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What Do We REALLY Know of GMOs? Tyson Wags His Finger at Critics

Jul 31, 2014 12:52 PM EDT

Earlier this week, the internet's beloved "science guy" Neil deGrasse Tyson threw his weighty two cents into the debate about genetically modified organism (GMO) foods, telling critics of the products to "chill out."

A video was recently uploaded on YouTube where Tyson answers a question about GMOs at a signing. It is unclear where exactly this took place or when, but Tyson had a two-minute message prepared for GMO doubters.

Tyson, like many experts, argues that people are simply too ignorant of the work behind GMOs to truly weigh any threat they can pose to human health. And this is startling, he says, because we have been genetically modifying crops for "tens of thousands of years."

"Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food," asserts Tyson. "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." (Scroll to read on...)

In fairness, Tyson is no agricultural expert; he's a well respected astrophysicist who found his claim to fame hosting the TV series Cosmos, where he helped viewers understand the mysteries of the Universe.

However, that has always been Tyson's shtick - explaining the very complicated to those wishing to learn - and it has earned him no small amount of internet fame.

Of course, the video has earned a decent amount of attention from both sides of the GMO debate, where some claim that Tyson is generalizing a complex issue simply to write it off.

So let's dive in deeper.

Just What Are GMOs Anyways?

Most simply put, GMOs are organisms that have had their genetic makeup tampered with to facilitate accelerated and unnatural changes. These changes largely have to do with traits, such as yield, size and resistance to harmful elements.

In that sense, Tyson is very right. We, as a species, have been genetically modifying our food ever since we set down the spear and took up the hoe. In fact, ALL domesticated crops are genetically modified in some unnatural way after human intervention encouraged the growth of specific traits that served our needs.

"If you're the complainer type, go back and eat the apples that grow wild," Tyson added. "You know something? They're [tiny], and they're tart. They're not sweet, like Red Delicious apples. We manufactured those. That's a genetic modification." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

Even that little poodle who could be prancing around your house is a GMO. Pure bred dogs are actually as modified as they come, sporting traits that would never be seen in nature. The forced selection of these traits has even led to some terrible consequences, where many breeds are prone to hip problems, collapsing tracheas and even seizures.

However, if for some reason you ever felt the sudden urge to eat Fido, you're not likely to suffer from anything worse than indigestion.

But I've Heard That Eating GMOs Can Pose Serious Health Risks!

And herein lies the true debate. Tyson argues for general genetic modification, but he never addresses the means of this modification. While artificial selection can lead to consequences for the modified species, the result is still theoretically possible in nature (even if the chances are phenomenally slim). That's why eating that GMO apple isn't going to give you cancer. In nature, apples don't give you cancer.

Unfortunately, there is another kind of GMO that is giving critics a ton of ammo to keep this debate going. Using genetic engineering, scientists have figured out how to insert the trait of one organism into another by physically adding genetic information to a pre-existing DNA strand. This can add new nutrients to rice, or add herbicide resistance to a cash crop that is suffering from weed invasion.

While the result is certainly not natural, the creation of these crops is actually strictly controlled, with the US Food and Drug Administration only allowing for eight tightly controlled GMOs in the United States. Everything else, despite what you may hear, is an "old school" GMO.

The concern has been that this unnatural modification may lead to unforeseen consequences - a very understandable worry. The Institute for Repressible Technology and the American Academy of Environmental Medicine reported concerns that untested GMOs were harming and sterilizing grazing livestock in other parts of the world. In the United Kingdom, soy allergies alone saw a 50 percent elevation after super-modified soy was introduced. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

The Council for Biotechnology had a response for these kind of reports.

"While this makes for good news, it is blatantly false. In 20-plus years on the market, GMOs have not caused or contributed to a single illness or death. This is not industry hype; it is common and accepted fact."

And they might not be lying. While a few studies have found associations between GMOs and adverse effects, these studies almost always only point out a possible connection, and do not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. Meanwhile, there has been hundreds upon hundreds of published and independent safety assessments of the worlds GMOs.

"It is frequently claimed that GM foods are not properly tested, or asserted that few independent studies have been published to establish their safety. Another similar claim made is that the food regulatory agencies rely exclusively of corporate information to decide whether GM food and feed are safe... This conventional 'wisdom' is wrong," explained food safety expert David Tribe.

Tribe teaches courses on food science at the University of Melbourne, and recently gathered more than 600 reports on GMO food safety, all of which found no concrete evidence backing the claims that these crops are harmful. About 30 percent of these studies were conducted and funded entirely independent of partial parties.

So Why No Labels?

One massive part of the GMO debate has to do with labels. The FDA currently does not label GMO products, despite the fact that they are apparently very confident that these products are harmless. So why not? Here we come full circle back to Tyson's point - we're just too stupid to "get it." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Daniel Lobo) R2K March 2011

"I really worry that labeling does more harm than good, that it leads too many people away from it and it diminishes the market for GMOs that are the solution to a lot of the problems we face," said David Just, co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs.

Just recently spoke with Representative Ted Yoho of the subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture to discuss GMO labeling according to the Huffington Post.

"Even using long scientific-sounding words make it sound like it's been grown in a test tube, and people get scared of it," Just added.

Just reflected the sentiments of many of the subcommittee that consumers need to first better understand GMOs. Maybe then, they will be "chill" enough, as Tyson would say, to see labeling for what it means.

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