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?The implication is that the food-safety assessments performed by companies seeking approval for GMO crops are deceptive, because they are self-funded.
Student: Missus Incorporated, makers of genetically engineered food.
Teacher: Yes, so they've really got us by the shorts on this one. [18:25]
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.