Are GMOs Really That Bad?

Bill Nye changed his mind. Over a hundred Nobel laureates are combating Greenpeace. Will activists ever consider the science? 

Fans of Bill Nye were not happy when he announced that GMOs might not be that bad; in fact, he feels that GM foods might be beneficial. He lists three reasons for changing his mind:

  • We can now assay genes much quicker than 15 years ago, which means researchers can investigate and combat potential crop threats at a fast rate. We can also more reliably predict how GM plants will grow.
  • There will be up to 10 billion people on this planet by the middle of this century. GMOs offer a more productive yield than traditional crops. Nye reminds listeners that humans have long been hybridizing crops; we’re just doing it genetically now, not just combining crops with desirable traits sexually.
  • We’ve discovered that genes are introduced between species naturally. As an example, he cites sweet potatoes, which took their current form after a virus infected the plant. Humans cultivate these gene-changed species.
  • Nye admits that he was wrong in his previous assertion that GMOs are bad, period. (Given the online response, that is exactly how many of his fans feel.) He also supports patents on hybridized plants, reminding everyone that patents expire—soybeans, for example, are now available for public usage.

    Which brings us to Soylent. Silicon Valley’s favorite open-source, methane-producing, meal-replacement beverage is unapologetically not GMO-free. This makes sense given its scientifically inclined fanbase. While groups like Greenpeace vehemently oppose GM crops—non-GMO foods are currently a $16 billion industry—a group of over a hundred Nobel laureates signed a letter urging the activist group to take a hit of GM-free valerian root.

    The list of groups that have declared GMOs safe for consumption include the National Academy of Sciences, the European Commission, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Like it or not, GMOs are used in insulin; most T-shirts are woven with genetically modified cotton.

    The Nobel letter echoes claims by above organizations:

    We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against 'GMOs' in general and Golden Rice in particular.

    Greenpeace’s response notes the long failure of Golden Rice, which is true. Invented as a means of providing impoverished, rural citizens of Asian countries an affordable, beta-carotene-rich food source, it has been decades of development with little result. Greenpeace is also correct that providing a diverse healthy diet is a powerful way of combating malnutrition.

    Yet there’s something frightening when any organization speaks in self-righteous tones, implying that the diet they’re engineering is the “only guaranteed solution.” Extensive testing should be done on GMOs—Nye points out that standards are rigorous, though how seriously the FDA regulates companies is another story.

    Point being, this is not a black-and-white issue, even though many people treat it as such. Are genetically modified tomatoes as bad as soybeans? What modifications has each undergone? What clinical trials have been conducted? What are the results?

    These are questions that need to be asked on a case-by-case basis. Demonizing GMOs whole cloth is not helpful in a world that, as Nye suggests, is rapidly increasing in size. Scientists assess safety based on what the genes do and how they change the structure of the plants.

    It is odd that this is the great debate of modern food, not the proven damaging effects of sugar. Perhaps that addiction is too close to home for too many people; perhaps it’s not sexy enough of a cause. Getting people proper nutrition seems a valuable goal, while Nestle exploiting indigenous Amazonian populations with sugar-heavy, processed foods barely gets a whimper.

    Should you avoid Soylent because it contains GMOs? Probably not. Avoid it simply because it’s Soylent.


    Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch @derekberes.

    Big Think
    Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

    Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

    As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

    Keep reading Show less

    Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

    Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

    Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
    Personal Growth
    • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
    • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
    • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
    Keep reading Show less

    How to flirt: 7 tips backed by science

    When it comes to flirting, love meters have nothing on these researchers' findings.

    (Photo from Wikimedia)
    Sex & Relationships
    • Flirting is an important part of life. It can be a fun, adventurous way to meet others and develop intimate relationships.
    • Many people find flirting to be an anxiety-ridden experience, but science can help us discover principles to be more relaxed while flirting.
    • Smiling and eye contact are proven winners, while pick-up lines are a flirty fallacy.
    Keep reading Show less

    New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

    Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

    Surprising Science
    • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
    • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
    • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.