The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bill Nye the Anti-GMO Guy

I like Bill Nye. I watched his show as a kid. Recently, I watched the Genetically Modified Foods episode of his show The Eye of Nye. This episode is kind of old, having first aired June 5th, 2005.

Surprisingly, it was weightily anti-GMO, something I wouldn't have expected from Bill Nye, who claims to be a card-carrying skeptic.

I first got worried when it started off with this mistaken claim:
If we genetically modify out food, say by taking a gene from a fish, and putting it into the tomato, we're creating a whole new species. [3:00]
Obviously, since the GMO fish can still breed with wild fish, it isn't a new species. It's a new variety. How did the editors, let alone Bill, miss this?

Then, in a discussion about the benefits of GMO, this text was displayed:
Critics charge: the nutritional value of Golden Rice is less than 10% of the daily Vitamin A requirement. [10:25]
Months before this episode aired (March 27th), a study was published showing an improved strain which provides 100% daily Vitamin A requirement in just half a cup of Golden Rice. Maybe this study was published too late to be included in the episode.

These two mistaken facts are minor, but the tone of the episode is troubling. In one sketch, a television host interviews a corporate representative, who explains how a fish gene is used to keep tomatoes from freezing. The host responds by asking:
But, isn't that kind of creepy?
To me, the creepy thing is the manipulative nature of the sketches in this episode. Later in the sketch, a man in a corn-cob suit comes out and attacks the corporate executive. Clearly, he's the bad guy, so the viewer can reject his arguments.

This is priming the audience with bias, not science.

A later sketch show this exchange between a teacher and his students:
Teacher: Yes, children, but who underwrites the science, though?
Student: Missus Incorporated, makers of genetically engineered food.
Teacher: Yes, so they've really got us by the shorts on this one. [18:25]
The implication is that the food-safety assessments performed by companies seeking approval for GMO crops are deceptive, because they are self-funded.

This particular conspiracy theory is quite popular. It's also very wrong. This just isn't how GMO regulation works, at least, not here in the United States.

GMO regulation is, of course, complex. You can read a good summary here or here.

Importantly, governmental agencies employ real, live scientists to fill the role of peer reviewer. Bad science is going to be noticed.

Also, while the bills are paid by the company seeking approval, the science is often performed by independent labs. These labs stake their reputation on providing accurate results, not convenient results.

In order for this conspiracy to work, you'd need independent labs, governmental bodies, and GMO producers to all share in a game of deception. With scientific studies publicly accessible, deception could be unraveled by anyone seeking to reproduce their results.

This has never, ever happened, despite plenty of petty claims to the contrary, many of which I've blogged about in the past.

This episode of The Eye of Nye contains conspiracy theory, manipulative appeals to disgust, and a literal (not to mention insulting) caricature of the rational argument for GMO food, who gets attacked by a giant ear of corn.

Not very scientific of you, Bill Nye.

At risk of being pedantic, I also want to point out a factual error in the Be Skeptical interview:
The thing with the corn-borer is, somehow, it had the potential to effect the monarch butterfly population, having to do with milkweed that grows near the corn.
Bill is confusing two different issues. BT corn produces an endogenous insecticide, which targets the corn-borer. This modification is separate from glyphosate resistance, which allows farmers to spray the herbicide on their fields to kill weeds.

Milkweed is commonly used to create a buffer zone around fields, as a sort of wall to keep out worse weeds. Monarchs eat exclusively milkweed, so loss of this plant reduces their food supply.

Not surprisingly, significant milkweed habitat loss has been attributed, in a 2012 study, to herbicide use on farms. But lets not mistake the gene conferring glyphosate resistance for the cause of milkweed habitat loss. The cause is herbicide use.

Even if glyphosate had never been invented, different herbicides would be in use today, and milkweed habitat would still be on the decline.

Protecting milkweed and thereby monarchs is important, and has nothing to do with GMO safety.


  1. I don't know where to stand on this awhile gmo|monsanto issue and really wish there was good science to tell me what to do :/ to but or to not buy gmo is driving me nuts everyone I go shopping.

  2. Sorry for the lack of proofreading- on a phone.

  3. Science doesn't tell you what to do. It tells you what is.

    On the one hand, there is no (sound) evidence that GMO food is bad for your health. GMO is a tool that farmers can use responsibly in regard to the environment. This is the "good science" message which I hope comes across on this blog.

    On the other hand, it's great to buy locally grown food at the farmer's market, because it supports small farmers in the community, and has a lower shipping-related environmental impact. I do this every Wednesday.

    Finally, some people might oppose Monsanto on political grounds, but I have no strong opinion about that. Like any large company, they're easy to criticize. I, too, dislike and distrust large companies on basic principles. But I won't go so far as to blind myself to scientific truth with prejudice and willful ignorance.

  4. Not a fan of microsoft, aint gonna ask government to ban computers, not a fan of monsanto, aint gonna ask government to ban gmo,

  5. Umm... are you taking the comedy segments from the show, where he's actually making fun of the anti-GMO crowd, and claiming that's his message? Those are lies sir. I just responded to a friend spreading a related link, and you're very much in the wrong. Bill Nye clearly supported GMO food in this episode interviewing lots of scientists who claim the risks of GMO are outweighed by the benefits. Here is his closing remarks.

    "We've been farming for 15,000 years carefully breeding species at the pace of the seasons. Now we can introduce a new species into the ecosystem overnight. What's the hurry? I'ts not a race. We're the human race. So lets farm responsibly. Lets require labels on our foods. And lets test these foods, case by case. That's the way I see it."

    Yea, he's supporting it. The first conclusive study on golden rice was published in 2012 for that matter. He's just saying "we need to tell people what they are eating, we need to be careful." That's the tone of the episode. SMH at you guys posting stuff 10 years after an episode. Show some class and publish a retraction at the top of this article.

  6. Thank you for reinforcing my point, as problems abound in that quote:

    1. New strains are not new species.
    2. Calling for GMO labeling belies a misunderstanding of the purpose of labeling.
    3. The statement "let's test these foods" falsely implies they aren't already being tested.
    4. The statement "what's the hurry?" falsely implies inadequate time given to testing.

    I vehemently disagree about the tone of the episode. Even comedy segments will prime the viewer on which side of the argument they are meant to trust. Nye does indeed give both sides of the argument. That's the problem. He gives a voice to anti-GMO arguments which are wrong.

    Before you call me a liar, you need to actually watch the Eyes of Nye episode.

  7. Did life get you by the shorts, Mr. Pest?

    (Sorry, I couldn't help it.)