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Black Swan author Nassim Taleb claims GMOs could lead to eco-disaster

Before the crisis that started in 2007, both of us believed that the financial system was fragile and unsustainable, contrary to the near ubiquitous analyses at the time.

Now, there is something vastly riskier facing us, with risks that entail the survival of the global ecosystem — not the financial system. This time, the fight is against the current promotion of genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s.

There were fallacies used in the arguments against us at the time. First, we were said to be “against science.” Our adversaries invoked consensus among economists in favor of these methods, a serious fallacy. Had science operated solely by consensus, we would still be stuck in the Middle Ages. According to scientific practice, scientific consensus is used in telling us what theory is wrong; it cannot determine what is right. Nor can it apply to risk management, which requires much greater scrutiny.

As we said, the financial system nearly collapsed, but it was only money. We now find ourselves facing nearly the same fallacies for our caution against the growth in popularity of G.M.O.s.

Like in finance, there has been a tendency to label anyone who dislikes G.M.O.s as anti-science — and put them in the anti-antibiotics, anti-vaccine, even Luddite category. There is, of course, nothing scientific about the comparison. Nor is the scholastic invocation of a “consensus” a valid scientific argument.

The G.M.O. experiment, carried out in real time and with our entire food and ecological system as its laboratory, is perhaps the greatest case of human hubris ever. It creates yet another systemic, “too big too fail” enterprise — but one for which no bailouts will be possible when it fails.

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. Read full, original post: Another ‘Too Big to Fail’ System in G.M.O.

Editor’s Note: Nassem Taleb has been promoting this doomsday scenario for years. The Genetic Literacy Project dissected many of his claims in November, 2014 in this article, “Is Nassim Taleb a “dangerous imbecile” or on the pay of anti-GMO activists?” by Jon Entine. Key highlights:

Taleb has recently become the darling of GMO opponents. He and four colleagues–Yaneer Bar-Yam, Rupert ReadRaphael Douady and Joseph Norman–wrote a paper, The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms, released [in May 2014] and updated [in October 2014], in which they claim to bring risk theory and the Precautionary Principle to the issue of whether GMOS might introduce “systemic risk” into the environment. Taleb portrays GMOs as a ‘castrophe in waiting’–and has taken to personally lashing out at those who challenge his conclusions–and yes, calling them “imbeciles” or paid shills.

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The crux of his claims: There is no comparison between conventional selective breeding of any kind, including mutagenesis which requires the radiation or chemical dousing of seeds (and has resulted in more than 2500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, almost all available in organic varieties) versus what his calls the top-down engineering that occurs when a gene is taken from an organism and transferred to another (ignoring that some forms of genetic engineering, including gene editing, do not involve gene transfers). Taleb goes on to argue that the chance of ecocide, or the destruction of the environment and potentially of humans, increases incrementally with each additional transgenic trait introduced into the environment. In other words, in his mind genetic engineering is a classic “black swan” scenario.

Related article:  Nassim Taleb is wrong: Black Swan more likely for non-GMO food than GM varieties

Neither Taleb nor any of the co-authors has any background in genetics or agriculture or food, or even familiarity with the Precautionary Principle as it applies to biotechology, which they liberally invoke to justify their positions. That has not stopped them from making sweeping generalizations that contradict more than 2000 studies to date, many of them independently executed, indicating no unusual harm posed by GM crops; not one study suggesting potential dangers from GE crops has been published and replicated in a major independent journal.

One of the paper’s central points displays his clear lack of understanding of modern crop breeding. He claims that the rapidity of the genetic changes using the rDNA technique does not allow the environment to equilibrate. Yet rDNA techniques are actually among the safest crop breeding techniques in use today because each rDNA crop represents only one to two genetic changes that are more thoroughly tested than any other crop breeding technique. The number of genetic changes caused by hybridization or mutagensis techniques are orders of magnitude higher than rDNA methods. And no testing is required before widespread monoculture-style release. Even selective breeding likely represents a more rapid change than rDNA techniques because of the more rapid employment of the method today.

In essence. Taleb’s ecocide argument applies just as much to other agricultural techniques in both conventional and organic agriculture. The only difference between GMOs and other forms of breeding is that genetic engineering is closely evaluated, minimizing the potential for unintended consequences. Most geneticists–experts in this field as opposed to Taleb–believe that genetic engineering is far safer than any other form of breeding.

Moreover, as Maxx Chatsko notes, the natural environment has encountered new traits from unthinkable events (extremely rare occurrences of genetic transplantation across continents, species and even planetary objects, or extremely rare single mutations that gave an incredible competitive advantage to a species or virus) that have led to problems and genetic bottlenecks in the past — yet we’re all still here and the biosphere remains tremendously robust and diverse. So much for Mr. Doomsday.

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion, and analysis. Click the link above to read the full, original article.
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