Our favorite celebrated science geek with a bowtie is back, and he’s poking holes in popular thought such as food safety. Bill Nye took time to answer a few questions for Chowhound as his new show, Bill Nye Saves the World, releases today on Netflix. We wanted his takes on collaborating with Food Network’s Alton Brown in an episode, molecular gastronomy, and one of the most hot-button food-science issues today — GMOs.
Nye enjoyed Brown’s comedic timing while they created an alien-like life form on their episode. They laughed maniacally, which made us smirk. And molecular gastronomy? That brought to mind liquid nitrogen ice cream for Nye. “It’s fabulous,” he says, but he can take it or leave it. Regular ice cream is great too.
The show covers pretty serious topics, however. Nye performs live experiments in front of an audience and invites guests to each episode as he explores topics in modern society, politics, and culture using a more objective, scientific lens. Most known for his 1993-1998 Bill Nye the Science Guy PBS show, Nye is back to disprove anti-scientific claims made by today’s ruling institutions.
Nye was eager to delve into the GMO controversy with us. Genetically modified organisms, which comprise much of today’s food in the United States, has been vilified along with its major creator, Monsanto. But it’s unsustainable farming practices to blame, he says. GMOs aren’t the bad guys.
“I used to be concerned about genetically modified foods because of our tradition now of using genetically modified foods and cloned plants to create enormous monocultures, which affects the ecosystem,” Nye says. “But I realize that’s not the genetically modified organism’s fault. That’s our farming practices, which we can address.”
Conventional farming often involves rapid technological innovation, according to according to L.E.A.F., a certification organization for labeling ecologically approved fabrics. This type of farming usually involves a lot of invested money, large-scale farms, single crops or row crops grown continuously over many seasons, uniform high-yield hybrid crops, high labor efficiency, extensive use of pesticides and fertilizers, and confined, concentrated systems of livestock.
The dire repercussions of big agribusiness are felt worldwide, according to World Wide Fund for Nature. There’s habitat loss, wasteful water consumption, soil erosion and degradation, pollution, climate change, and genetic erosion. People often equate GMOs with agribusiness because GMOs enable farmers to produce hardier plants faster and more of them, which increases profit.
But that can mean feeding more of the world’s poor in less developed countries, Nye says. And after all, wine is made from clones.
“Grapes are cloned, as they have been for centuries. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a thing,” Nye says.
With genetically modified plants, you can put the pesticide in the plant, which is how many organic plants survive pests and their diseases. These plant-incorporated protectants are called bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. It’s been happening since 1996, according to researchers at University of California, San Diego. These plants — including corn and potatoes — have been modified with short sequences of genes from Bt to express the crystal protein Bt makes.
With this method, plants themselves can produce the proteins and protect themselves from insects without any external Bt or synthetic pesticide sprays, university researchers say.
“It sounds like some toxic chemical, but actually it’s a protein, a protein that doesn’t affect you and me, but it does corn borers, for example,” Nye says.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that between 20 and 40 percent of global crop yields are reduced each year due to the damage wrought by plant pests and diseases. “A failure to monitor the spread of plant pests and diseases can have disastrous consequences on agricultural production and food security for millions of poor farmers,” Maria Helena Semedo said at a 2015 meeting in Rome of plant health specialists from 181 countries. Semedo is the U.N. organization’s deputy director general natural resources.
So a more natural way of pest control enabled by GMOs makes the controversy complicated, Nye says. It not a black-and-white moral issue.
“Hypothetically, you could enable the feeding of billions more people,” Nye says. “So [GMOs are] not good or bad. They just are. We gotta deal with it.”
Want more? Check out Nye’s take on climate change from our sister site, CNET. For some more (light-hearted) science, watch our The Science Behind a Perfectly Browned Cookie video, as well as all our baking intel. Baking is, after all, an exact science.