In an old video recently posted on YouTube and unearthed by Mother Jones, astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson emphatically countered one of the main arguments used by opponents of genetically modified food. "Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans," he says, "is genetically modified food."
"We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals, that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them," he goes on. "It's called 'artificial selection.' That's how we genetically modify them."
Now, as it's typically used, genetic modification often refers to things like scientists swapping out a gene from one species and putting it into another species — rather than simply selecting for genes already present in a particular plant, as farmers have done historically.
But in many ways, this is more of a semantic nuance than a substantial difference. Just by using traditional breeding methods, as Tyson notes, we've dramatically altered the appearance, nutrition, taste, and reproductive habits of pretty much all the foods we eat. This is part of the reason why "all-natural" labels on foods are meaningless. The only "natural" apple is a crabapple, and "natural" corn — as it existed before humans domesticated it 9,000 years ago — was a rock-hard grass with a few kernels that shattered before it could be harvested.
Of course, there are many other reasons why people currently oppose lab-engineered foods. So far, though, there isn't good evidence that they're any less safe than regular foods. The impact of these foods on the environment seems to be mixed: they may have reduced pesticide use, but have increased use of weed-killing herbicides, and could give rise to herbicide-resistant "superweeds." Many opponents also charge that a few biotech companies have profited from them as much as millions of farmers and consumers.
But if your problem with GM foods is simply that they're not "natural", Tyson has a simple message for you: "Chill out."
Further reading: "All-natural" labels on foods are meaningless