Happy Saturday, #sciencebabeshills! We find ourselves at the time for the Weekly Woo, and this week, we’re taking on GMOs. As my facebook followers have seen, I’m pro-GMO, and as we found out after the votes on propositions 92 and 105 in Oregon and Colorado respectively, a majority of the people agree that they’re not so scary.
So what’s the big deal with GMOs? Is it a new, unknown science? Is it just OMG backwards? Why is there so much suspicion on the science?
And why does a man who I watched on my television set every Saturday morning, a man who made science cool with his bow tie, lab coat, and ability to speak clearly to the non-scientist about science, have any skepticism towards GMOs?
Bill Nye, Science Babe to Science Guy, can we talk?
I enjoyed your chat with Ken Ham on evolution versus creationism. The moderator posed the question, “what, if anything, would ever change your mind?” The concise version of Ken Ham’s answer was ‘nothing.’ Your answer was “evidence.” It was a brilliant answer and clearly demonstrated the difference between scientific reasoning and any kind of unscientifically founded belief. There’s a reason I hold you in such high regard.
In turn, please allow me to, respectfully, offer you the evidence that GMOs have been studied to be a safe, viable, and an important part of our food supply both for the consumer and the environment.
First, what is a GMO? It’s, literally a genetically modified organism. A common defense we hear is that we’ve been genetically modifying organisms for thousands of years via selective breeding. However, not to misrepresent the point, in this instance, we’re referring to genetic modification that’s taken place in a laboratory to target a specific set of genes to give a plant a desirable trait. The end goal is to produce higher yields of crops generally by resisting disease or by resisting a pesticide that’s designed to keep weeds and pests from destroying the crops.
These efforts have included modifying wheat to resist a virulent fungus called rust, the modification of the failing Hawaiian papaya to resist the papaya ringspot virus, and the genetic modification of corn to produce its own pesticide that’s normally applied in organic farming.
(See how I slipped Bt corn in there?).
They don’t sound so scary when you break them down like that instead of screaming PESTICIDES! GMOS! MONSATAN!
So what are the concerns that people have?
One of the questions that frequently comes up about GMOs is about testing. “They put it onto the market without any testing!” Well I work at an agro company as a chemist, I promise you, I occasionally step foot in the lab to test something. I’m not looking at porn on the Nu Bay homepage all day. Maybe just an hour. Two, max.
I think this concern stems from a lack of knowledge about the industry and the testing standards to which we are held. I work at a company that does R&D on pesticides, not GMOs, and most of my work is regulated by the EPA. The regulations are stringent, and they’re just as stringent with the FDA. I want them to be stringent.
Why would the evil scientist want to make her job, and the standards of her burden of proof, difficult?
I eat the food.
As do my colleagues. As do the people at Monsanto. And their children. The standards enforced by the EPA and the FDA protect me when the products get into the food supply. So what exactly are the standards for GMOs?
Here they are. A quick summary:
“The method by which food is produced or developed may in some cases help to understand the safety or nutritional characteristics of the finished food. However, the key factors in reviewing safety concerns should be the characteristics of the food product, rather than the fact that the new methods are used. (…) In most cases, the substances expected to become components of food as a result of genetic modification of a plant will be the same as or substantially similar to substances commonly found in food, such as proteins, fats and oils, and carbohydrates.(…) FDA believes that a scientific basis should exist to establish that new plant varieties do not exhibit unacceptable effects with respect to toxicants, nutritional value, or allergens.”
It’s a long document, feel free to peruse it all. The take-away? The food has to be, to the consumer, nutritionally indistinguishable and proven safe.
Since they have to be proven safe to get onto the market, let’s look at some of the Science Guy’s concerns. In this article reviewing his book, he’s quoted as saying:
They may be good in the short run for upping our food production, and they may make certain foods available to people who would otherwise never enjoy or benefit from those foods, but we don’t know—we cannot know—the big picture.
But we do know the big picture, Carl Sagan Billion with a B big picture. Norman Borlaug is the man whose work with genetic modification launched the green revolution, and to date his research in increasing crop yield has been credited with saving the lives of a billion people from starvation. Golden Rice alone will be saving millions from vitamin A deficiency.
This isn’t about getting cherry pop tarts to college students (a noble cause when you’re down to your last $3.72 and you have an organic chemistry exam the next day, true story). This is about billions of people who would face real starvation issues without the tools of genetic modification available to the masses. Sounds big picture to me.
“But, we just cannot be certain what effect a GMO will have on the ecosystem. We just can’t know what will happen to populations of butterflies(….)”
Saying “we cannot know for certain” is not good science, it’s not reason not to do something that you can clearly test for. The most powerful words in science are “I don’t know, let’s find out.” We’ve been using GMOs for a while now. The butterfly was a bad example because on my site the rule is if you claim it? You’d better have a citation. And I have a citation that says we do know what happens to the population of butterflies.
There’s another important aspect of the GMO issue for me. When we clear away millions of hectares or acres of land and inundate them with pesticides, the environment is harmed—but the damage is potentially reversible. If we stop using these chemicals, the ecosystem will probably recover.
If the concern is that we’re damaging the planet using more pesticides, talk to a farmer. Since I’ve started my site I’ve been surprised at the number of farmers and people in the agricultural field who have started following me. Their support of GMO use is widespread in the industry. They’ll tell you that genetic modification gives them another tool to combat pests and they generally end up using less pesticides overall. And since GMOs have been used for a while now, this twenty year study supports that GMOs use less pesticides and are beneficial for biodiversity and the environment. And if one study isn’t enough, we have a meta analysis of about a thousand studies now showing that they’re environmentally friendly.
In the reddit conversation with Bill, he had this to say, re-affirming his position:
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.
First, fat people in the western world do not negate starving people elsewhere. Making poor food choices with one’s money is not a reason to argue against GMOs. You are right though that we need to manage our food system better, and GMOs and new technology are a part of that. In the developing world, 25% of crops are lost to pests. They have soil and sunlight. They lack the seeds that are resistant to the rust fungus. The lack the seeds that can be sprayed with a small amount of pesticide that kills bugs effectively while leaving the target plant unaffected.
They lack the technology that we’ve somehow started arguing against from our iPhones.
So Bill, from the Science Babe to the Science Guy, I’ve shared with you evidence that GMOs are safe for people, introduce less pesticides to the environment than their non-GMO counterparts, and have saved over a billion lives. You said evidence for the other side of an issue could change your mind. You’re a reputable voice in communicating science, and people trust you. That comes with a responsibility to spread knowledge, not fear or misinformation. I’m a relatively new voice here, but people trust my site because I go where the evidence and the science points me. I hope in light of new evidence, as you said you would, you can do the same.
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” -Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson.