Why Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Get GMOs So Wrong?

Why Did Neil deGrasse Tyson Get GMOs So Wrong?

Celebrity scientists. Something about that combination has never sat well with me. Shouldn’t scientists be in labs hard at work solving our very real problems like climate change and disease prevention? But everyone LOVES Neil deGrasse Tyson even despite the fact that he seems to be everywhere besides a lab. Of course he’s funny and charming and knows stuff about the universe that we love learning about. But did he just put his celebrity scientist foot into…a black hole?

In a recent video clip appearing on Mother Jones, Tyson essentially defends GMOs saying that “Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food.”

[Infographic] The 8 Most Common GMO Foods

This is only not really kind of sort of true, especially as it pertains to the discussion about conventional GMOs. First, most of the foods we cultivate are hybrids, which does not involve scientists exploding other plants’ (or animals’) DNA into the cells of other plants (or animals). Hybridization is a different science altogether. Really. It can be done right in the field or greenhouse and this we have been doing for ages.

But Tyson persists: “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.”

As unnatural as a seedless watermelon may be, it is not designed to withstand excessive amounts of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides-or worse-genetically altered so that the melon itself is an actual pesticide like Bt corn or soy is. It is not patented in the way that Monsanto’s seeds are. No small family farmer will be sued if a seedless watermelon plant appears on his property as a result of crop drift.

Read more about seed contamination and farmers’ rights

If we isolate the laboratory practice of genetic modification-moving cellular junk around and into other species-it’s not necessarily an egregious thing as much as it is just plain Frankenweird. But when the sole purpose of that practice is to allow for excessive use of highly toxic chemicals with known negative repercussions for humans and the environment, there’s definitely something setting this apart from the way we’ve been altering food since we began cultivation. This ain’t no seedless watermelon, doc. Maybe they define GMOs differently out in the Cosmos, but here on earth, there’s still quite a distinction.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: NASA

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Jill Ettinger is a freelance journalist and marketing specialist primarily focused on the organic and natural industries, she bridges her love for changing the food system with her lifelong passion for writing and connecting people in their shared values. You can connect with Jill on Twitter and Instagram.