Edited by Peter
Over two and a half years ago, SciShow, the YouTube science-related vlogging channel hosted by Hank Green of the VlogBrothers, posted a video titled ‘The Science of Genetically Modified Food’ in which they cast an unfounded shadow on the technology. They did this by cherry picking evidence and citing fraudulent studies; although I believe no malice was intended and they simply took the papers at face value and were unintentionally projecting their own views on the subject. As soon as it came to the attention of Hank and those at SciShow that they may have misled their audience from the scientific consensus on GM-food, they immediately removed their video and publicly announced that they would be producing a new one on the subject. Two and a half years later, they finally published the video they promised under the rather misleading and obtuse click-bait title of ‘Why are GMOs bad?’
Although I (as well as many others, I’m sure…) am a little disappointed in the time taken to remake this video, I am happy that it is finally here and is more balanced and accurate than the last. Not only that, but Hank owns up to his mistakes and admits that he and the people who work for SciShow may have let their biases seep into the original. This took a lot of guts and was not a throw away comment – in fact, Hank opens up the video by saying “we made a video about this once before, but the studies we cited turned out to be bunk and in general I think we played our cards too close to our chest when it comes to how we really feel about genetic engineering here at SciShow”. He also openly talks about one of the papers he referenced in his last video, the highly discredited (and, in my opinion, unethical) paper, ‘Long-term Toxicity of a Rundundup Herbicide and a Roundup-Tolerant Genetically Modified Maize‘. A paper so bad and misleading that it tried to hide the fact that it finds a dose-response between male rats drinking the herbicide Roundup and increased life expectancy. Overall I was very pleased with the video, but it is far from perfect as Hank makes a rather large mistake.
Towards the end of the video, Hank lists concerns that some have with the technology, but most of these concerns are not problems specific to GM-food as Hank correctly states. For example, Hank says that we should be worried about “placing so much power over our food supply into the hands of a very few, very large companies” which is a valid concern, but not one that effects GMOs exclusively. Hank does also talk about the potential of contamination of certified organic crops, which I think is a valid concern. However, just prior to this, he said that these people may be sued by those who contaminated them. This is flat-out incorrect!
“But if the public domain seed was unintentionally fertilised with a patented strain, you might find the seed you saved from last years harvest to plant next year has genes owned by someone else. Someone who it turns out is suing you” – Hank Green
Unfortunately, Hank and those at SciShow neglected to reference an example of a large agricultural company taking legal action against a farmer whose crop was accidentally contaminated. In fact, the references for this video in general are very poor – with some not even working. One of the strangest (and out of place) references was to ‘A Review on Impacts of Genetically Modified Food on Human Health’ , which states that GM diets cause liver damage, lower life expectancy, and increase infant mortality. This review was published by Bentham Science Publishers who some may recognise as the people who published the paper claiming that the WTC was destroyed using thermite; and who also accepted fake papers generated using SCIgen.
Although SciShow never referenced who they were talking about regarding contamination and legal action, I think it’s a safe bet to say that it was Percy Schmeiser. Schmeiser is a Canadian canola farmer who claimed that his crop had become contaminated with Roundup Ready canola (a GMO which is resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide), and who in 2001 was successfully sued for patent violation by Monsanto. Since then, he has appeared in documentaries such as ‘Seeds Of Death’, and is regularly invited to speak around the world at events hosted by those who oppose GM technology in agriculture. What he neglects to mention at these events and on film is that he isolated the GM-plants in question found on his land using Roundup. He then harvested their seeds and planted them, resulting in 95-98% of his 1,000 acres of canola becoming Roundup tolerant. Whatever way you look at it, Schmeiser knowingly planted patented technology without a license. Yet he tried in vain to appeal the Canadian Supreme Courts decision in 2002 and 2004. Still, to this day, he continues to play the victim and even lies about the outcome of the case to convince the gullible. It would take no effort to discover that a company like Monsanto does not sue, or threaten to sue, farmers when trace amounts of their patented seeds or traits are present in their fields.
At the end of the day, my opinion on SciShow and Hank Green has not changed. They still make fantastic content and I recommend you subscribe to their YouTube channel but, as I said before, you should always watch them with a sceptical eye – as you should with all science communicators. One mistake many make is to think that these people are infallible and they are knowledgeable about the subject they are covering. In reality, most of them will likely only have a passing interest, and know relatively little on the subject – and I include myself here. Over the past 4 years, I have published a lot of science-based content online, but there are only two videos (Myles vs Randall Niles – Abiogenesis and Myles vs Jonathan Wells – Miller-Urey Experiment) where I am somewhat of an authority on the subject matter. This by no means discredits anything I or other science communicators have said, but it does help to explain the likes of IFLS telling their subscribers that people who live next to farms that spray Roundup have a higher chance of having autistic children. In other words, science communicators are really the front line and if anything we say interests you, you should go straight to the source.