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Neil deGrasse Tyson inflames the uninformed with his GMO remarks

Indigo rose tomatoes ripening
Indigo rose tomatoes ripening

Surprisingly, Neil deGrasse Tyson, America’s most popular public scientist and host of the highly regarded Cosmos series seems to have opened the floodgates of angst among uninformed foodies. Asked briefly at a press conference about his views on GMO foods, Tyson said:

“Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food. There are no wild, seedless watermelons. There's no wild cows...You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself, is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it's not as large, it's not as sweet, it's not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it. We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It's called artificial selection.”

And then he capped off his answer by saying

“I don’t have a problem with that because we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. So chill out!”

Tyson is simply echoing the conclusions of every major scientific body world wide, who have concluded that GM crops pose no more harm than conventional crops. You can read a summary of their position statements here.

It was probably this implied challenge to the naturalistic fallacy of GMO opponents that lit the firestorm of responses, and you can read about it all over the Internet. Skepticalraptor had a particularly good summary at the DailyKos. This is particularly interesting because the opponents of GMOs tend to skew politically left and the DailyKos is distinctly a left-leaning web site.

However, we don’t need to rehash last week’s news. What’s new news is that Sue Lee created a petition on The Petition Site, to “Don’t tell us to ‘chill out’ about genetically modified foods.” Apparently Lee and her supporters somehow believe that you can change science with a petition! Some wags suggested on the GMOLOL Facebook page that a petition to repeal the law of gravity might be in order as well. Kevin Folta has already made fun of this nonsense in a clever post.

The point is that genetic engineering is exactly the same a plant breeding only more controlled, an issue that opponents cannot seem to grasp. Cross-breeding two plants may result in the mixing and transfer of tens of thousands of genes, while in genetic engineering we transfer only one or two genes. And while they protest that these are “foreign genes,” it is important to note that genes are just little strings of chemicals, and are not species specific. We share half of our genes with a banana and nearly 90% with a fish. This is all really clearly explained in an article by Gregory Conko.

And, always ready to make a buck by selling more fear, anti-GMO charlatan Jeffrey Smith jumped into the fray with a thoroughly incoherent video which he claimed rebutted Tyson. Smith, who has no scientific training, makes his living selling his two self-published books and collecting speaking fees for his fear-mongering presentations. Smith’s video was full of misrepresentations and egregious errors. Biologist Jeff Holiday issued a two-part humorous rebuttal to Smith’s nonsense, with Part I here and Part II here.

Steve Novella published a somewhat more serious rebuttal on the Neurologica Blog

“Here Smith is employing a tactic common among vaccine-deniers – he partially understands the science, just enough to overhype a risk that has already been carefully evaluated.”

In essence, Novella explains that Smith claims that inserted genes can find their way through horizontal transfer into our GI system. This risk has been carefully evaluated by the FDA and the literature thoroughly reviewed, finding no appreciable risk.

And, to top off the weekend’s entertainment, Charles Cooke, writing in the National Review wrote a rambling article about Tyson this weekend called “Smarter than Thou.” I’ve read through it twice and cannot figure out what his point is, other than perhaps Tyson is a little more liberal than Cooke is. Certainly nothing in the article is about science.

The problem today is there are all sorts of half-baked activists going around telling made-up stories about dangers in your food: dangers that simply do not exist. We have the safest food system in the world because of careful regulation of every step in the food process. All of this is discussed in my forthcoming book Food Fears Debunked.

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