From climate change to animal intelligence, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has lately been the unofficial defender of all things science. Now, in a video dug up by Mother Jones yesterday, he takes on another hot topic: genetically modified foods.
“I’m amazed how much objection genetically modified foods are receiving from the public,” he says in the clip when asked about the subject. “It smacks of a fear factor that exists at every new emergent science where people don’t fully understand it…and therefore reject it.”
The scientist points out that humans have been modifying crops and livestock throughout history. Farmers and breeders have selected desirable features of plants and animals to produce better products.
“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,” he says. “That’s how we genetically modify them. So now we can do it in the lab, all of a sudden you’re going to complain.”
To be sure, deGrasse Tyson doesn’t go into the complexities of the debate around GMOs. A recent paper published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic crops have more antioxidants than those that are conventionally grown (which could be genetically engineered, infused with growth hormones and antibiotics, or laced with pesticides). Monsanto, the largest biotech company in the world, has been suing small-time farmers for seed patent infringement.
On the flip side, some scientists have been engineering food to solve health problems in developing countries. This month nutrient-enriched bananas grown to address the vitamin A deficiency in Uganda and other African countries entered U.S. trials.
Both the benefits and the dangers of GMOs have been contentious, and the debate is worth having.
“We’re creating and modifying the biology of the world to serve our needs,” says deGrasse Tyson. “I don’t have a problem doing that, because we’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years. So chill out.”