While much of the controversy surrounding Bill Nye’s new show Bill Nye Saves The World revolves around Nye’s promotion of unorthodox views concerning sex and gender, an often-missed aspect of Nye’s ideological transformation is his new embrace of genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs. In the fourth episode of his Netflix show, the so-called “science guy” backtracks his previous statements on the myriad dangers of transgenic organisms, suddenly claiming that there is nothing real to worry about. But how did Bill Nye go from being a GMO critic to inviting a Monsanto executive on his show to proselytize the virtues of biotechnology?
What Are Genetically Modified Organisms?
According to the Chicago Tribune, a genetically modified organism is a living thing whose genes have been mutated, deleted, or inserted with the genes of another species. Organisms that contain the genes of another species are called transgenic. Genetically modified organisms are used in a variety of applications, from food production to pharmaceuticals to scientific research.
According to One Green Planet, genetically modified plants are often engineered to be disease resistant, insect resistant, or herbicide tolerant. The Chicago Tribune reports that genetic engineering is widely used in staple foods such as corn, soy, and sugar beets, with 85 percent of American corn genetically modified, according to the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy.
Bill Nye’s Past Stance On Biotechnology
On a 2005 episode of the short-lived series Eyes of Nye, Bill Nye takes a rather balanced look at the science and concerns behind genetically modified organisms. In the clip, Bill explains that while humans have selectively bred crops for centuries, biotechnology is a totally new take on farming. In the past, it was only possible to produce hybrids of similar organisms. With biotechnology, it is now possible to insert fish DNA into a tomato!
Although these methods provide the promise of disease resistance and greater crop yield, the effects on the ecosystem are still unknown. As Nye points out in the video, it is possible for GMOs to have unintended consequences through the spread of pollen. If pollen from a GMO crop that is engineered to kill weeds or pests blows onto plants that are visited by butterflies or bees, these insects may die as a result. As Nye points out, the deaths of large numbers of butterflies may starve bats (their predators), reducing the bat population. With less bats, mosquitoes (their prey) may proliferate, causing an increase in the spread of disease to humans.
The Problem With GMOs
Bill Nye’s ecological illustration is just one example of the unintended consequences of producing genetically modified organisms. Sierra Club also lists cross-pollination, the unknown effects on human health, and lack of ability to remove GMOs once they have entered the environment as areas of top concern.
According to the Institute For Responsible Technology, rats and mice who were fed GMO potatoes, tomatoes, soy, and corn suffered from inhibited organ development, stomach bleeding, intestinal damage, and liver problems. These harmful effects are not limited to animals. In 2003, about 100 people living near a GMO cornfield in the Philippines that produced Bt-toxin developed intestinal, respiratory, and skin reactions while the corn was shedding pollen. Further support that the GMO pollen was the cause of these reactions can be found in the fact that 39 people showed an antibody response to Bt-toxin on a blood test and the fact that the symptoms reemerged in at least four other villages that planted the same variety of corn in 2004.
Another concern is the indirect impact of GMOs on the environment. Many GMOs are created to be resistant to pesticides such as Monsanto’s Roundup, which leads to increased use of these toxic chemicals on our food. Transgenic organisms are also fed to livestock on factory farms, allowing this ecologically damaging system to grow larger than ever before. Cornell University student Robert Schooler explains this point in a letter submitted to We Are Change:
“Currently, the vast majority of U.S. commodity crops (corn, soy, alfalfa, sugar beet) are genetically engineered to either withstand Roundup herbicide or produce Bt toxin pesticide. These “technologies” are ecologically damaging and unsafe. The majority of these crops go to feed animals in factory farms. The remainder generally gets converted into corn syrup, white sugar, vegetable oil, or biofuels — you know, good stuff! This combined approach of growing GMO commodity monoculture crops, and feeding them to factory-farmed livestock, is one of the most ecologically destructive forces our planet has ever seen. It’s also a leading contributor to climate change. In fact, some experts believe it to be the leading cause.”
According to One Green Planet, the reliance on GMO monoculture poses a risk to biodiversity and soil health, since the chemicals produced by some GMO plants kill the bacteria in the soil, increasing the reliance upon chemical fertilizers.
If Bill Nye cares so much about the environment, why would he support a technology that unequivocally harms it?
Once GMOs are released into the environment, it may be impossible to get rid of them. Many supporters of GMOs are okay with the unknown effects on human health and ecology, preferring to observe the effects and then respond to them later. The problem with this approach is that if GMOs turn out to be as toxic and environmentally devastating as feared, it may not be possible to return the environment to its previous state. According to One Green Planet, GMOs may become persistent in the environment due to their resistance to pests and some modern agricultural techniques.
How much you wanna bet Monsanto paid Bill Nye to say good things about GMOs so more people would believe it— Perpetual obscurity (@Meta_Ethic) May 3, 2017
The effect of genetically modified organisms on bees is perhaps most concerning. According to the Canadian Global Research Center, when plants are genetically modified, they produce modified pollen, which is then consumed by the bees. It is suspected that this pollen is indigestible and produces starvation and colon disease in bees, contributing to colony collapse disorder, a problem with multiple factors which has been on the rise since the use of GMOs became widespread. This is a grave concern, since bees pollinate a huge number of human food crops including strawberries, apples, peaches, and almonds.
I hate to say it but Bill Nye lost all credibility after his one-sided GMO argument. Literally stopped watching after that episode ????— Tori Kravitz (@torikravitz) April 24, 2017
Bill Nye’s New Embrace Of Monsanto And Biotechnology
Bill Nye’s about-face on GMOs occurred a few years prior to the launch of Bill Nye Saves The World, with the announcement made in 2015, according to Business Insider. Apparently Nye changed his tune after visiting the Monsanto factory and seeing how precise the science had become. Nye explained,
“This is what changed my mind, is being able to do [sequence genes] 10 million times faster than they used to be able to do it…and being able to eliminate the ones not suitable for farming and susceptible to diseases and so on. We’re farmers, and we want them to come out the way we want them.”
Although the development of the technology addresses early concerns about imprecise gene insertion, this does not address other concerns, such as impact on ecological food webs and human health effects. Many fans do not buy the change of heart, suspecting that Nye was swayed by something other than science.
Many fans are actually more upset about Bill Nye’s embrace of Monsanto than they are about his biased and unscientific promotion of GMOs. According to Common Dreams, Monsanto rose to prominence as a producer of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War, a chemical that has been linked to countless chronic health problems in Vietnam War veterans.
Monsanto also has a reputation for suing farmers after GMO pollen drifts into non-GMO fields, resulting in cross-pollination. According to Miami New Times, Monsanto has filed at least 142 lawsuits against farmers for alleged abuse of its technology agreement or patent infringement. In order to obtain “evidence” for their lawsuits, Monsanto secretly videotapes and photographs farmers and infiltrates community meetings, hiding their identities and even pretending to be surveyors, according to Miami New Times.
Monsanto execs are high fiving each other over the steak buffet on the success of their recent contract with Bill Nye— Neet Chic ???????? (@ComputerLuve) April 25, 2017
Beyond the predation on unsuspecting farmers, Monsanto’s production of Roundup Ready crops has plundered money from its own customers who planted these crops, through forcing their dependence on buying Monsanto’s herbicides and pesticides as well as new seed every year. This control of seed has resulted in price increases and the mass proliferation of GMOs. A Center for Food Safety scientist Bill Freese explains, “They’re a pesticide company that’s bought up seed firms. Business-wise, it’s a beautiful, really smart strategy. It’s just awful for agriculture and the environment.”
Was pretty ok with the new Bill Nye show until his GMO panel consisted of Monsanto, a USDA official, and a farmer who uses Monsanto seed.— Cynthia Hornbeck (@doctaCynthia) April 24, 2017
Bill Nye’s sudden change of heart on genetically modified organisms after observing evidence that addressed only one of many concerns over biotechnology is troubling. However, there is no solid proof that Monsanto paid Bill Nye to change his public opinion on GMOs, just a mountain of circumstantial evidence.
[Featured Image by Dan Gill/AP Images]