Dispelling GMO Myths With Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, And More

Every day, we see ads of products boasting the term "Non-GMO." The problem is that most people do not fully get what GMO means. Are they really bad for us? Why are they being vilified? Understanding the nomenclature of this modern agricultural tool is essential to making sure the public is informed when it comes to these important food modifications brought about by bioengineering and they are responding based on fact, not emotion.

What Are GMOs?

It is difficult to find a general definition of GMO that won't be taken as politicized, but Dictionary.com states: "The abbreviation for genetically modified organism. A GMO is an organism whose genome has been altered by the techniques of genetic engineering so that its DNA contains one or more genes not normally found there. Note: A high percentage of food crops, such as corn and soybeans, are genetically modified."

Genetic engineering is meant to create better, more resilient and lower maintenance crops. The genes of one species are extracted and artificially put into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from various sources including, but not limited to, other plants, bacteria, viruses, insects, animals, or even humans.

Rosanne Rust, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author from Northwest, Pennsylvania, had this to say about the definition of GMOs.

"GMOs come from modifying the genes of a plant or animal by inserting one targeted gene that possesses a desired trait into the other organism." She added, "This highly specific process can help an organism stay healthy by preventing disease or malformation, or it may enhance the organism's positive traits."

GMO Answers
GMO Soybeans from GMO Answers

For years, environmentalists and activists have been coming out with information that says how harmful GMOs are. However, recently, scientists, dietitians, farmers and other members of the public have been working to debunk many of the myths associated with GMOs.

Some say that the debate still lingers on, but for many, the debate is over when people are dealing with the facts and not belief systems. Much of the scientific community seems to agree that GMOs in and of themselves are not harmful and may even be beneficial to the economy and the environment, as well as having long term effects that will help the world.

That is not to report that some of the big business companies most linked to GMO creation, such as Monsanto and Whole Foods, are beyond reproach, but the science that is going on with the biochemistry associated with GMOs has not been proven to be harmful. Yet some are still skeptical about the pesticides that must be used for GMO crops and how they do, or will, affect people, animals, and the environment.

What Are Some Of The Concerns?

Bob Quinn, Ph.D., organic farmer and founder of Kamut International is concerned about glyphosate.

"The increased planting of Roundup Ready Crops, is contributing to the increased use of glyphosate. Until now we are finding that herbicide contaminating soils where it has never been sprayed, in many of our rivers and even in our rain fall," he explained. "The makers of Roundup say that glyphosate is benign and immediately breaks down when exposed to sunlight or combines with soil. It is turning out none of that is true and there are serious questions being asked about the potential carcinogenic effect of glyphosate which is now beginning to be found in a lot of our food in low levels. So, increase use of chemicals is contaminating both our environment and our food."

Quinn went on to discuss a few of the controversies surrounding GMOs.

1. The ownership of seeds by the GMO patent holding company is extending their control over the farmer in completely new ways. They prohibit the saving of seeds so the farmer must buy them at very high prices every year. In the case of 'round-up ready' crops (those which are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate), they also require the use of chemicals produced by the patent owner.

2. Diversity of crops and seeds is reduced and puts our food system more at risk to disease, herbicide resistant weeds and insecticide resistant insects and climate change — the more diverse our food system is, the more stability it has, which lowers risk of our food system.

3. Herbicide resistant weeds and insecticide resistant insects require even more chemicals to control which contaminates the environment more.

4. There have not been any studies published in peer reviewed scientific journals that indicate that eating GMOs is safe.

What Do Neil deGrasse Tyson And Bill Nye Have To Say About GMOs?

Two of the most trusted public scientists in the country, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, have received the ire of some dissenters as they have both come out to speak out in favor of GMOs.

When Tyson was asked whether he is pro-GMO, he responded, "I'm not pro-GMO. I'm pro-science," as reported in Reason.com

Tyson even narrated the film Food Evolution, a documentary by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, that came out in June and was dubbed "Scientists Strike Back" by the New York Times. Other publications, including the U.C. Berkeley blog, have gone on to report that this film sheds new light on this issue.

"Dennis Gonsalves, a scientist who used biotechnology to develop a virus-resistant papaya that would soon save the Hawaiian papaya industry."

Tyson has repeatedly defended his findings by just sticking with the science and not the beliefs that people want to be true.

"When results are repeated and found to be true — that is objective, scientific truth. That is the kind of truth people should base legislation on. If you start basing laws that are not anchored in objective truths, it is the beginning of the end of an informed democracy," Tyson said in Food Evolution.

Some groups have called Food Evolution a propaganda film, but others believe that the time has come to show another side to this hot topic.

"While Food Evolution has received mixed reviews thus far, the fact that environmental activist and fear-mongering-type food films vastly outnumber this type of film should not go unnoticed in the press. [Think of these films of past years: King Corn, Food Inc., Fed Up, GMO OMG]. So, I'd say those calling Food Evolution a 'propoganda film' are the pots calling the kettle black," said Rust.

Bill Nye took longer to get onboard with GMOs. For years, he was skeptical about the possible negative ramifications concerning GMOs, but he changed his mind after he was presented with more facts. Real Clear Science recently detailed what led Nye to change his position.

In his book, Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World, Nye gave specifics about the benefits associated with GMOs.

"Researchers are working to breed or transgenically modify plants so that they are resistant to disease, armored against pest insects, tolerant of low rainfall conditions, can be raised without harrowing and tilling soil, can grow in the presence of herbicides, and can, in some cases, grow in water so salty that few other plants can grow there at all."

Nye even went on to defend some of the work of big business companies after speaking with scientists at Monsanto.

"What these large agricultural companies are actually doing is seeking ways to do more with less, on every farm in the world," he added. "Modern novel crop varieties could offer a faster way to make drought-resistant or salt-tolerant plants, to get to bigger and more efficient yields; to have a whole portfolio of new varieties ready to go as the climate changes in large agricultural production areas."

He actually expressed more fear of the crowds than of the companies responsible for handling most of the bioengineering.

"Recently, I mingled in the crowd at a political rally in New York City. The theme was anti-GMO," Nye wrote. "I can tell you that it's not the big corporations that scare me. It's these people at the rally."

In order to learn more about GMOs, people who are interested should research the data presented by multiple organizations and figure out what is true, rather than what sounds like it is true.

"Look for peer reviewed journal articles on the subject -- read them for yourself -- try to separate opinions from statements supported by scientific research published in peer reviewed journals," said Quinn.

Katie Pratt, a fourth generation family farmer, and GMOAnswers volunteer expert, gave an extensive interview to discuss the ins and outs of GMOs.

How do you define a GMO? The acronym stands for "genetically modified organism" but really we need to be talking about the process of biotechnology, which is another form of breeding plants to be stronger and more productive among other things.

What is the controversy surrounding GMOs? I think GMOs became such a hot topic because it was something not a lot of people had heard of or knew much about. Twenty years ago, the first biotech crop (that's how we farmers referred to GMOs) was available to farmers who make up less than two percent of the population. These crops directly benefited the farmer by allowing him/her to do more with less. And in agriculture circles biotech crops were discussed a lot! Along the way, someone else took notice and now GMOs and biotechnology are at the forefront of our food/farming conversations with farmers and non-farmers, alike. I just think the controversy lies in the fear of the unknown. Often times, once we do a little research, our minds are put it ease.

Where should people go to get the most unbiased information on GMOs? There are many great websites and organizations offering up information about GMOs. GMOAnswers, US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and specific commodity organizations as well. Unfortunately, it seems if those sources are associated with "industry" then they are not credible. So, if that is the case, seek out a farmer. There are many of us online these days and we have absolutely no reason not to share the whys and hows of our farms, including our choice of genetically modified seed or not.

Some say GMOs are good for the environment, while others say no. What is your take? On our farm, we have seen real benefits to incorporating genetically modified seed into our crop rotations. We can do more with less. We have been able to cut our pesticide use in half with GMOs. We have more minimum till and no till ground, we are using cover crops on portions of our fields. We are spending less time in the fields with our tractors and other farm equipment, which means soil is staying put and building a stronger more fertile foundation for our crops.

What are your thoughts on the film Food Evolution? I'm excited. I'm excited for this, to hopefully, reach the masses, reach our classrooms and reach our population who is concerned about how we are to feed a growing population AND conserve, preserve and protect our environment. I'm excited that this film gives voice to scientists who I have a tremendous amount of respect for being able to take complex issues and explain them so we can all understand.

It seems like farmers have been rather quiet on the issue. Why? Gosh, I feel like GMOs are all I talk about and have been talking about for five years now. Because people tend to seek information from like-minded people, I think when they look for information on GMOs they might be starting from a place of bias already and therefore look for information to support that bias from groups and organization with similar opinions. That, and we farmers, don't have a public relations budget for fancy ad slicks, labels and scary documentaries. We're farming to support our families and often a family legacy. That comes first. It is not only our livelihood but our business.

Have you heard about farmers being forced into buying GMO seeds? I have heard this scary rumor, but have never heard a firsthand account of this happening to a farmer. I just can't imagine it. We have so, so many seed choices, both genetically modified and not. And every farmer has seed salespersons calling on them every winter and seed catalogs (picture the garden seed catalogs that start arriving in January) cluttering the mailbox. We have so many choices. Farmers make decisions based on their soil types, market access, infrastructure, etc. They make decisions that are best for their business (i.e. farm) and their family.

Do you think GMOs are good, bad or neutral? Why? GMOs are another tool in our farm tool box. That's it. The more options we have when it comes to raising a crop, the better we'll be at raising quality, high-yielding crops, caring for our natural resources and positively contributing to our local economies. Just like tractor technology, soil, water, fertilizer, conservation practices, etc. our seed choice gives us more choice in our fields and our farms. All of these things work in tandem to make us better more efficient farmers.

What would you like to add about GMOs? As a mom, farmer and the primary food decision-maker/buyer for our family, I want to share this message with everyone. Do not fear your food. Please don't. It isn't worth the guilt trip we put ourselves on every time we navigate a grocery store. Instead, be aware, be informed, be comfortable and confident in the choices you make for your family. You might hear, "know your farmer, know your food" and think, "I don't know a farmer." Not a problem, we are present, all sorts online. Seek us out, the ones who raise organic, the ones who raise cattle on grass or on feedlots, the ones who raise corn, vegetables, fruits and nuts. We are here and are seeking a modicum of sanity in today's food conversation.

See additional interview with Katie Pratt below:

[Featured Image by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]