by Steve Bivans
First off, let me say that I have thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Tyson’s revival of the Cosmos show. It’s a great show, and he is a great host, who is obviously passionate about science and discovery.
But he’s dead wrong, on almost every important point he’s made about GMOs and food modification.
In case you haven’t stumbled across this story, I’ll give you the short version. Recently, during an interview he railed against the anti-GMO movement, basically arguing that for thousands of years humans have been genetically modifying their food supply, that there are very few ‘wild’ versions of those foods left anymore, so why now are we bitching about GMOs.
GMOs and Neil de Grasse Tyson
Here’s are a few quotes from the first interview:
“I’m amazed how much rejection genetically modified foods are receiving from the public. It smacks of the fear factor that exists at every new emergent science, where people don’t fully understand it or don’t fully know or embrace its consequences, and so therefore reject it,”
He goes on to say:
“We are creating and modifying the biology of the world to serve our needs…I don’t have a problem with that, because we’ve been doing that for tens of thousands of years. So chill out.”
Chill out? Really Mr. Tyson? How very scientific a response.
Then in the last couple weeks, he has responded to the backlash to those statements with the following:
“…to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing — and will continue to do — to nature so that it best serves our survival. That’s what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn’t, have gone extinct. In life, be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don’t agree with.”
Very good advice, Mr. Tyson. Maybe you should follow it? Just a thought.
He then chimes in on GMO labeling, and testing of food for safety:
“Since practically all food has been genetically altered from nature, if you wanted labeling I suppose you could demand it, but then it should be for all such foods…”
“Of course new foods should be tested for health risks, regardless of their origin. That’s the job of the Food and Drug Administration (in the USA),”
And then on the ‘right’ to make and sell such products:
“In a free market capitalist society, which we have all ‘bought’ into here in America, if somebody invents something that has market value, they ought to be able to make as much money as they can selling it, provided they do not infringe the rights of others. I see no reason why food should not be included in this concept.”
Ok, my turn. I will do my best to restrict my critique to his statements, and not to slip into an ad hominem attack on Mr. Tyson himself, because I believe that he is a strong advocate for cleaning up our environment, as I am. That being said, some of his statements are in conflict with his stated life’s purpose, and that’s never good. I’ve been caught doing similar things before, and luckily, someone pointed it out. I’m extending the same to Mr. Tyson. His position on GMOs saddens me, actually, because I know that he has a great deal of influence on public opinion.
Now, up front–just to be ‘scientific’, and forthcoming–I’m going to tell you that I am NOT a scientist. I know quite a few, but I’m an historian and a writer, and crabby blogger. Like I said at the beginning, I like Mr Tyson’s show, though I’m starting to question his conclusions. While I’m not a scientist, I do know a bit about the scientific method. I also know that scientists, or a great many of them, seem to think that science is the solution to everything, which is a discussion for another day. I’ll just say here, that “It isn’t.”
Let’s examine Mr. Tyson’s main points to see how they hold up under critical scrutiny.
We (anti-GMO protesters) are all reacting out of ‘fear factor’ to science that we don’t understand. Sorry Neil, but many of us, even us non-scientists understand enough to know that it has not been tested fully. There’s a reason why emergent scientific discoveries are rejected. Sometimes, like Mr. Tyson suggests, fear drives the rejection. That comes in two forms, at least. One comes from the public, who rarely understand new technologies, especially today, because they emerge constantly, so most of us are too busy doing our jobs to keep up with them—though I suspect that that has always been the case. Two, the scientific community has rigorous standards of proof that should be adhered to. Just because someone ’says’ their new invention can cure cancer, or send a man to the moon, or obliterate thousands of people in one blinding flash, isn’t good enough. These claims must be substantiated. GMOs have not been fully tested, and therefore are not substantiated. More on that below.
Humans have been modifying their food for “tens of thousands of years. This is mostly true. We most certainly have modified food and crops for at least the last 10 thousand years, since the agricultural revolution when most of our ancestors began cultivating grains in the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, India and China. While Tyson is correct in this statement, he implies that this was obviously a ‘good thing.’ That is highly debatable. The resultant civilizations of that revolution—a scientific revolution mind you—spread out over the planet, destroying all other cultures in their path, deforesting the land, poisoning rivers, lakes and oceans, and eventually changing the very climate of the planet—a subject close to Mr. Tyson’s heart (he is an outspoken supporter of initiatives to slow down or halt climate change). In point of fact, the majority of pollution in the world’s water supply comes from large factory farms, growing what? GMOs. These new crops also require a massive amount of fossil fuels to cultivate. In fact, we burn about 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce, transport and store 1 calorie of food in the United States. This includes the fuel for vehicles to plow, harvest, store, and transport the produce and meat to market, as well as all of the petro-chemicals employed to fertilize and protect them from insects and weeds.
GMOs and Artificial Selection are the same thing. Tyson has a point here, but only because he does the same thing that many of his opponents do: he doesn’t define GMO. GMO, technically means ‘genetically modified organism,’ and in that respect, he’s correct to say that “all food has been genetically altered from nature.” Mostly true. But what ‘GMO’ has come to mean—and what opponents to it are usually railing against—is the GE foods, or genetically engineered strains, where a scientist, in a lab, takes the gene from one plant and splices it into another host plant to create an entire new plant strain that never existed before.
This is not artificial selection, an ancient method of cross-breading plants and animals via the natural process of breeding: introducing the sperm or pollen to another strain to produce a hybrid. The assumption of many genetic scientists is that you can splice one gene without affecting the other genes of the plant. Most freethinking scientists today will tell you that this is an erroneous assumption. Plants and animals are very complex organisms, and we simply do not know how all of those genes work together. We could be initiating a catastrophic ‘butterfly effect’ in the process, and the evidence—scientific evidence—that is emerging about super-weeds and super-bugs, seems to back this up. Not only can this kind of tinkering affect the organism itself, but all the other organisms around it. Mr. Tyson knows this, I know, because I’ve seen him talk about the symbiotic relationship between living things on his show.
GMOs should be tested for safety by the FDA. Yes, they should, but many of them are not. The problem with his statement is that is suggests that he either doesn’t know about the conflicts of interests in our government institutions, or he’s choosing to ignore it. The FDA has proven, time and again, that they are corrupt, and do not have the best interests of the American people at heart. The Deputy Director of Food Safety at the FDA, Michael R. Taylor, is a former ‘Vice President for Public Policy’ for none other than Monsanto Corporation. So just how is the FDA going to impartially test GMO crops, when the guy in charge is a former vice president for the very company who makes the majority of genetically modified seeds? Answer: There is no way. Let’s just say that Mr. Taylor is a standup, honest guy, for argument’s sake. How are we to believe he is? This situation is the very reason that government jobs used to be ruled by ‘conflict of interest’ policies, and still should be. For instance, a judge can’t serve on a trial where his mother is up for murder. Makes sense doesn’t it? Does science have a formula for detecting conflict of interest? How about bullshit? I don’t know. I’m not a scientist, like I said, but historians do, and crabby bloggers definitely do! I’m calling BULLSHIT on this one Neil, and you should be too. Mr. Tyson is assuming that the FDA is unbiased in their ‘testing’ of GMOs. That’s just crap, and we all know it.
But even if Monsanto and their buddies at the FDA COULD establish the safety of the actual crop, there is no way in hell that they will ever establish the safety of the stuff they SPRAY on them, i.e., RoundUP for starters. Scientists—not historians—from around the world are coming out in droves to say that this nasty, orcish, shit chemical is dangerous and destroying the planet, while causing untold damage to the humans who are eating it. Even Monsanto has recently said that they are thinking of focusing in different directions from not only RoundUp, but GMOs too. So, far from smacking of fear “that exists at every new emergent science, where people don’t fully understand it or don’t fully know or embrace its consequences,” WE, the intelligent, educated, scientific, free-thinking individuals of Earth, reject unproven, untested, poisonous food! Of course, if Mr. Tyson wants to keep eating crops sprayed with RoundUp, he has every right to do so, at least until we can get it banned for all time. I suspect, however, that he eats only organically grown produce. I wonder what the executives and scientists at Monsanto eat when they go home every night? I have my suspicions.
This leads me to the last two points about Mr. Tyson’s diatribe, and that is the assumption that just because we CAN make something and sell it for profit, we should in fact DO it. Really Neil? That assumption is just ridiculous on the face of it, but let’s play it out and see how it flies—probably not as well as the ‘Ship of the Imagination,’ I’m bettin’.
One of the things that pisses me off about many scientists (and I’m not referring to ALL scientists), is this very assumption. Just because we have figured out how to split the atom, engineer genes, divert rivers, kill mass numbers of people with machine guns, nuclear weapons, or ship them to the showers in railroad trucks and gas them with Zyklon B, doesn’t mean we should. Yeah, maybe I went overboard with the Holocaust reference. Maybe. Maybe not. I suspect that the other things on the list have killed many more than 6 million over time. Hell, I have a few broadswords (technology) in my house, and I’m pretty sure that I could manage to hack up half of my neighborhood before the cops showed up to fill me full of lead, but should I? Probably not. (There’s some sarcasm in this paragraph, if you hadn’t noticed). Don’t worry neighbors, I have no such intentions. I”m also not going to spray RoundUp on my lawn, or near yours, which would be almost as deadly, while perfectly legal, go figure.
But Mr. Tyson argues, not only should a company have the ‘right’ to do it, he basically argues that if a company can produce a product, and convince someone to buy it, then they should be allowed to do so, period—as long as the FDA says it’s ‘safe’, after receiving bribes from the company that produced the product, of course. This is just complete and utter bullshit, and as un-scientific a thing that he’s probably ever said in his life. Mr. Tyson, if the FDA wasn’t so compromised, you might have a point. Yes, a company would have the ‘right’ to sell it, but that doesn’t mean they should.
People and companies should make and sell things that they KNOW are safe, and more than that, actually add value to the World. And please note, that I did not use the word ‘profit’! I said ‘value,’ which is a completely different animal altogether. I could argue all day long—and win—that most products today, that ARE essentially safe, add no value whatsoever to the World, and as such, should not be produced. For instance, fossil fuels (oil, coal) have added ‘value’ to the Earth, have been deemed ’safe,’ but we know they are contributing to global warming and climate change, as well as poisoning the air and water, so it’s time to move on. That’s a point on which Mr. Tyson and I would probably agree. Plastics, also deemed ‘safe’ for decades have been found to leech chemicals into our food, and they end up in landfills, or in the oceans, where they poison the food supply. Speaking of plastic, Cabbage Patch Dolls and Justin Bieber CDs…have they really added value? Sure we can make them, and he can record them, but should we? Should he? Uhhhh, no.
So in conclusion…
I still love Mr. Tyson’s show. I’m not an enemy of science, though it may sound like it. I’m not an enemy of Mr. Tyson, though he may think so now–if he ever has occasion to read this, and I doubt it; I’m not a celebrity on TV. I am an enemy of the assumptions that many scientists, politicians, and businessmen make about what should be made, and sold. At the very minimum, every product sold on Earth should have a label on it—mandated, if not offered voluntarily—that informs the customer what they are buying, eating, etc. If you are not labeling your products, and doing it honestly, you are now being put on notice!
WE the people, whether acting out of ‘fear factors’ or intelligence, are saying that we will not buy your products anymore. We are tired of being lied to, bamboozled, and poisoned. If you can’t honestly tell us what’s in your products then there is only one ‘scientific’ and logical conclusion we can come to: YOU have something to HIDE. And that’s all we need to know when we pull out our wallets.
I will leave you with a quote from the late, great, Carl Sagan:
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, “We will NOT chill OUT!”