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

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.


  1. It might surprise many, that I do agree with Bill Nye on his current assessment of GMO tech potential, AND his concern for unintended consequences. Problem is.. .. that current practices have more risks than the potential future of GE probably will have. Current practices need to quickly evolve into better practices to get there… and that does not seem to be happening adequately. Current application rates of pesticides are not sustainable. Alternatives need quick development. Toxicologic effects need far more clarification, and need to be taken into account in finding viable alternatives. We are not in a very good position currently to tread water while making a lot of profit off of pesticide sales. Those sales tend to petrify the staus quo. Science needs to be better than this… there is an urgency.

  2. I disagree on the potential. That’s like the article from Newsweek that said the internet had nowhere to go, in 1995: “Let’s Talk About the 1995 NEWSWEEK Piece That Says the Internet Will Fail”.
    We know that GMOs have reduced insecticides. There’s no question on that data. And we also know that non-GMOs use herbicides and create weed resistance. The problem is making GMOs the proxy for your complaints does nothing to solve the actual issues that people complain about.
    I’m glad that Nye and Novella understand this.
    And if you are worried about unintended consequences, you have to consider the unintended consequences of non-GMO practices too, say antibiotic resistance from manure: .
    You have to do better than pointing at the wrong source of problems. Look where that got us with blaming vaccines for autism.

  3. No one is entitled to disrupt the natural order of things on this Earth: No one. Do you propose Darwin was wrong about evolution and natural selection? Those plants And people with such genetics that render them unable to survive will perish and yield to those of superior stock just as it has happened since the creation of life on this planet, and, over eons, stronger, different life will evolve, just as Nature decrees. Do you feel that you or any other should be allowed to tamper with that process? To point to the relatively few bits of modification that modern man has gotten away with can scarcely be held out as an equal example for what’s happening now on a global scale. That’s insulting to the intelligence of every listener, most of whom are extremely well informed on this subject.

  4. Did you just use a computer to submit this comment?
    Darwin proposed evolution by Natural Selection after studying the results of Artificial Selection, i.e. human breeding. Breeding takes genetic variations, whether found in the wild or generated by humans, and increased their frequency, creating new combinations that have never been found out in the wild. Genetic variation can be generated through random mutation, and induced changes including genetic engineering.
    Humans are part of the natural world, and use the tools found and developed in the natural world, including bacteria that make their living inserting their genetic material into plants. Since by any reasonable definition this naturally-occurring genetic engineer is part of the “natural order of things” it suggests that humans doing the same is also part of the ‘natural order of things.’ If you believe that moving genes between species is wrong, the onus is on you to explain, logically, how one is OK and the other is not?

  5. Nothing wrong with gmo, it saved BILLIONS of lives, get your fact strait. Learn to read real scientific data…

  6. If you ate dinner tonight, then you’ve benefited from disruption of the natural order of things. For generations we’ve disrupted that natural order by selectively breeding, cross-pollinating, reproducing, however you want to describe it by avoiding the words “genetically modified.” Humans have changed what nature would have given us millions of times, far from a “few bits”. When I save seeds from an exceptional specimen in my garden to plant next year, I am interrupting natural selection. The wheat bread you made with your two hands by sprouting the seeds and then grinding the berries exists as the result of genetic modification. What is it that is happening now on a global scale that is a problem as a result of genetic modification? Feeding people? Genetic modification allows us to do that with LESS impact to nature in so many ways. Will there be some misses? Probably. But we can’t keep feeding people waiting for nature to pick up the slack. If you want to save the planet, promote negative population growth.

  7. I don’t know what the number is, we probably never will. But I want to save every young pesticide sprayer in Bangladesh from what you can see in this talk on Bt eggplant. Look at the protective gear they don’t have:


  8. We’ve been “tampering” with the natural order of things since humans first figured out how to make tools and build a fire. Over the millennia, we’ve tampered with the natural order of plants in order to have agriculture. The wheat you eat is a combination of two to three different species which cannot survive on their own without human intervention, corn is another “unnatural plant,” and most of what you buy in the grocery store bears very little relation to the original plant or animal, and most definitely wouldn’t stay around long in nature.

  9. Here, here ! Many of the billion lives that Borlaug saved were not yet born at the time. I believe the same will prove to be true about GMO’s.

  10. And, at what point do we say even a tool is unnatural? Everything we do or not do can only be because natural laws allow it. Even chemical synthesis only occurs because nature allows or dictates such-n-such group of atoms to bind or split off some other group under the conditions provided. The more i think about it the more i think the natural/unnatural division is an illusion.

  11. Borlaug didn’t gmo, not in the sense we generally talk about, attributing anything Borlaug did to GMOs is not accurate.

  12. MaryM, of course those other areas of AG use need to be more adequately assessed as well… no argument from me there. That IS the problem, not enough science has been adequately completed … we can do better, and it is vitally important to do better. Do you disagree?

  13. Ray, you copied-and-pasted the exact same comments you made in another thread, and they have been removed. Moreover, you are making a lot of off-topic posts about the same topic in the comment threads of unrelated articles. If you want to start up a new topic that you wish to discuss, please do so in the Forum.

  14. There’s a great piece by Dara O’Briain, where he talks about homeopaths saying “science doesn’t know everything”. He says:

    Well, science knows it doesn’t know everything. Otherwise, it’d stop…Just ’cause science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can just fill in the gaps with whatever fairy-tale most appeals to you…

    This is often used as a means to move the goal posts, to unobtainable levels of evidence. But that’s only one of the strategies of GMO opponents. Some are more direct–like actually destroying scientific experimental fields, say eucalyptus trees in Brazil, or Golden Rice in the Philippines.
    Some are more subtle–like misusing science to generate BS to influence regulators:
    Only one faction wants science to stop. And it’s not the actual scientists.

  15. “And we really don’t now how to solve an obvious everybody-can-see-it problem like the Monarch butterflies.”
    Is this a non-sequitur? I don’t get it.

  16. Why don’t we let Borlaug himself do the talking…
    “There is no evidence to indicate that biotechnology is dangerous. After all, mother nature has been doing this kind of thing for God knows how long.”
    “”We need more investments in agriculture and we must stop looking at agriculture as a donkey’s profession,” he said. Borlaug challenged African leaders to embark on productive technology that would ensure predictable food supply to their masses. “The so called GMOs can play a very vital role in peoples’ lives.”
    “Q: How is food science improving the production of food?
    A: The research projects are continuing, and improvements are being made. Genetically modified organisms are a big step in that direction, but there’s a lot of confusion in that. Some people fear genetic modification, which is not very sound, because we’ve been genetically modifying plants and animals for a long time. Long before we called it science, people were selecting the best breeds.”

  17. My impression of that is that it’s still what triggers him on this topic. He is talking about the unknown unknowns, I think. Trying to defend his previous position with something like: Ok, GMOs aren’t what’s causing the butterfly problem. But they might do something, someday, somewhere…. Seems a god-of-the-gaps argument to me.

  18. I’m well aware of Borlaug’s support for GMOs, I applaud him both for that and for his work in breeding which can certainly have a figure in the billions associated with it in terms of lives saved. My only quibble is with people who hold Borlaug up as an example of GMOs used to have a major humanitarian impact. (I see it relatively frequently, and it irks me)

  19. It’s not whether it’s “ok” or not – it’s about trying to make people believe that GE is the same as selective breeding. It’s not the same. Changes in gene expression can and do lead to changes in metabolism. And we’re only recently able to differentiate those changes caused by the engineering as opposed to those which may normally occur in response to the environment or legitimate recombination. When we’re introducing genes from distantly related species which couldn’t be introduced through breeding, we’re doing something different than we’ve done for 10,000 years.
    If the goal is science communication, start with the science. If it’s to argue people into believing that GE is just like the plant breeding we’ve been doing for 10,000 years, even though that’s not true, then carry on.

  20. Borlaug makes pretty clear that he doesn’t see much difference between breeding methods. They’re tools to get the job done. That’s the point here. It doesn’t matter how you get the plant to do things you want it to do. You’ll be modifying genes in any case.
    We’re singling out transgenic breeding for no good reason, other than to make the life of plant breeders harder. “Frankenfood”… right.

  21. That paragraph has just very odd language and weird logic. He talks about “unintended consequences” with regards to GMOs, then the next mentions his butterflies.
    Can someone tell him about how unintended consequences occur in other breeding methods, too? And that nature, agriculture and life is full of potential risks, including the risks that come with not being able to use science due to stupid ideological/political opposition?
    Just imagine a world without opposition to GMOs. You know what could be done if deregulation was possible for universities and small companies. I want that. Twenty years ago.

  22. It’s not whether it’s “ok” or not – it’s about trying to make people believe that GE is the same as selective breeding. It’s not the same.

    Of course selective breeding is not the same thing as genetic engineering – no one is saying that they are the same. Selective breeding is the process by which you make crosses between plants, grow out the offspring, and discard those that do not have the traits you are looking for, keeping the ones you do. Genetic engineering is a process that generates genetic variation that can be used in selective breeding. You can say the same thing about any other process that generates genetic variation such as polyploidy, mutagenesis, doubled haploids, embryo rescue, protoplast fusion, etc. These are also not selective breeding. What you seem to have done is drawn an arbitrary line in the sand and decided that one side of the line is permissible and the other side is not. Your reasoning is that if we did it before, even if we didn’t know what we were doing, that it is ok.
    This is why the link Mary provided is so important. It shows that we actually did select sweet potatoes that had transgenes in them without knowing where those genes came from. Genes from distantly related species. Inserted, expressed, altering the phenotype somehow. By your reasoning, this puts it in the same category as the other ways that we’ve altered the genetics of our crops in the last 10,000 years.
    You said the words “legitimate recombination” – it does not mean what you think it means. “Legitimate recombination” refers to homology-dependent recombination, i.e. recombination between similar sequences. “Illegitimate recombination” refers to recombination between dissimilar sequences. It does not refer to recombinations made by breeding versus genetic engineering. Breeding includes both legitimate and illegitimate recombination, and while transgenesis usually involves illegitimate recombination, homology-dependent genetic engineering techniques like gene editing involve legitimate recombination.

  23. “Your reasoning is that if we did it before, even if we didn’t know what we were doing, that it is ok.”
    Again, it’s not that it’s ok or not ok. Did I say it wasn’t ok? I’m saying we have a different set of issues when employing these various techniques. I think agrobacterium-mediated transfer between close species is unlikely to present problems we’d have to go through with a fine tooth comb. I think modern methods exist on a continuum, but I think it’s important to differentiate because each one entails unique levels of risk of unintended/ possibly undesirable consequences. And in the scope of thousands of years, it’s only recently that we’ve developed the ability to create organisms like low-lignin, bt trees. I think regulations ought to reflect the possible risks in commercializing these products (they’re already out there, and we really have no control since other countries don’t even debate these things)
    I shouldn’t have said that we are “only recently able to differentiate those changes caused by the engineering as opposed to those which may normally occur in response to the environment or legitimate recombination”. What I should have said is that the industry seems to be interested in pushing the equivalency of traditional breeding and all forms of transgenics, regardless of the kinds of changes they ultimately bring about in the plant, or what those changes mean for nutrition, safety or the environment.
    We have no requirement to employ the means of analysis that are available, but which reveal that requirements like “substantial equivalency” might not be adequate to the task of ensuring no harm.
    The general tenor of the majority of remarks here seems to be: we’ve always done things like this. I don’t see that we have, although of course there are examples of specific things that we do that we can find in nature. The NAS compares agrobacterium-mediated transfer between close relatives to conventional breeding with regard to possible risk – even less risk in some cases. How does that qualify us to say that planting millions of acres of crops producing multiple bacterial toxins, in a period of a couple of decades is just like something we’ve done in the past? (I recognize I’m comparing technique with trait here, but they both go in to determining what risks might need to be addressed)
    I see no other reason for drawing comparisons of equivalency between traditional breeding/agriculture and modern methods but to encourage uncritical acceptance of commercial products. The attitude seems to be that since nature is messy and doesn’t differentiate, why should we?
    We’re now to the point where the opinion of Steve Novella or Bill Nye is supposed to be important in these public relations efforts? Why? I listened to that portion of the podcast and found it to be superficial. It would seem that the two now agree that GMOs are necessary to feed the world. I don’t see that they have the expertise to decide that, and I’ve read some of the literature on that kind of conjecture. It’s difficult to substantiate such a claim, and there’s no evidence as of now that our GMOs can provide a solution. What instead seems to be the case is that scientists like Kevin Folta are saying that academic labs and the industry have life-saving crops that they can’t or won’t commercialize because it’s too expensive and not profitable. And this while dozens of new pesticide-driven GMOs are coming out all the time?
    WTH industry? Have you no shame?

  24. I think Norbrook’s comment is 100% accurate, and most succinct! (I wish I could write so succinctly) But it doesn’t support the argument that GE isn’t a unique development in the history of plant development – one which raises unique issues of safety to health and environment that haven’t arisen before. Such as, sudden and undesirable changes in nutrition (as opposed to increases in sugar, perhaps, that we’ve been breeding for eons) or ecological risk (bt exudates affecting soil organisms, or the role of continual expression throughout the plant in harming beneficial insects or making useless the intermittent use of bt as part of integrated pest management).
    It is absolutely possible to accidentally engineer harm. Under current regulatory requirements, harm that’s not immediately apparent, that we don’t look for, can definitely occur. And this is more or less likely depending upon the relationship between the organisms involved and the techniques we use, and how we control their use. To say that all new plants present possibility of harm, without distinguishing between relative risks for each plant and development technique, is to mislead by failure to completely inform.
    (that’s not what Norbrook did, I’m just replying to his comment as one which embodies the general sentiment here, which I see as either unknowingly or purposefully misrepresenting the comparison between traditional, selective crossing and modern development (which includes numerous procedures for introducing new genes or changing genes)

  25. which I see as either unknowingly or purposefully misrepresenting the comparison between traditional, selective crossing and modern development (which includes numerous procedures for introducing new genes or changing genes)

    No one is doing that here. Please provide quotes that demonstrate this, otherwise you are the person who is engaging in misrepresentation.

  26. I was characterizing the sentiment expressed in a number of the comments. It’s not possible to offer a quote, since this is more about what’s not being said, not what’s being said.
    Many of the comments here are drawing an equivalency between traditional breeding and GE, without noting important differences that should be considered in evaluating new plants for commercialization and widespread use. I feel that since those are the issues over which the debate is happening, they ought to be included.
    So, the general sentiment (not any one person) misrepresents the differences between traditional development and GE by focusing only on what they have in common, which isn’t what the whole GMO debate is all about anyway.
    Please forgive any implication that I may have made with regard to any one person. My comment was about the overall sentiment of the comments. No need for me to imply purpose or ignorance.

  27. Well written. I came here because I am glad to hear that Bill Nye has reexamined the topic. It’s disheartening to find increasingly defensive camps of pro or anti GMO activists. As always, the best answers come from the best questions. Have GMOs damaged the environment? Probably not. Could they have a harmful effect? It depends on how they’re used. Are all GMOs equally desirable? No.

  28. Thanks Mary. Apparently I didn’t compose my comment well.
    Here’s what I was trying to say:
    There are a number of studies which examine the differences in gene expression between the parent, GE “offspring”, and other varieties of the same plant grown under the same conditions. They almost inevitably find that the changes between parent and GE are not more than those between parent and other close relatives, and that those changes often may be brought about by the environment in which the new plant is grown.
    But the 2013 study (below) teases out the changes that happened due to environment, and finds that there are further changes which seem to be due to the engineering alone. I don’t really think that’s surprising. And it’s not necessarily alarming. However, I would say it warrants further investigation. I don’t know if the industry does this, or if it allows itself a lot of leeway when it does, but I know it’s not required for deregulation because there’s no scientific measurement of “substantial equivalence” and if broad parameters on major compounds are met, the plant is GRAS.
    The two following studies both examined MON810. But the 2009 found the GE and isogenic parent “equivalent except for the introduced character.” based on gene regulation (without looking at protein structure), while the 2013 study isolated regulation changes caused by the environment and, with proteonomics, found a number of protein differences which were apparently caused by the engineering:
    “Gene expression profiles of MON810 and comparable non-GM maize varieties cultured in the field are more similar than are those of conventional lines”
    “…no sequence was found to be differentially regulated in the two variety pairs grown in the field. The differential expression patterns observed between in vitro and field culture were similar between MON810 and comparable varieties, with higher divergence between the two conventional varieties.”
    Comparative proteomic analysis of genetically modified maize grown under different agroecosystems conditions in Brazil
    “This study observes that although differences in gene expression occur due to environmental conditions and show changes between parent, transgenic and other non-transgenic varieties, those changes can be isolated. And that further comparative analysis reveals that 32 proteins are differently expressed between MON810 and it’s isogenic parent, separate from environmental causes.”

  29. Again, composition fail – studies have looked at the differences between the GE and comparable non-GM varieties, and found more similarities between those grown in the same environment vs. those varieties grown under different conditions

  30. Traits should definitely be considered on a case by case basis. But I disagree that it is new for a plant to express a bacterial gene. A recent example: The genome of cultivated sweet potato contains Agrobacterium T-DNAs with expressed genes: An example of a naturally transgenic food crop. Other examples include virus genes in many animals and plants (transposons), fungus genes in aphids… there are literally hundreds of examples. A gene is just a snippet of code and it doesn’t make sense to be so concerned about what species it came from. It’s the function that is far more important.

  31. I think every plant should be considered on a case-by-case basis, since every event is unique and the trait isn’t incorporated identically. But it does seem that the distance between species, along with the method used, both can effect the risk of unanticipated outcomes.
    It’s about how the snippets interact with one another.
    The sweet potato is exciting – Mary linked to a news article about it above.

  32. but I agree that there’s no concern about species just for the sake of species difference

  33. Bt is actually a protein, so “exudates” wouldn’t last long in the soil, or stay long through a composting process. You have to remember that even in organic farming it’s allowed to put Bti (the organism that produces Bt) on the plants (or in the water). That could be considered more “problematic” than a single protein in plant which only activates when an insect eats the plant.
    The other thing to remember is that “conventional” breeding takes years – decades, even – and introduces a host of genes in addition to the desired ones. Genetic engineering introduces only those genes, and cuts the development time down drastically.

  34. This is almost the same comment I made in another discussion on this site, but anyway:
    The toxins bind tightly to certain types of soil, and remain active for several months. I don’t think it’s ecologically sound to engineer multiple Cry toxins into many millions of acres of crops. They kill some beneficial insects, and have already helped generate resistance to what has been a valuable and safe pesticide. We need more research to learn about the effects on soil and crop health.
    Engineered bt is expressed throughout the plant and throughout the growing cycle. This is counter to the principles of integrated pest management. No pesticide is perfect, but bt sprays can have a lower impact, and when used appropriately cause less harm to non-target organisms.
    If we engineer more crops and even trees (yes, it’s been done) to express bt toxins, not only will we make them ineffective as pesticides, but we don’t know what other environmental effects will happen.
    It’s true that GE can be faster than conventional breeding. And I’d say that the low risk of unintended effects in some GE would warrant less scrutiny. However, adding a gene isn’t the only change that typically happens in GE, and sorting out unwanted changes takes time too. Sometimes the changes aren’t necessarily unwanted, and many times remain unknown until independent researchers take a closer look at the plants actually growing in the fields (see my comment above comparing 2 studies on MON810)

  35. Well, once again my reply dropped to the bottom of the page.
    Norbrook, my reply to you starts with: “This is almost the same comment I made…” and will be found somewhere below.

  36. I used to think the distance between species and method mattered, too. But as I am learning more and more about “natural genetic engineering” and thinking about how much genes move around without any human intervention, my thoughts are changing. At this point, I am thinking three steps for safety are enough:
    1) Consider the trait itself. Is it a toxin? Will it have profound effects on the organism (like hormone regulation, etc)? Specific experiments appropriate for the trait should be conducted.
    2) Consider allergenicity. We have plenty of in silico and in vitro tests to check if a protein will be allergenic. Any proteins that may be allergenic (within a certain threshold) should not go to market or else be very carefully controlled and labeled.
    3) Overall comparison to an isoline and to a panel of diverse varieties of the species. Any changes to genetics, whether through genetic engineering or breeding, will have some changes in metabolome or proteome. The question is whether those changes are outside the normal range for the species or whether there is a large unexpected change. If yes, then investigate further. If no, then it is unlikely that any changes we might not be able to detect would be present.
    I find the endless feeding study experiments to be wasteful of animal life and of research dollars at this point. Feeding studies introduce so much variability on their own that it is unlikely we would detect a small change anyway! Better to investigate the proteome or metabolome and get a result that is easier to interpret. You could always follow up with an animal study after, if needed. I wonder if the feeding studies are done because the companies want to do them, because the FDA requires them (even though they don’t officially say they require them, they could de facto require them if they won’t advance an application without it), or for some other reason. I know some countries (India, for example) do require feeding studies. But are they really telling us anything?

  37. So, I gather that you believe that the relationship between species doesn’t effect the potential risk of unintended consequences, nor does the method used to cross them? And that the toxicity of the trait, and the levels of basic compositional elements and toxins the parent is known for are enough to ensure the safety of the new plant? Regardless of the individual event and only dependent on the trait?
    From what I can gather on current safety assessments, new GMOs aren’t required to undergo any safety testing that wouldn’t also be required of any new food, regardless of how it’s created. This process treats new GMOs as food additives/GRAS, which I think may be biologically inappropriate (it’s difficult to know while having no access to what’s actually being done by the industry or required in each case by the FDA). We’re not talking about EPA or APHIS involvement. The toxicology of the trait is assessed, separate from the plant. The rough equivalency of basic components and toxins/allergies normally associated with that food are assessed, and broad parameters of change are allowed (as shown by a 12-14% reduction in isoflavones in one GE soy compared to isogenic and similar lines). No proteonomic, metabolomic or toxicity testing is routinely performed on new GE plants as part of typical regulatory review.
    The only difference between long-standing additive/GRAS and how it’s applied to GE is that a tradition has been established since the ’90s: the industry voluntarily agrees to the most extensive review that the FDA might request under additive/GRAS petitions (as detailed above). Independent scientists have been suggesting since the beginning that each GE plant be evaluated for allergens and toxins that are “invisible” to the above approach, along with changes in amounts of various compounds in the food that might not be a part of the broad assessment that’s now typically required. So, independent scientists want to take things further, while the industry apparently would like to do away with the tradition of maximum voluntary review (which doesn’t typically include more than standard testing of the trait, separate from the plant, and broad “substantial equivalence”). This is my interpretation of how things currently stand. Again, it’s hard for a regular person to get a handle on what’s actually being done. It’s probably hard even for people who know more than I do, since the industry keeps tight control over information about their products and processes.
    I think I can agree with your desires re: evaluation, if those desires would be to require the kind of evaluation that might determine whether toxicology testing of the food should be required. I can’t quite tell if they do. What I do know is that that kind of evaluation isn’t necessarily required right now (proteonomic, metabolomic) and some scientists say it wouldn’t be adequate anyway. But because I agree that feeding trials are problematic, we ought to at least be doing these other kinds of evaluations instead of none of the above. I think it would be good would to institute those tests you mention as a first step in toxicology assessment. For myself, I’d also like to see more extensive comparison of plant compounds as we learn that there may be previously unknown nutritional value in the many that we’re still studying. I’d like to see experts in that area involved in determining the scientific meaning of “substantial equivalence”.

  38. Mlema,
    So you are concerned about “unknown unknowns”? Harms that are so subtle and slight that they can’t be detected with the testing and surveillance already in-force?
    May I ask why that concern is particular to “GMOs”? They ARE tested, and would be even if there were not explicit or implied regulatory oversight: no company wants trouble; there is no evidence of a giant program to kill everyone.
    May I suggest that a better target for suspicion would be the purveyors of KNOWN-dangerous crops, those where fully half of the genes have been inserted from unknown and demonstrably possibly harmful sources. For example, wild-type introgression in Prunus amygdalus, any Cucurbita and Phaseolus lunatus can (and did) produce toxic offspring, as is the case with many other species that have been selected for less toxicity than their wild progenetors. This real and demonstrated (not theoretical) danger could be avoided if the plants were subjected to the same testing “GMOs” are. Will you stand with me and demand a ban on “Open Pollinated” crops? It is easy to see that the danger they subject the unsuspecting public to is at least orders-of-magnitude greater than the undemonstrated theoretical danger of tested “GMOs.”
    Another example is the willy-nilly crossing of species and varieties without adequate attention to anything but a narrow set of traits sought by a for-profit corporation: Look-up “Lenape” potato and “toxic psoralen” celery (the researchers who identified the guilty variety, bred for insect-resistance, declined to publicly name it). Will you also stand with me and demand that the safety of all products of breeding programs be tested like “GMOs” are, or even more, since hybridization is such a messy less-precise, more random, more DANGEROUS process? After all we can’t trust the for-profit corporations to consider the consumer’s interest, can we? A proposal exists called “Integrated Breeding and Environmental Chemicals (IBEC) strategy.” The IBEC strategy involves, in the breeding process, evaluation of the levels of the toxic compound(s) in all prospective new varieties.
    Look-up the books:
    Phytochemical Resources for Medicine and Agriculture

  39. Yes, what ever did happen to IPM??
    Yes, Mlema, better be careful not to repeat your wording from other parts of the site, or you might get the censor riled up again… even if it fits the discussion thread.

  40. OGM, I’m not concerned about “unknown unknowns” – how would I know to be concerned about them? 🙂 I’m concerned about known unknowns, as I’ve detailed in my comment above.
    “Harms that are so subtle and slight that they can’t be detected with the testing and surveillance already in-force?”
    What testing and surveillance are you referring to that varies from what I delineated above?
    “May I ask why that concern is particular to “GMOs”? They ARE tested, and would be even if there were not explicit or implied regulatory oversight…”
    Tests are of course done as part of development. Beyond that all I know is that typical regulatory testing requires “substantial equivalence” and that any added proteins (for example) are not toxic or allergenic. I would be happy to have you show me that the industry checks the plant itself for toxicity or allergenicity – as opposed to the trait as it’s manufactured separate from the plant (usually in bacteria). They do test for changes in toxicity that would be common to the parent plant. But if they look for new compounds, why are they adamant that it not be required as part of deregulation? And the changes in nutrition have a broad range of acceptability. So, it could very well be that over time, as we breed new traits into already existing GMOs, we continually reduce the level of some nutrients. What Monsanto declares “substantially equivalent”, nutritionists may not.
    “The composition of glyphosate-tolerant soybean seeds is equivalent to that of conventional soybeans.”
    Monsanto compared one of its GE HT soybeans to its isogenic parent for a number of components (listed in abstract) and declared it equivalent
    “Alterations in Clinically Important Phytoestrogens in Genetically Modified, Herbicide-Tolerant Soybeans”
    “We analyzed the phytoestrogen concentrations in two varieties of genetically modified, herbicide-tolerant soybeans and their isogenic conventional counterparts grown under similar conditions. An overall reduction in phytoestrogen levels of 12-14% was observed in the genetically altered soybean strains…” (they tested the same one Monsanto said was equivalent)
    You said:
    “This real and demonstrated (not theoretical) danger could be avoided if the plants were subjected to the same testing “GMOs” are.”
    How so? Which required GMO testing would reveal those demonstrated dangers?
    I would be happy to stand with you on improved testing on all new varieties – based on the relative risk involved. Contrary to what you seem to think I’m saying, this would mean more testing for some conventionally bred plants, and less for some GMOs. However, I would most prefer to give independent experts the authority to require what they feel is appropriate in each case – since I am no expert. Based on my reading of the history of how regulations for GMOs were developed, the experts didn’t get what they wanted.
    We have advanced analytical tools that we could be using to learn more about all plants and breeding. We could be establishing databases and using them to improve safety and nutrition. The references you linked to are very interesting, but I don’t understand how they play into this discussion on what we require vs. what we ought to require – for GE and any new plant. It seems that you’re pointing out that we have an expert knowledge base. But you’re not showing me that we’re using it.

  41. MaryM, can you please link me to the discussion you started in the forum about the manure? What is the significance of the manure and GMO? Why do you say using manure is non-GMO? how are they related that they would be mutually exclusive? You’ve brought up the Nature news articles a few times, and I’ve read the study it references, and I’m trying to get why you keep mentioning the article when the study doesn’t seem to say what you seem to be implying it says. I don’t want to try to sort it out here, but I can’t find your forum comment.

  42. I’m talking about people who whinge about unintended consequences Mlema–and yet fail to grasp that not using GMOs has consequences as well. These include increased land use, which negatively impacts biodiversity. Increasing pesticides use. Returning to older herbicides with worse characteristics and more “superweeds”, things like that. Exactly what Nye and Novella were talking about.
    They also fail to consider consequences of things that have nothing to do with GMOs, because they have this fixation on their GMO-bogeymen. It’s just like anti-vaxxers shouting about mercury. The paper about increasing antibiotics resistance by using manure is just one example of the misplaced attention. There’s no connection of antibiotic resistance and GMOs, yet some people flog that idea. The same folks completely neglect to note their system of choice may cause antibiotic resistance.
    I’m talking about a phrase that I saw once on a Swedish post about GMOs: ideological earplugs. It’s not about that paper itself.

  43. “The same folks completely neglect to note their system of choice may cause antibiotic resistance.”
    And that is why I was hoping you’d link me to the forum discussion. I think you’re misinterpreting the paper. but I’ll try again to find the discussion. Thanks

  44. If any of you, like me, yearned for more on how this happened, Bill Nye has expanded on what he learned and some other features of this debate at StarTalk in a podcast:
    One of the things that was bugging me was that I still didn’t understand where he had obtained the unfortunate info he had before. Turns out–he says near the end–he’s on the advisory board of the Union of Concerned Scientists. I will bet that was the source of the info around the time he must have been writing the book. We also know that he was hanging around with Michael Hansen, and that could have been part of it too.
    But I think that’s good news. If UCSUSA is getting advice from Bill, this might bode well for a new direction from them. Since they cleaned house it’s been better, but there’s not much clarity on where they currently stand on this.

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