Bill Nye, Science Guy, and GMOs – oh my!

posted in: Science & Society | 50

Bill Nye caused a bit of drama over his stance on GMOs with the publication of his recent book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. Biologists were dismayed by some of the unsourced claims he was making, and what seemed to be a failure to investigate the science on this issue. And for someone who has been such a strong supporter of evidence, even famously noting in his debate with creationist Ken Ham what would change is mind on a topic:

Those of us who support evidence-based positions on scientific topics like evolution cheered this response enthusiastically. And realizing that if he really meant that–and it seemed to me biologists really took him at his word–we hoped Nye would look at the actual evidence on GMOs. Kevin Folta wanted to help Bill examine the evidence, and offered to use the debate format to do so.

Although the Folta/Nye event didn’t happen, it seems that Bill really did decide to look again at the GMO issues. He attended the excellent Intelligence Squared debate to learn more and asked questions. He visited Monsanto to hear their side of the story. And soon we found out that Bill was revising his stance and his book.

I first heard about it in this question by Joanne Manaster to the editor of Bill’s book, Corey Powell, in the Read Science! interview. (The video here should be queued to the right place, but it is ~21minutes if that’s not working on your device.)

Soon after that, Bill also enthused about his own change of mind backstage at the Bill Maher show. However, this was light on the details of what his new stance actually was, and waiting for the new edition of the book would take a while.

Luckily, we just had an opportunity to learn more about Bill’s thoughts. I attended the recent NECSS conference in New York City, where Nye participated in several events. One of the events was a taping of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. Steve Novella had promised several times to press Nye for details on GMOs. That podcast is now available, and you can access it on the SGU page here: Podcast #510 – April 18th, 2015.

You should go and listen to it yourself–the specific part about the GMO issues begins at ~57min in the podcast. Any errors in transcription are mine.

Steve Novella: Bill–do you mind if I ask you a non-astronomy related question?

Bill Nye: Uh. No. You just did. [everyone laughs] Go ahead. Yes.

Steve Novella: Alright, so, my listeners would eviscerate me if I didn’t ask you this question. You probably know what’s coming.

Bill Nye: I probably do.

Steve Novella: A lot of the skeptical movement is fairly pro-GMO and has been highly critical, [Bill adds “Genetically Modified Organisms”], genetically modified organisms, and critical of a lot of the anti-GMO movement, which is largely pseudo-scientific. Previously, you have stated you’re concerned about the effects of GMO, but then you’ve given some indications that maybe your opinion on this matter may have evolved.

Bill Nye: Evolved….

Steve Novella: Evolved.

Bill Nye: Given some indications….

Bill Nye at NECSS, photo by  Malfeitor


At this point Bill starts to explain the backstory to his position on GMOs. He emphasizes the words “modified” and “safe” as key concepts to this issue. Nye notes that we’ve been modifying plants for 10,000 years and that there’s nothing natural about farming. He notes that in the EU that the GMO issue was conflated with an unrelated food safety scare. Then he turns to his concerns about unintended consequences of the environmental impacts of GMOs. He details his understanding of glyphosate function. Then he turns to the issue of the Monarch butterflies. He acknowledges that the loss of habitat from urban development and milkweed loss are impacting the butterflies.

Bill Nye [about 1:03]: …but upon further review, I think the problem is not inherent, not at all–has almost nothing to do–with genetically modifying the plants. Instead, it has to do with just every sort of agricultural, urban planning, scheme. 

He then talks about more about efforts to improve Monarch habitat at a meeting he attended, and he was excited about an effort by many groups to pull together to improve access to milkweed for these butterflies. He lays out his concern about the impact on such an iconic species.

Steve Novella: But I agree, I think that the problem is not genetic modification. The problem is that we’re trying to feed 7 billion people. By farming.

Bill Nye: Yeah….

Then Nye goes on to talk about his conversations with the ag industry, and that they want to feed the anticipated 9 billion people the planet using less land than we do today.

Bill Nye: And so my ambivalence about genetically modifying crops has changed. Absolutely. I see that they have great value. But I also warn us all that the unintended consequences–so called knock-on consequences–are still significant. And we really don’t now how to solve an obvious everybody-can-see-it problem like the Monarch butterflies.

Steve Novella: Right. But there are unintended consequences to not doing things, too.

Bill Nye: Absolutely.

Steve Novella: So not doing GMOs we end up with more farmland which has a greater negative impact than planting genetically modified crops.

He spoke of his visit to Monsanto, where he was impressed by the technology, and the speed with which they can now assess the changes made to plants and the impact of them. This has helped to change his mind.

Listen to the whole thing.

It’s great to see someone take a serious look at an issue, and explain that new information has helped them to change their mind. And it’s nice to see that Bill Nye meant what he said about evidence.

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Mary Mangan PhD is a genomics scientist, with credentials in microbiology, immunology, plant cell biology, and mammalian cell, developmental, and molecular biology. All comments here are my own, and do not represent my company or any other company.