by Ethan A. Huff
When discussing the issues surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) -- that is, organisms bearing the genetic traits of other species or bacteria -- the focus is typically on how safe (or unsafe) these novel, food-like products are for humans. But distinguished risk engineer and two-time best-selling author Nassim Taleb thinks an even bigger problem with GMOs is their threat to the planet, and the statistical likelihood that they will eventually lead to the collapse of life on Earth.
In a new study, which is still in draft form, this professor of risk engineering from New York University uses statistical analysis to make the case that GMOs, by their very nature, will disrupt the ecosystems of this planet in ways that mankind is only just beginning to comprehend. Because they represent a systemic risk rather than a localized one -- GM traits are known to spread unconstrained throughout the environment -- GMOs will eventually breach the so-called "ecocide barrier," leading to catastrophic ecosystem failure.
"There are mathematical limitations to predictability in a complex system, 'in the wild,' which is why focusing on the difference between local (or isolated) and systemic threats is a central aspect of our warnings," Taleb is quoted as saying by Fool.com, noting that it's essentially impossible to contain the inevitable spread of GMO traits far and wide.
"The [precautionary principle] is not there to make life comfortable, rather to avoid a certain class of what is called in probability and insurance 'ruin' problems," write Taleb and his colleagues in their paper. "For nature, the 'ruin' is ecocide: an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be the planet."
GMOs are not 'scientific,' and nearly every argument used in their defense is flawed
Besides using math and risk-based analysis to show that GMOs simply cannot coexist with nature as is commonly claimed -- GMOs will eventually contaminate the natural world around them -- Taleb also deconstructs many of the "arguments" used by GMO advocates to defend the commercial use of untested transgenic materials, including the oft-repeated lie that GMOs are no different than natural organisms.
"Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs fall squarely under [the precautionary principle]... because of their systemic risk on the system," explains Taleb. "Top-down modifications to the system (through GMOs) are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones (regular farming, progressive tinkering with crops, etc.)."
"There is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from an organism and putting it into another. Saying that such a product is natural misses the statistical process by which things become 'natural.'"
Taleb also draws attention to the deceitful strategies of biotechnology companies in trying to legitimize the continued use of GMOs through fear. Claiming that famine, starvation and widespread crop failures will occur if we all fail to adopt GMOs is no different than playing Russian roulette in order to get out of poverty, claims Taleb -- such an approach is hardly scientific or logically sound, and yet these and other tactics are the basis of the pro-GMO agenda.
"What people miss is that the modification of crops impacts everyone and exports the error from the local to the global," concludes Taleb and his colleagues. "I do not wish to pay -- or have my descendants pay -- for errors by executives of Monsanto. We should exert the precautionary principle there -- our non-naive version -- simply because we would only discover errors after considerable and irreversible environmental damage."
You can read their complete paper in draft form here.