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Environment

Bill Nye Had a Fixed View on GMOs. Then Something Happened.

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMarch 2, 2015 12:39 PM

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A decade ago, Bill Nye, aka The Science Guy, did a segment on GMOs for his TV show. His approach surprised some who saw it years later. "It was weightily anti-GMO, something I wouldn't have expected from Bill Nye," one writer has noted. You can watch it yourself and decide. Others have rendered their judgement: Greenpeace, which campaigns against genetically modified crops (when it is not ripping them up), has given the Nye GMO episode a thumbs up. Rodale, a well known organization also opposed to agricultural biotechnology, heartily endorsed the segment, as well. "Bill Nye knows the truth about GMOs," Rodale crowed. Nye has recently published a new book that contains a short chapter on GMOs. I have read the chapter and can tell you that it closely reflects what he said on his TV show in 2005, which can be summed up as: Some people are understandably scared about a new technology that could be harmful to the environment. Last October, Nye went on reddit and was confronted with this history. An admiring fan told Nye that he was "disheartened" by how GMOs were presented in that 2005 episode. The person went on to rue all the "hate, fear, and ignorance" that biotech scientists had to contend with. Nine years had passed since the GMO episode aired, the commenter said to Nye,

so I want to ask, in light of the wealth of evidence demonstrating the safety and utility of agricultural genetic engineering, could you clarify your current stance on the subject, and have you changed the views you expressed then?

Nye's response:

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.

I scratched my head and wrote a post called, "Bill Nye explains why he is a GMO skeptic." It generated some traffic. The evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne picked up where I left off:

The fear of GMOs is like creationism: an unfounded belief based not on facts, but on a form of faith: genetically unmodified food is better. Yes, GMOs vary in their efficacy and in the profits they make for Big Agro, but there’s no doubt that thousands of lives can be saved by adopting a GMO like golden rice. And, after all, breeders have been doing a form of genetic engineering for centuries, by outcrossing plants or animals to others to incorporate desired genes. Message to Bill Nye: creationism doesn’t kill kids; dissing GMOs, as you have done, can. If you really care about using science to improve human welfare on this planet, then for God’s sake look up the data on GMOs and use your influence in a positive way. Stroking your chin is not helping!

Then University of Florida biologist Kevin Folta stepped up to the plate. He posted an open letter at my blog, which contained this offer:

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 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.

Coyne weighed in again, predicting:

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.

Coyne would have won that bet, because Nye never did respond to Folta. But The Science Guy soon showed up at a public debate on GMOs and even got to ask a vague question that seemed to reflect his main concern about ecosystem threats. David Ropeik, a science communicator and risk expert, shared an interesting exchange he had with Nye after that debate. Here's an excerpt:

On the merits of the GM food issue, Nye said his concern is about possible long term environmental effects caused by cross-species hybrids. As we spoke [Monsanto executive vice president and chief technology officer] Robb Fraley came by and the three of us discussed this aspect for several minutes. Nye and I asked Fraley how long the testing is before a GM hybrid created in the lab hits the fields. Fraley said it's about 7 years of corporate then government testing between creation of such a hybrid to field application. Nye was quite pleasant toward Fraley and left with "Well, then I'm open-minded."

I was dubious. People aren't so flexible with strongly held views. Their minds tend to be made up. And Nye, being conversant with science, had had ample opportunity to educate himself about GMOs. Yet in his latest book published in 2014, he has a chapter on GMOs in which he betrays a squeamishness that isn't very science-like. For example, on page 235, he writes:

But there is something weird and unnatural about putting fish genes in fruit, in tomatoes.

Yes, and there is something weird and unnatural about splicing pig or cow valves into human hearts. Should we be freaked out by that, too? Or hey, speaking of weird and unnatural, what about injecting foreign substances into a child's body? (Folks, I'm being sarcastic here.) I know The Science Guy doesn't have any reservations about childhood vaccines. But there's something about GMOs that stops him short. "If you're asking me, we should stop introducing genes from one species into another," Nye writes in his book. At this point, you would expect Nye to stand his ground. After all, his stance hadn't changed at all in the last ten years, so he seems pretty well dug in. Yet the ground beneath his feet appears to have have shifted of late.

Has @BillNye changed his stance on #GMOs? It seems so. Read Science! guest @coreyspowell explains (video cued). http://t.co/bXrF8V3CEi — Joanne Manaster (@sciencegoddess) February 18, 2015

Hmm, that's interesting. But it would be nice to hear this directly from him.

Whoa-- @thescienceguy sings a really different tune on #GMO now. Second bit of evidence. Revising chapter. http://t.co/uxWxxh85KA — mem_somerville (@mem_somerville) February 27, 2015

Wow, did Nye end up talking with Kevin Folta, after all, or some other independent university researcher who doesn't work for Monsanto or another biotech giant? Um, no. So what happened? Here's what he said to the interviewer:

I went to Monsanto and I spent a lot of time with the scientists there, and I have revised my outlook. And I'm very excited about telling the world. When you're in love, you want to tell the world.

He went into the belly of the beast!

Thanks @BillNye for visit & advancing #science understanding. Look forward to more discussion! http://t.co/bEJihL54Hapic.twitter.com/ke6ZTuku3W — Robb Fraley (@RobbFraley) February 27, 2015

It's not yet clear what happened at Monsanto. Did one of the scientists pictured above cast a spell on Nye? Has Monsanto created a new GMO love potion that was slipped into Nye's milkshake when he was having lunch at the company cafeteria? Whatever did the trick, here's hoping The Science Guy reveals all on cable TV to the one person Monsanto will probably never win over. Seriously, do we really have to wait for the next edition of Nye's book to find out what changed his mind about GMOs? Bill, many are excited to hear of your new outlook. They want to know more. Tell the world and set the record straight. UPDATE: Over the weekend, I sent an email to Robb Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer, asking him to provide some details about Nye's recent visit to the company. Nye has gushed about it publicly but he has been vague about what he learned from Monsanto scientists. Here is Fraley's response via email:

We had a great day with Bill Nye—he was eager to learn about biotech, had a lot of questions…and in the end realized how important the advances in breeding & biotech are to both world food security and for reducing agriculture's impact on the environment.

Perhaps Nye will soon expand on this.

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