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More Unintelligible Gibberish on GMO Risks from Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A few months ago, statistician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, known mostly for his intriguing 2007 book The Black Swan, teamed up with a handful of colleagues to write a “scholarly” diatribe claiming to demonstrate that “what appear to be small and reasonable risks” with GMOs may “accumulate inevitably to certain irreversible harm.” Therefore, the precautionary principle “should be used to prescribe severe limits on GMOs.” The paper received a lot of attention in scientific circles, but was roundly dismissed for being long on overblown rhetoric but conspicuously short on any meaningful reference to the scientific literature describing the risks and safety of genetic engineering, and for containing no understanding of how modern genetic engineering fits within the context of centuries of far more crude genetic modification of plants, animals, and microorganisms.

Well, Taleb is back, this time penning a short essay published on The New York Times’s DealB%k blog with co-author Mark Spitznagel. The authors try to draw comparisons between the recent financial crisis and GMOs, claiming the latter represent another “Too Big to Fail” crisis in waiting. Unfortunately, Taleb’s latest contribution is nothing more than the same sort of evidence-free bombast posing as thoughtful analysis. The result is uninformed and/or unintelligible gibberish.

For example: “The statistical mechanism by which a tomato was built by nature is bottom-up”. The tomatoes we eat today are vastly different than those produced by nature. In the wild, tomatoes are poisonous, marble-like berries. The cultivated tomatoes we eat today are the products of vast genetic changes wrought by human hands. More to the point, what does it even mean that tomatoes were built from the bottom up? Surely Spitznagel and Taleb aren’t claiming tomatoes themselves suggested to we humans what genetic changes to make? On its face, the statement may sound profound, but it simply defies meaningful comprehension.

“... by tinkering in small steps ...” Sure, early farmers tinkered in small steps. Then the 20th Century came along, and breeders began making many giant leaps in genetic manipulationlong before the advent of recombinant DNA in the 1970s. For six or seven decades, breeders have been making macro genetic changes using tools like induced mutation breeding, protoplast fusion, and wide crossing, all of which result in changes to the genetic composition of plants that are orders of magnitude greater than those which result from genetic engineering. What, I’d like the authors to explain, makes the alteration of a single gene or small number of genes in an organism a bigger step than randomly scrambling whole genomes via mutation breeding?

“In nature, errors stay confined and, critically, isolated.” Ebola, anyone? Avian flu? Or, for examples that are not “in nature” but the “small step” changes Spitznagel and Taleb seem to prefer, how about the introduction of hybrid rice plants into parts of Asia that have led to widespread outcrossing to and increased weediness in wild red rices? Or kudzu? Again, this seems like a bold statement designed to impress. But it is completely untethered to any understanding of what actually occurs in nature or the history of non-genetically engineered crop introductions.

“[B]y leading to monoculture ... G.M.O.s threaten more than they can potentially help.” What evidence is there that GMOs lead to monoculture? Or even that they accelerate the spread of monoculture? The fact is, monocultures happen with or without GMOs, making this “argument” a red herring at best. But it also lacks an understanding of why monocultures are sometimes preferable to poly-cultures. The increased land use efficiency that monocultures provide actually makes it possible to grow more food on less land, which has its own substantial ecological benefits.

“[T]he risk of G.M.O.s are more severe than those of finance. They can lead to complex chains of unpredictable changes in the ecosystem, while the methods of risk management with G.M.O.s — unlike finance, where some effort was made — are not even primitive.” Again, the authors evince no sense that they understand how extensively breeders have been altering the genetic composition of plants and other organisms for the past century, or what types of risk management practices have evolved to coincide.

In fact, compared with the wholly voluntary (and yet quite robust) risk management practices that are relied upon to manage introductions of mutant varieties, somaclonal variants, wide crosses, and the products of cell fusion, the legally obligatory risk management practices used for genetically engineered plant introductions are vastly over-protective.

In the end, Spitznagel and Taleb’s argument boils down to a claim that ecosystems are complex and rDNA modification seems pretty mysterious to them, so nobody could possibly understand it. Until they can offer some arguments that take into consideration what we actually know about genetic modification of organisms (by various methods) and why we should consider rDNA modification uniquely risky when other methods result in even greater genetic changes, the rest of us are entitled to ignore them.

Spitznagel and Taleb are right about one thing: “Nor is the scholastic invocation of a “consensus” a valid scientific argument.” I’ll try to keep that in mind for one or two other debates.