Within the realm of today’s media, biotech crops are generally given the same treatment as stray dogs and dirty hitchhikers.
Consumers are uncertain about their safety and that uncertainty is fed by special interest groups with images like the one we’ve all seen of a tomato with a syringe stuck in it. Although biotech crops are a big part of our food supply, no one outside agriculture and the biotech industry has much good to say about the evolution of these genetically-engineered plants that can resist pests and applications of weed-killer.
But sometimes credibility comes from unsuspecting places.
Bill Nye, a.k.a. “The Science Guy,” recently reversed previous comments and in a broadcast seen by millions of consumers, he said biotechnology is an important tool in the production of safe food.
“I’ve been eating genetically modified food for decades and I’m fine, look at me,” Nye said. “Science shows that genetically-modified crops are not riskier than other farmed crops.”
During his program, Bill Nye Saves the World, currently airing on Netflix, Nye explores the evolution of biotechnology, spells out how biotech crops work to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and how they make farms more efficient. Further, Nye discusses social perspectives with a panel of experts including an Iowa farmer, a university extension professor and an executive from the Monsanto Corporation.
In addition to Nye, another rising star in the world of media and science, Neil deGrasse Tyson, is narrating a new documentary called Food Evolution. DeGrasse Tyson is listed on Wikipedia as an astrophysicist, author and science communicator. The movie, released in selected cities in late June, attempts to end the controversy over biotechnology in crops by replacing emotion with hard science, according to a press release.
Over time, deGrasse Tyson has built trust among his fan base because of his ability to interpret complicated concepts. And this isn’t the first time he’s been outspoken on the topic of biotechnology. Previously he posted a YouTube video defending biotechnology and dressing down critics for shortsighted views. Here’s a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNtCV67biBA
In that video, deGrasse Tyson states the following: “. . . It smacks of the fear factor that exists in every new emerging science where people don’t fully understand it or don’t fully embrace its consequences. So what people don’t fully understand is nearly every food you can buy in a store for consumption is genetically modified. There are no wild seedless watermelons, there’s no wild long stem roses. List every food you buy and ask yourself if it has a wild counterpart. If so, it’s not as sweet, not as juicy, and there’s way more seeds in it. We have systematically genetically modified everything we eat since we began cultivating it.”
What deGrasse Tyson is getting at is nature naturally selects for stronger traits in plants and as humans began the act of cultivation they furthered that selection process by choosing seeds from stronger, more hearty and better yielding plants. The first hybrid plants were created about 10,000 years ago. As science came to the forefront in agriculture, plant breeders began to use cross-pollination in cereal crops in the early 1890’s. In the 1920’s, plant breeders developed cytoplasmic male sterility in corn, a process that produces sterile male corn plants which allows for selective hybridization and eliminates a labor-intensive de-tasseling process.
Later, the study of molecular genetics allowed scientists to manipulate DNA by inserting genetic material into plants. Among the most common practices used today is inserting bacillus thuringiensis or BT, a soil-borne bacteria that is toxic to some insects, into plants. BT is approved by USDA for use on organic crops and has been used as a pesticide for several years. Plants altered by this biotechnological process produce BT on their own.
Nye’s program also delves into the history of plant breeding and how science and agriculture evolved together. Although these two scientists are working to shed light on this controversial subject, they’ve been roundly criticized for speaking out. One website called Nye a “corporate whore,” because he met with Monsanto executives prior to changing his mind about biotechnology, while others criticized deGrasse Tyson for being overly simplistic in comparing plant trait selection practices with manipulating DNA in a laboratory.
An excellent resource for consumers who want to learn more about biotechnology is a website called GMO Answers, found at https://gmoanswers.com/. Remember that only a few crops, including corn, soybeans, cotton, sugarbeets, alfalfa, papaya, some squash varieties, and canola are the main crops grown using biotechnology. There are new varieties of apples and potatoes that are starting to become commercially available but it’s a small percentage at this time.
In addition, a list of celebrities against GMO was published in 2015 by Organic Lifestyle Magazine. Among them, rock and roll icon Neil Young penned a song that includes the lyrics: “Yeah, I want a cup of coffee but I don’t want a GMO. I like to start my day off without helping Monsanto.”
The factual problem with Young’s lyric is there is no genetically modified coffee. But it’s a common misperception, similar to the photograph of the syringe stuck in the tomato. There are no genetically modified tomatoes. For more on that topic look for an article in this magazine titled “The non-GMO Project: Creating Fake News at the Grocery Store.”
Other celebrities whom added their names to the Organic Lifestyle Magazine list include Gwyneth Paltrow, Chuck Norris, Jennifer Garner, Roseanne Barr, Dave Matthews and Bill Maher.