The Science Guy’s errors let the pesticide/biotech industry off the hook.
The Science Guy’s errors let the pesticide/biotech industry off the hook.
June 3, 2015
Earlier this year, Bill Nye, renowned as the “science guy,” made news for changing his mind about genetic engineering (or GMOs) after a visit to Monsanto, the pesticide and seed giant at the forefront of the biotechnology industry.
Nye is an emblematic science educator, who has done a lot to kindle the interest of young people in science, to defend the validity of evolutionary science, and raise awareness about climate change. Until recently, he spoke and wrote about GMOs as environmentally risky technology.
In a video shot backstage after an appearance in March on Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” Nye told an interviewer that he was revising the chapter about GMOs in his latest book. “I went to Monsanto, and I spent a lot of time with the scientists there, and I have revised my outlook, and I’m very excited about telling the world,” he said.
So what did Nye learn at Monsanto headquarters that changed his mind? In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Nye said that he does not believe genetically engineered crops are inherently bad. To the contrary, he said he now believes that they have been beneficial to agriculture.
To illustrate his point, he explained that GMO crops “put the herbicides and pesticide inside the plant, rather than spraying it on them and having it run down into streams.”
In the case of herbicides, Nye is simply incorrect, and it’s an important error to point out.
More Herbicides, Not Less
GMO herbicide-resistant crops are made to withstand the spraying of herbicides, primarily glyphosate (or Roundup), in quantities that would otherwise kill them. GMO Bt crops, on the other hand, are engineered to produce an insecticidal toxin within the plant. Rather than decreasing toxic pesticides in streams, the former products contribute to their presence. Glyphosate is now widely detected in our country’s water, according to government scientists. And recently, a major, independent body of scientists determined that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic, raising the stakes.
Compounding these problems, herbicide-resistant GMOs have led to an explosion in herbicide use due to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds. Monsanto genetically engineered corn, soy, cotton, and more recently alfalfa and sugar beets, to resist herbicides, and by 2012 their use led to an estimated 527 million more pounds of herbicide being used in the U.S. than if these crops had not been commercialized.
This was great news for Monsanto, which sells both GMO seeds and pesticides, but not for the environment. The emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds has led us backward, away from weed control strategies that work with the environment, and toward monoculture (farming that relies on growing the same crop every year)—the opposite of the diverse cropping system Nye says he wants.
To deal with the problem of resistant weeds, Monsanto and other pesticide companies are doubling down with GMO crops that can withstand a combination of glyphosate and old herbicides like dicamba and 2,4-D, setting the stage for the evolution of weeds resistant to multiple herbicides and even further escalation of herbicide use.
These glyphosate-resistant weeds are a direct result of GMO crops and the herbicide used on them. Resistant weeds arise in response to herbicide use—susceptible weeds are killed, leaving rare individuals that carry a resistance gene. The greater and more continuous the herbicide use, the faster resistant weeds arise, and the faster they spread. GMO crops allowed much greater use of glyphosate, and encouraged more continuous use because of their convenience. There was only one weed resistant to glyphosate prior to the emergence of genetic engineering, despite the fact that it had been sprayed for nearly 20 years beforehand. There are now 14 glyphosate-resistant weeds in the U.S. alone.
As these weeds appear on more farms, the market for herbicides is exploding—a fact that might explain Monsanto’s desire to acquire Syngenta, the world’s largest seller of pesticides (a large class of chemicals that include herbicides).
It is hard to see how Nye could have so misunderstood this. After all, herbicide resistance is the primary commercial application of GMO crops in the U.S. and worldwide.
Nye understands that industrial agriculture causes big ills, including reduced biological diversity and increased chemical pollution. But he fails to recognize that the major applications of GMO crops are intimately entwined with that system, and actually contribute to it.
The Monarch Connection
Nye commendably noted his concern about the 90 percent decline in the population of the monarch butterfly, which he calls “catastrophic.”
Several research studies have linked the loss of milkweed, the sole food of monarch caterpillars, directly to glyphosate use on engineered crops. But Nye inexplicably dismisses the connection between monarch decline and GMOs, and lets biotech off the hook by blaming the monarch demise on industrial monoculture generally. In the Huffington Post video, he blames it on, “the efficiency of farming and the expansion of cities.”
But glyphosate is especially toxic to milkweed. In Iowa and the surrounding states through which monarchs migrate, glyphosate has virtually eliminated milkweed from corn and soy fields. Before GMO crops were introduced 20 years ago, enough milkweed remained in crop fields to support a healthy population of monarchs despite the use of “efficient,” “modern” farming.
Nye spoke favorably about the plans Monsanto and Cargill have announced to establish new habitat for butterflies now that the milkweed is gone. And indeed habitat enhancement is welcome. But there is likely too little land for milkweed outside crop fields to support the butterflies, because so much of the Midwest is devoted to corn and soybeans.
Nye did not mention that the best way to protect the monarch is to limit the use of glyphosate (and other pesticides) and allow milkweed to harmlessly exist alongside crops in the fields.
Nye also gives GMO crops undue credit for raising productivity over the last 150 years, when in fact it has only been commercialized for about 20 years. In fact, genetic engineering has contributed only marginally to crop productivity since it was first commercialized, for only a few crops, and much less than other technologies.
So back to the original question: What did Bill Nye learn from Monsanto?
Everyone has a right to change their minds. But Nye is an important science educator who could contribute positively to the understanding of the complex issues swirling around the GMO debate. Either way, if he’s going wade into the debate, he has to get the science right.
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Food production concerns aside, myriad research has also shown glyphosate inhibits cytochrome P450 enzymes. This is a terrible consequence of glyphosate consumption and detrimental to our health. I can't stress this enough.
I wish GMOs could work without consequence, but that is simply not the case.
Good job, T. Davis.
Unfortunately, you are working with/for the actual Devil Incarnate and you will pay for it.
Yeah, out of the stream an into the food. It is killing us and the farm animals and anything or anyone that eats them....including bees and butterflies. If gmo is safe, why can people eat organic foods but have adverse reactions to the same food if it is gmo?! I have witnessed it myself!
You write that gmo crops are designed to withstand pesticides. That's not true of all gmos, and I think some acknowledgement of the differences is pretty critical to this debate and to reasonable policies.
I've followed his speeches carefully and let me tell you that he has never told anything useful, he's like a clown put there just to ridicule the truths he's supposedly defending. There's a reason why he never wins an important debate, and that's because he uses no solid arguments despite the huge majority of them on the issues he debates about, he just uses nerdy childish phrases with no content whatsoever. This all comes as no surprise to me, because he's part of that nefarious conspiracy you point out
2) Yields of crops with transgenic varieties are going up at the same linear rate pre- and post-Introduction of genetic engineering in contrast with the promised of the biotechnology industry and its supporters.
Right? Or do you not understand that species differences matter?
The second quote isn't sourced so as a good research I went to find it. Sadly, all I found on google is this article syndicated by others. Your entire argument is based around this quote and I don't even know if it's real.
The final quote that seems to put a nail in Nye's preverbal coffin about GMO not even working, is from a clearly biased group. I'm not saying it's wrong, just I wouldn't take their word for it any more than monsanto.
In the end this article does not comply with journalistic standards and must be rejected.
First off this is commentary, and not meant to be seen as journalism. Secondly, the second quote is taken from the video linked to in the third paragraph. Thanks for reading.
Years ago, science was funded by independent organizations who endeavored to understand the truth and make the world a better place. And that philosophy made giant leaps. Today, we live in a world where the independent organizations are under-funded, leaving only the industry with the means to do the science, and as has been demonstrated by many court cases for fraud, it is very easy to control the outcomes of experiments when you hold the purse strings.
And in a similar way, Bill Nye The Science Guy, has conveniently forgotten how easy it is to make the science say whatever you want when you control the research funding.
How sad it will be, when GMOs are finally exposed for fraud they are, and the biotech industry are bankrupted by having to pay for all the damage they have done. I guess the career's of Nye and Tyson will be flushed down the same toilet.
You should ask Neil Degrasse Tyson about GMO's. He'll make your head spin. Then a lot of you will accuse him of not being a scientist, or being on Monsanto's payroll. Sheesh.
Nye has an undergraduate degree from Cornell and his grades were not good enough to get him into graduate school. Bill Nye is an entertainer/propagandist not a scientist.
Monsanto flew him down to St. Louis, they worked out a deal and fitted him for the special shoes. Bill Nye is going to do for Monsanto what Ronald McDonald did for McDonalds
Bill Nye loves 'science" all the way to the bank.
He does, however, hold an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from Willamette University.
Also, could the GMO bt crops, which are responsible for the Glyphosate in the water, be at all related to the problem with honey bees?
The introduction and growth of inserting genetically altered plant materials into our food chain, will force the Human genome to once again evolve over a multi generation time period, to not only become tolerant to the toxins that will remain present in the plant stock, but also in adapting how we can extract nutritional content from these plants.
Further, we don't yet know the long term effects of consuming these toxins and especially, we don't know how they will alter the gene structures we pass along through our own reproduction...
It's funny when people like you, who have not one clue about genetics (or anything else for that matter) post things like this. I mean... why bother basing your arguments on evidence when you can just point to Monsanto like the rest of the drooling idiots and say "dem bad!"
Perhaps the authors might consider fixing the title, subheading and initial part of their article to reflect its actual topic -- arguments against using glyphosates?