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Good for Bill Nye the Science Guy! And separately, good for Slate! First, the pop “scientist” Nye has turned the corner and now understands that genetic engineering (GE) and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) represent wonderful technology, holding great promise for humanity. Here is what he describes as the key:

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.

Lydia Ramsey, whose post at Business Insider is linked above, distills Nye’s position this way:

We are a society of farmers, and for thousands of years, farmers have been doing everything in their power to get the most product from their labor. Genetically modified crops are a way to do that.

Apparently Nye is also impressed with the lengthy selection process and careful testing  that takes place before GMOs are ever brought to market. That contrasts with the nonexistent testing that is typical of conventional cross-breeding and irradiation, which can result in millions of gene mutations.

Nye, a mechanical engineer by training, probably knows enough science to recognize that there is a massive volume of literature that testifies to the safety of GMO crops (see here and here).

In Slate, William Saletan has written an excellent report entitled “Unhealthy Fixation“, and subtitled “The war against genetically modified organisms is full of fearmongering, errors, and fraud. Labeling them will not make you safer.”  Saletan emphasizes that GE is not any one single “thing”, but instead is a process. He discusses the histories of four distinct GMO issues:

  1. Overcoming the devastation of the papaya ringspot virus;
  2. Crops with a single Bt gene inserted versus Bt insecticides used on organics;
  3. Malnutrition, childhood blindness, and Golden Rice;
  4. Herbicide tolerance, farm productivity and herbicide overuse;

The fourth issue is an unfortunate aspect of our experience with GMOs, even to this day: much of it has related to strains of GE crops that are resistant to herbicides, glyphosate being the most prominent (until the patent expired in 2000, Monsanto’s Roundup was the only brand). In the public imagination, GMOs are almost synonymous with “Roundup-ready” crops. Glyphosate is only one type of herbicide, however, and there are significant benefits to herbicide-resistant crops, some of which are created without the help of GE. But herbicide-resistant crops are only one type of GMO. There are many other GMO varieties, and Saletan provides a long list of varieties in the pipeline:

… drought-tolerant corn, virus-resistant plums, non-browning apples, potatoes with fewer natural toxins [and fewer carcinogens when fried], and soybeans that produce less saturated fat. … virus-resistant beans, heat-tolerant sugarcane, salt-tolerant wheat, disease-resistant cassava, high-iron rice, and cotton that requires less nitrogen fertilizer. … high-calcium carrots, antioxidant tomatoes, nonallergenic nuts, bacteria-resistant oranges, water-conserving wheat, corn and cassava loaded with extra nutrients, and a flaxlike plant that produces the healthy oil formerly available only in fish.

Saletan bemoans the dominance of the herbicide industry in commercial applications of GMOs. He wants the food industry and regulators to move forward with the many other promising GE applications like those listed in the quote above. He also rightly blames anti-GMO activists for holding up promising varieties:

First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

There is a lot about GE technology for farmers and consumers to love. Many detractors seem unaware that life-saving products like insulin are made with GMOs, or that GMOs are in widespread use in the production of products like cheesebeer, and wine. The anti-GMO drumbeat goes on, however, promoting myths like the five discussed here by Dan Charles at NPR. This includes the fallacy that farmers saved their own seeds for planting until Monsanto came along. A particularly egregious piece of recent propaganda was a video promoted by the huckster David Wolfe. It involved a family who ate only organic food for two weeks and saw the trace levels of pesticides in their urine vanish. Of course, the researchers did not test for organic pesticides, such as Bt, but that escapes the notice of Wolfe’s uncritical acolytes.

You’ll find eight earlier posts related to GMOs on Sacred Cow Chips at this link.