Most people who own a television set are familiar with Bill “The Science Guy” Nye. With his perpetual grin and signature bow tie, William Sanford Nye is an American original: a scientist and mechanical engineer who’s carved out a pretty high-profile career as an actor, TV host on a PBS children’s program and a regular talk show guest himself who’s debated evolution and climate deniers in print, online and on the air.
However, according to an “exposé” in Mother Jones, back in 2005 Nye broadcast what the magazine called “a pretty nuanced episode” about GMOs on his TV show, saying, “Let’s farm responsibly; let’s require labels on our foods, and let’s carefully test these foods case by case.”
Nothing untoward or shocking about any of that.
However, in his 2014 book “Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation,” he noted the unintended consequences of growing GMO crops over substantial acreage in the Midwest, citing the decline of monarch butterfly populations, which rely for nourishment on milkweeds.
Note the last syllable there: weeds. No farmer allows “abundant milkweeds” to grow on farmland intended for cash crops. Yes, there may be a butterfly problem, in that fallow fields and non-cultivated acreage are at a premium in the Midwest, and that certainly affects butterflies’ survival. But that’s an issue of habitat and wildlife management, not genetic engineering.
And in that same book, Nye wrote that he approved of certain GE varieties, such as corn bioengineered to repel insects, but cautioned that, “If you’re asking me, we should stop introducing genes from one species into another [because] we just can’t know what will happen to other species in that modified species’ ecosystem.”
Again, a problem of scale, not science.
Goofy for a reason
Ah, but that’s not the story here. The bombshell, according to Mother Jones, is that Nye underwent a “Road to Damascus” conversion on GMOs, his doubts about biotech having “fallen away like milkweeds under a fine mist of herbicide.”
In a February interview filmed on the set of comedian Bill Maher’s HBO show “Real Time,” Nye said he was revising the GMO section in his book, explaining that he “went to Monsanto and spent a lot of time with the scientists there.”
As a result, according to a video clip, he said, “I have revised my outlook, and am very excited about telling the world. When you’re in love, you want to tell the world!”
A goofy way to phrase his appreciation of biotech, no doubt, but that’s Nye’s shtick: He’s acts like a loveable goofball, mainly to keep audiences interested when he’s expounding away on some highly technical, often controversial topic.
Like genetic engineering.
Even the folks who purport to be strongly opposed to GMOs, and want every morsel of food containing even a trace of an ingredient from genetically engineered crops to be labeled with a skull and crossbones, are often clueless as to the actual science itself. Try it sometime: Ask a GMO hater to explain the difference between recombinant DNA technology and genetic recombination. You’ll get a blank stare, followed by, “Why does that matter, anyway?”
Understandably, people are fearful of highly technical processes that require scientific training to appreciate. Most of us just aren’t equipped to absorb the science underlying biotechnology, but we get the concept.
More to the point, and this is why Nye is enthusiastic about genetic engineering, the development of GMO crops, although so far slanted uncomfortably in favor of efficiencies for growers, rather than benefits to consumers, is about as precise, elegant and cutting-edge as science gets in the 21st century.
The public has no qualms about the development of new (and more efficient) crop varieties using “traditional” cross-breeding, even though one of the commonly used methods involves bombarding a plant’s genetic material with radiation to see if some of the mutations that result might actually prove useful commercially.
Nye gets it right when he wrote, “Let’s require labels on our foods.”
Bioengineering of corn, soy and other crops used to produce our modern food supply isn’t dangerous nor deadly to human health, as critics contend. That’s why labeling shouldn’t be something to resist.
I’m not saying food processors should proclaim that they’re “in love with GMOs.” But isn’t it time they start “telling the world” that the foods we’ve been eating for decades now are, in fact, perfectly safe?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.