On a recent episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Bill Nye—wearing his iconic bow tie and a pair of safety goggles—took a blowtorch to a plastic globe. This demonstration about global climate change launched him back into the mainstream arena, though he came bearing a much different message than the Bill Nye of popular 90s television. “You’re not children anymore,” he says in exasperation. “I didn’t mind explaining photosynthesis to you when you were twelve. But you’re adults now, and this is an actual crisis. Got it?”
Bill Nye: Making Science Cool
For nearly a decade, Bill Nye the Science Guy popularized scientific experimentation, academic rigor, and understanding the natural world. How? By making it fun. Whether he was explaining ocean currents or demonstrating chemical reactions, he made science something that a generation of kids wanted to engage with. And Nye has the credentials to back up his role as a bona fide expert. As a science educator and mechanical engineer with a Cornell degree, he worked for Boeing before becoming a public speaker, comedian, and educator.
What makes Nye such a popular public figure—other than his over-the-top 90s theme song—is his approachability. Instead of seeming like a celebrity, he felt like the super-smart friend who made you feel as if you just might have a grasp on how the universe works. Because of his stance on scientific exploration, technological advancements, and the use of science to further ourselves as a society, it came as a surprise to many when Nye declared himself anti-GMO in 2005.
Cue the outpouring of differing opinions. Some claimed his stance reinforced the fear and lack of understanding that already swarm around GMOs. Others applauded him for not giving into corporate pressures. And many more missed the information altogether. What we didn’t miss was the 2014 moment he alluded to reversing that stance while backstage on Real Time with Bill Maher. “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,” Nye says. He exclaims, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world!”
So what changed? Did Monsanto slip Bill Nye some sort of mind-altering chemical? Or, like a good scientist, did he let facts, data, and evidence sway his position?
Can GMOs play nice within ecosystems?
This change is significant because of Nye’s original position, which was mainly concerned with ecological impacts. To clarify, Bill Nye never expressed concerns about the safety of GMOs for human consumption. Instead, he worried about how GMOs could hurt ecosystems and biodiversity. For example, he wanted more information about how genetically modified organisms would impact non-modified plants and animals.
At the time, GM crops were relatively new. And there wasn’t much information about long term effects or the impact of releasing genetically-altered plants into the world. The concern is simple and altogether reasonable. It hinges on the idea that science is, in effect, designing unstoppable invasive species.
You don’t have to look any further than the Burmese python population in Florida or the swarms of lionfish taking over Atlantic coral reefs to see the problem with any plant or animal that doesn’t have competition. If you have “super corn”— corn that requires fewer resources, can grow under harsher conditions, and is resistant to pests and weeds—will it wipe out other corn varieties?
Plus the impact on other species
Another concern—one Nye often voiced—was the impact of GM plants on other species. For example, one of the challenges modern farmers face is controlling weeds and pest populations. One of the biggest culprits in corn and soybean crops? Milkweed. This common weed grows alongside crops, supports pest populations, and decreases field yields. To stop its creep, GM scientists developed herbicide-resistant plants that would allow farmers to treat fields with glyphosate. The milkweed dies, the crops continue to thrive, and everybody wins, right?
Not quite. Monarch butterflies feed exclusively on milkweed, and it’s where their larvae grow. Nye voiced concerns that glyphosate-resistant crops would cause Monarch populations to plummet. For Nye and other ecological scientists, this was just one example of how GM innovation could go wrong if improperly vetted.
So what changed the Science Guy’s mind?
Critics were quick to denounce Bill Nye as a corporate pawn when he came out in favor of GMOs. A few even jokingly speculated that he’d fallen victim to some corporate chemical mind control. But why? Nye himself points out that the ability to change your mind based on reasoning and evidence is one of the critical components of science and scientific discourse. “And I did some more research, you know, the way we do in science,” he jokes. That research included touring the facilities at Monsanto, talking to their leading biotechs, and reviewing available published studies. In a recent episode of Bill Nye Saves the World* titled “More Food, Less Hype,” he says, “I believe the advantages of genetically-modified crops outweigh the downsides.” He goes on to say, “There’s no solid evidence that these foods are unsafe. Don’t take my word for it. Here in the US, the National Research Council issued this 400 page report. The science shows that GM crops aren’t riskier to eat than other farmed foods.”
The report is a compilation of data from research facilities, universities, and independent scientists from around the world. With materials spanning the last two decades, it’s incredibly comprehensive. It looks at environmental impacts, GMO impact on biodiversity, as well as the economic impacts, and how GMOs affect human health. And based on that data, 90% of scientists agree that GMO food is no less safe than organic or conventional foods.
But we’re still afraid of what we don’t understand
Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the time to sit down and read a 400-page report. Or the scientific background to truly understand it, even if we could find the time. As a result, fears and myths about GMOs continue to circulate. To address these, Nye has a correspondent interview people at a farmer’s market to find out how people feel about GMOs. It turns out, people’s most common fear is the unknown. “I actually don’t know a whole lot about it, so I can’t tell you why it scares me. It just does,” one man responds when asked why he distrusts GMOs.
“It’s not that they’re a bad thing. It’s that we don’t know that they’re a bad thing yet. And that is a bad thing,” another young man explains. One frequent concern is that plants with built-in pest resistance are unsafe safe for human consumption. As one interviewee insists, “Bugs bite it, and they die because their stomachs explode…I might have a corn bomb in my stomach.”
“You know, they could turn us all into mutant zombies,” another man says, only half-joking.
During the show segment, Nye takes some time to debrief his correspondent, Derek Muller, about people’s concerns. Derek’s summary: “You know, science, we’re messing with things, and there’s a sense when you’re messing with things that you might screw it up.” While Nye acknowledges that the fear is real, he feels that GMOs are much more benign than most people think. He says, “I think people are creeped out by the thought of genetically modified organisms because they seem unnatural. There’s this image of mad scientists mixing tarantula genes into eggplants… but GMOs are way more boring than that.”
What experts have to say
During the episode, Nye turns to a panel of experts for further discussion. This panel includes the Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto, Dr. Robb Fraley, Julie Kenney, a fifth-generation farmer from Iowa, and Dr. Fred Gould, a professor of agriculture who is an expert on the 2016 GMO report referenced earlier. The consensus? GMO seeds are better for crop yields, safe for human consumption, and allow farmers to utilize resources better.
We also learn that all genetically-engineered crops go through a rigorous screening program before they’re released. According to Forbes, GMOs take an average of 13 years before they get brought to market. That’s over a decade spent studying their impact on the environment and beneficial insects, the effect they’ll have on other plants within their species, and their safety for human and animal consumption.
Heartless corporation or PR crisis
At one point, Nye bluntly turns to Monsanto’s CTO and asks, “Why do people hate Monsanto so much?” Fraley’s answer is surprisingly candid, despite the circumstances and controversies that surround the company.
“To be fair,” he says, “We did a lousy job of communicating to consumers… we did what companies did back then: we got the regulatory approval and we sold our products to farmers. But we didn’t spend the time we should have talking to consumers.”
And people are increasingly skeptical of big corporations. According to a 2014 article by The Atlantic, “40 percent of millennials see corporations as a source of fear. They don’t even think their good deeds are genuine—49 percent of millennials believe that corporations are only undertaking philanthropic efforts for tax benefits.”
With this in mind, is it any surprise that people are even more skeptical of a corporation that deals in an essential resource, like food? “People still associate genetically modified food… with big corporations and black tar heroin,” Nye cracks. “But that aside, I changed my mind about them.”
No, GMOs probably won’t save the world—at least not single-handedly
When GM crop engineering first hit the scene, media outlets claimed it would end world hunger. We could create more food—and more nutritious food—for a growing global population. That hasn’t proved correct just yet. And there are, of course, individual cases where GMOs result in environmental issues. But overall, the potential is enormous. Especially as more advanced gene-editing tools like CRISPR become available. The most important thing is to let facts and logic guide our decision-making instead of fear and misinformation.
Or, as the Science Guy emphasizes, “GM crops are a tool, not the only tool. As we expand our cities, deplete our water supplies, and cause our planet to warm, we’re losing farmable land. And that means we need every tool we can get our hands on.”
*The full episode of “More Food, Less Hype” is available on Netflix.