isn’t a typical approach to policy making in Europe (out on a limb on that assumption).

    I will say this. Given the choice between a GMO meal and an organic one for the exact same price, I would bet 9 out of 10 people would choose the organic over the GMO. I’m not saying 9 out of 10 people are right, I just feel GMOs have a long way to go to sway the majority of consumers. They use zero PR as far as I know. Again, perhaps they could help their own image if they didn’t stop efforts of labeling and create perceptions of secrecy and vaulting ambition.

    1. The science is out there, see the article. In fact, it is begging Nye for the discussion precisely because there is a lck of communication (from media or the public, who fails to inform themselves).

      “Are they just reactionary to their consumers and are ignoring the science?”

      Yes. Politics chosen over finances.

  18. I’ve been trying to figure out why GMO crops are so much worse myself and the only thing I can think of is that GMO activists are just as given to scientific illiteracy and science denial as vaxxers or creationists.
    Aren’t we really just talking about a more accurate and technologically advanced way of improving crops, which agriculture has tried to do for thousands of years?
    How is specifically engineering a fruit to taste the way you want more dangerous than
    Michael Specter did a great TED talk on the dangers of science denial a few years ago.

    1. Drawing upon hundreds of hours of conversation about GMOs, labeling, regulation, etc., my strong impression is that for a lot of people the reduction of ‘important characteristics’ (flavor, size, color, etc.) to being the products of ‘genetic engineering’ is in conceptual conflict with how they think of themselves and the world. Many people think of themselves as “spirits inhabiting a material world”, and tend to assume that everything important has a vaguely similar ‘essence’ (“imprisoning the plant with invasive genes!” actual quote). Genetic engineering, by emphasizing the biochemical nature of ourselves and our food, is in existential conflict with the reflexive and unanalyzed essentialism that many people have. And then The Evil Corporations do ‘most of their modifications’ for things like herbicide resistance – characteristics which are not even ‘real characteristics’ like flavor, color, size, etc., so the ‘benefits’ of having to deal with having their world view ‘threatened’ are not even there!

      1. This comment gave me an “aha” moment, as I have been puzzled how simple ignorance could lead to the more bizarre anti-GMO statements, but this could be it. The science is just a reminder of how the world works, and that is actually what is unacceptable.

      2. “imprisoning the plant with invasive genes!”

        Wow, that kind of sums it up perfectly doesn’t it?
        I’ve always thought that the “Monsanto issues” a convenient label for the various and sundry, less than scientific criticisms of GMO, where valid, can and should be addressed by legislation and regulation. But the thought process you just described isn’t given to practical reasoning like that. Hence GMO-phobia.
        How do these people think we arrived at the myriad of varieties of fruits and vegetables available at any grocer? Do they think there were gold ‘n’ delicious, granny smith and macintosh apples growing wild in the days before agriculture? What about wheat? Do they think wheat is just the way it is and has always grown that way? Clearly these folks are not fans of Norman Borlaug.

  19. While I completely agree that the opposition to GMO crops in general is irrational, and that as food there is no reason to be paranoid about them, it is also true that one needs to look carefully at possible ecological consequences of dramatic biotechnology-based changes in agricultural practices. These may be subtle and indirect. Here is one example I am particularly familiar with: in less than 20 years, the corn in the Midwestern corn belt has gone from 0% Roundup-Ready (genetically engineered to be impervious to the general-purpose herbicide Roundup, glyphosate) to almost 100% Roundup Ready. I have no doubt that this corn is perfectly safe and nutritious to eat for humans and cows (and makes good ethanol, which is what a lot of it is grown for). However, during the period from 1997 to 2014, the eastern U.S. population of the migrating Monarch butterfly declined by 97% (these are the ones that famously overwinter in Mexico). This has happened for a number of reasons, but probably most important among them is because most of the milkweed that most of the Monarch caterpillars were feeding on had been growing in or around a cornfield. That milkweed has been eliminated by the switch to Roundup Ready corn and associated widespread use of Roundup to kill all plants except corn in the cornfields. This is the considered conclusion of the reputable scientists studying the Monarch, such as Lincoln Brower, Chip Taylor, and Karen Oberhauser, backed by solid peer-reviewed published studies of milkweed availability in Iowa before and after the switch. So we should condemn irrational opposition to GMO’s, but also apply our rigorous scientific skepticism to claims that no ill ecological effects could ever result from introduction of new genetically-engineered crop varieties.

    1. After posting the above, I learned that there is an article in today’s New York Times specifically addressing the Monarch/Roundup situation and citing the scientists I mentioned, should anyone want to follow up.

      1. “So we should condemn irrational opposition to GMO’s, but also apply our rigorous scientific skepticism to claims that no ill ecological effects could ever result from introduction of new genetically-engineered crop varieties.”

        I couldn’t agree more. The key is to apply said rigorous skepticism and move forward on a path towards regulation and oversight. I get accused of “blindly trusting giant agri-business” on a regular basis. Which I don’t, at all. But, I think this is too often being boiled down to a false binary proposition. It’s almost as though anti-GMO activists want us to make a choice between Monsanto’s genetically engineered strategy to sell more pesticide and golden rice. Be skeptical and let science guide the decision making and no such choice need be made.
        That is, however, easier sad than done in a fundamentally numinous culture with a penchant for vilifying government regulation.

      1. A quote from that article is relevant here:
        Nearly 60 percent of native Midwestern milkweeds vanished between 1999 and 2009, the biologists Karen Oberhauser and John Pleasants reported in 2012 in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity. The loss coincided with increased applications of the weedkiller Roundup on expanded plantings of corn and soybeans genetically altered to tolerate the herbicide. Meanwhile, monarch reproduction in the Midwest dropped more than 80 percent, as did populations in Mexico.

    2. Correlation is not causation. No one seems to have been able to tie GMOs, or use of weedkillers, to diversity loss.

      In fact, I read the other week that the increased diversity seen then not using herbicides (and presumably then pesticides) are all inside ‘organic’ fields. I.e. they show more weeds (and pests). The surrounding area is not affected either way.

      As noted above, the success of GMOs (less weeds, less pests, more and higher quality produce) are here taken as an argument against them.

  20. I’m not totally convinced all GMO products are safe to eat. There is more than just a substituted gene that is different about some GMO foods. There may be a substituted gene and one or two activators as well.

    And these GMO components are not necessarily destroyed by stomach acid, as most people believe – they are found in the bloodstream. Which is where our immune system lives, btw.

    Now, while there have been human trials where people ate GMO foods and were monitored for health, I haven’t read them. I would like to see a critique of them – who funded them, how long were the studies, how many people were monitored, what sort of chemistries did they look at, did they examine all possible effects of gene activators on all blood cell types,etc.

    Let’s put it this way: GMO foods don’t have to pass the sort of FDA review that pharmaceuticals do – they get basically the same kind of analysis that food supplements get. Which is not exactly encouraging.

  21. I wish I had time to read the comments, but I am crushed by work.
    Based on what I have seen so far regarding Nye and GMO, I expect his reaction to this pressure to re-think will be to double-down.

    1. It’s very strange that Monsanto-sympathizers would prefer a debate to science. What we really need is a long-term study, whose rules are acceptable to both non-GMOers and Monsanto, to determine whether or not Round-up ready plants are harmful to living organisms (everything from bacteria in the soil to living creatures). As it stands now, Monsanto has simply refused to accept Professor Seralini’s study, although it has been republished in a peer-reviewed journal: (ie, he won the court case against Monsanto).
      In addition, 2 of Pam Ronald’s scientific papers were retracted and questions raised about a 3rd:
      How will a debate settle anything?

  22. Ten to one he won’t.

    Which would make him obviously self serving. His debate with Ham saved the anti-science “Ark project”, a non-debate here would suppress modern agriculture and especially the effort to save children (golden rice) further. :-/

  23. I have no problem in principle with GMOs but I do worry about our ability to properly test them. Our gastrointestinal systems are hugely complex and we are home to populations of bacteria whose interactions are also complex. Problems may take many years to be seen and it could be very difficult to prove causative effects. For example, As I understand it, there is research that shows certain man made sugars may encourage bio films of adherent invasive ecoli which may be cleared by many people but may contribute to inflammatory bowel disease to those with particular genes. In short. Great technology but I’m not sure we have the tools to be use it yet!

    1. Right, let’s not try new food stuff like the insects we will soon have to eat instead of other meat.

      And let’s forget that old foodstuff like cabbage and some mushrooms are many times so poisonous for the liver that if they weren’t traditional food, they would be stopped immediately.


  24. FYI: I’m not against GMOs.

    I’m not sure how many of you are into gardening, but many gardeners will tell you that there has been a massive reduction in the variety of seed available for resale over the last several decades.

    Monsanto controls about 90 percent of the U.S. nursery market, including pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Through consolidation of the seed industry, there is concern of fewer ‘reusable’ seed varieties (non-PVPs), with a trend towards greater control and reliance on just a few multinational corporations (Du Pont, Mitsui, Monsanto, Syngent, Aventis, and Dow).

    Many people confuse hybrid seed and what is known as Traitor technology. The former is seed (not including varietal) developed for specific environments; hot/humid, cool/dry, etc. and the general diseases that are common for those conditions. No special treatments are needed. The latter is a form of genetic engineering that allows you to turn various plant traits on or off. However, proprietary chemicals are needed. Do you have blight or bacterial wilt, well, we have these chemicals that you can spray to activate the traits of your crop to combat them, at a price. Have powdery mildew, or blossom end rot, same thing here, we have additional chemicals for those as well. Some plant seed patents, back in the early 2000’s, indicated an intentional weakening of the plant’s immune system (so you’d have to buy that seed company’s chemicals to ‘kick-up’ their immunity). The object here is to have even fewer varieties of seed with required reliance on proprietary chemicals.

    A moratorium, via the U.N., of Terminator technology (GURTs) occurred in 2006 for vegetable seed only. However, new strains have been introduced that use chemicals to turn on or off, the plant’s fertility. The concern is cross pollination. Poor farmers make up nearly half of the world’s agro producers. These farmers need to save seeds from previous crop production.
    “Treatments used to activate Trait(or) technology in seeds or plants could be ecologically damaging in various ways. The antibiotic tetracycline, for instance, has been suggested as one such gene-switching substance, but increasing its use in the environment could add to the growing problem of anti-microbial resistance in disease-causing bacteria.

    With commercialization of these technologies the genetic diversity of the world’s major food crops will be narrowed, thus increasing their vulnerability to disease and insects and reducing local crop adaptation to local conditions.”
    — Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (Canadian Environmental Law Association) circa 2008

  25. great post. I love it when scientists call out other scientists for making ill informed comments made based on ‘belief’. If there is a debate to be had on GMO then lets make it one about the merit of the science.

    1. Exactly. And what do the long-term scientific studies have to say about whether or not GMOs/Round-up ready plants are harmful to living organisms? Oh wait – there aren’t any (except Professor Seralini’s but we won’t count that because it disproves Monsanto dogma). Long-term studies don’t have to be done because Monsanto just knows their products are OK (even if some of Pam Ronald’s studies were retracted for blatant errors). All we need is a debate – and millions of $ spent on advertising campaigns presenting GMOs as completely innocuous and more millions spent to prevent GMO labelling because people should have no right to eat what they want to. Monsanto rules supreme like the Church in the Middle Ages. I’ve even heard that Round-up may be a cure for cancer.

      1. And here it is! I thought it was only a joke, but apparently not:
        “This study provides the first evidence that glyphosate [Roundup’s active ingredient] and AMPA can inhibit proliferation and promote apoptosis of cancer cells but not normal cells, suggesting that they have potentials to be developed into a new anticancer therapy.”
        If anyone’s looking for a research grant…

        Monsanto presents itself as being in the salvation business, taking over where Xtianity left off. And like its evil mentor, Monsanto does not want anyone to have a choice. One was Christian in the Middle Ages not because the dogma and the authoritative arguments were true, but because there was no choice. Monsanto can easily disprove this claim by supporting GMO labeling and by funding valid long-term studies.

  26. Info from Russia, Nov 13, 2014:

    Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently announced that Russia will no longer import GMO products, stating that the nation has enough space, and enough resources to produce organic food.

    “If the Americans like to eat GMO products, let them eat it then. We don’t need to do that; we have enough space and opportunities to produce organic food.” –Medvedev

    Russia has been considering joining the long list (and continually growing) of anti-GMO countries for quite some time now. It does so after a group of Russian scientists urged the government to consider at least a 10-year moratorium on GMOs to thoroughly study their influence on human health.

    “It is necessary to ban GMOs, to impose moratorium (on) it for 10 years. While GMOs will be prohibited, we can plan experiments, tests, or maybe even new methods of research could be developed. It has been proven that not only in Russia, but also in many other countries in the world, GMOs are dangerous. Methods of obtaining the GMOs are not perfect, therefore, at this stage, all GMOs are dangerous. Consumption and use of GMOs obtained in such way can lead to tumors, cancers and obesity among animals. Bio-technologies certainly should be developed, but GMOs should be stopped. We should stop it from spreading. ” – Irina Ermakova, VP of Russia’s National Association for Genetic Safety

    1. Medvedev just had to add the crack about Americans. Right now Medvedev is constantly proving that Russia can feed everyone while having the sanctions on them. He’s probably right and there are still countries trading with Russia (like NZ who is trading their tasty cheeses, among other things).

      I do like Medvedev and the Russian government does tend to listen to their scientists more than the current Canadian or American governments do.

      Let’s hope the Russians do study GMOs & it isn’t just political posturing.

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