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Biotech Earth

Black Swan Author: Genetically Modified Organisms Risk Global Ruin 432

KentuckyFC writes It's 20 years since the FDA approved the Flavr Savr tomato for human consumption, the first genetically engineered food to gain this status. Today, roughly 85 per cent of corn and 90 per cent of soybeans produced in the US are genetically modified. So it's easy to imagine that the scientific debate over the safety of genetically modified organisms has been largely settled. Not for Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and several academic colleagues who say that the risks have been vastly underestimated. They say that genetically modified organisms threaten harm on a global scale, both to ecosystems and to human health. That's different from many conventional risks that threaten harm on a local scale, like nuclear energy for example. They argue that this global threat means that the precautionary principle ought to be applied to severely limit the way genetically modified organisms can be used.
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Black Swan Author: Genetically Modified Organisms Risk Global Ruin

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 27, 2014 @03:29PM (#48244227)

    You mean the same precautionary principle that led the US government to indoctrinate a generation of kids in the food pyramid, leading to generational highs of sugar intake and obesity, and probably millions of early death, because scientists thought that fat might be responsible for heart disease?

    Be careful with anything that starts with "ignore evidence to begin with"

    • by tnk1 ( 899206 )

      As a child who was indoctrinated under the food pyramid, I can categorically tell you that I completely ignored it.

      Of course, I'm also not obese, so perhaps you are on to something.

      Seriously, though, how much impact did that program really have? I think the real issue with sugar intake is that sugar (or HFCS) is cheap, is tasty, and is in everything. Also, unlike say arsenic, any bad effects are usually deferred. That seems like the actual issue, and is probably why there are still obesity today.

      • I think the biggest problem is that we want bad foods and good foods, when biology doesn't work that way (with a few exceptions for outright toxic food). What is best for you is dependent upon the rest of your diet. So, if you eat ten pounds of rice to satisfy the hunger you get from not having three strips of bacon for breakfast, you end up worse than you would if you had just ate the bacon in the first place. We are seeing a bit of a flip side to this now with the anti-carbs fad diets, and people just
        • Except low-carb diets actually work, and extreme no-carb diets seem to work but have side effects. This suggests that the general wisdom of "load yourself up on grains, eat little meat" is not actually healthy.

          Sugars and starches absorb immediately as energy. Proteins and fats are useful for structure, but also derivable as energy. Processing protein and fat requires a great deal more effort than processing sugar, which simply hits the blood and triggers insulin, binding it into glycogen.

          It's often co

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        It is connected. There's a lot of sugar in processed foods today because they took the fats out and had to do something to make it not taste like salted cardboard.

        Then there's all of those people who consumed great quantities of artery clogging transfats because they were told it was the 'healthy choice' and butter would kill them.

        But note the people who made those claims aren't paying for the stents and bypasses.

      • by itzly ( 3699663 )
        What's really driving obesity is the engineers in the processed food factories trying to optimize the perfect mix of ingredients that people find irresistible. Because irresistible = profit. And unlucky for the rest of population, irresistible usually involves a high calorie mix of fat and sugar.
      • I think the real issue with sugar intake is that sugar (or HFCS) is cheap, is tasty, and is in everything. Also, unlike say arsenic, any bad effects are usually deferred. That seems like the actual issue, and is probably why there are still obesity today.

        You might find this interesting: Sugar: The Bitter Truth [youtube.com] by Robert H. Lustig, MD, UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology. It's about 90 minutes, but worth the watch. He describes how Fructose (from wherever, sugar, HFCS, etc...) is metabolized by the liver in a similar fashion as alcohol, but w/o the physical limitations of consuming too much alcohol, and raises triglycerides and cholesterol, etc...

  • by jeffmeden ( 135043 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @03:35PM (#48244299) Homepage Journal

    What they don't bother to put in TFS is that the 85% of corn and 90% of soybeans currently running modified genes are only modified to make them immune to glyphosate (aka "Roundup-ready"). There only real risk is that maybe by some huge stroke of bad luck, some other plant (a weed, say) picks up glyphosate resistance from these genes. The thing about that fear tactic is that it's not too unlikely that pest plants will eventually pick up glyphosate resistance anyway, and it's not really a scary prospect since glyphosate is only relied on for farming, and if it stops working they can move on to a different herbicide for us to debate over.

    Making glyphosate resistant corn? Probably going to have 0 repercussions, and the worst-case scenario is not unlike the chemical resistance issues we face in almost every other area of biology (i.e. penicillin resistant bacteria). Making a corn-tomato-hemp hybrid that grows a foot a day and re-roots itself whenever it's cut down? OK maybe we should talk that one through a little more. Scare mongering with the "GMO will make our planet a Mad-Max wasteland of anarchy" is really unproductive.

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @03:43PM (#48244417)

      it's not too unlikely that pest plants will eventually pick up glyphosate resistance anyway

      Plenty of weeds have already done that [wikipedia.org]. So far, all of these weeds resist glyphosate via a completely different mechanism from the way GMO plants do it.

    • by nine-times ( 778537 ) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Monday October 27, 2014 @04:02PM (#48244639) Homepage

      I didn't read the thing, so I'm just guessing, but I suspect that the problem isn't with any given genetic modification, but with the unknown factor of how those modifications will impact the environment in the context of being spread throughout the world and replacing other varieties of the same crop. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is very interested in the concept of risk, particularly regarding unforeseen outcomes and consequences.

      So the idea probably isn't simply, "this specific genetic modification is bad" or "all genetic modifications are bad", but something like, "If we aren't careful with genetic modification and how it's applied on a global scale, what are the chances that someone, at some point, will screw something up really badly and cause a catastrophe?"

      Now, it may even be that some of the possible causes of danger are indirect. Do these practices encourage a mono-culture in agriculture, where farmers are all using the same genetic strain of seeds and the same farming methods? Mono-cultures generally tend to make any kind of failure or unforeseen consequence more serious. If there's a disease that attacks the crops, you're less likely to find a resistant strain if everyone is using the same strain. If it turns out that a certain farming method is causing a certain kind of environmental damage, the effect will be amplified if everyone is using that same method.

      It may be that the argument, then, is not about whether the plants are genetically modified, but more about global farming mono-culture. However, I'd expect that part of his argument would be that more "natural" methods of farming have been tested more thoroughly, and their global consequences are therefore more well known. Effecting a change in farming methods to any method which is novel, and therefore much less well-tested, is much more likely to have unforeseen consequences. Effecting such a change on a global level could be disastrous. Even if we can't see any way in which such a disaster would happen, unforeseen consequences are inherently unforeseen. The global biosphere is enormously complex, and unforeseen consequences are likely.

      Of course, that's what I would guess this is about, but I don't want to actually read the paper.

      • but something like, "If we aren't careful with genetic modification and how it's applied on a global scale, what are the chances that someone, at some point, will screw something up really badly and cause a catastrophe?"

        Exactly. And that doesn't even cover the potentially disastrous effect of having a handful of companies own the intellectual property to major foodstuffs.

        I guarantee, that no matter how reasonable or conservative your thoughts, if you even suggest the possibility that there might be a reaso

        • by nine-times ( 778537 ) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Monday October 27, 2014 @06:11PM (#48245939) Homepage

          And that doesn't even cover the potentially disastrous effect of having a handful of companies own the intellectual property to major foodstuffs.

          Also, frankly, that those handful of companies stand to make so much money from these crops. Not to get all conspiracy-theory, but if you have a couple of companies controlling global agriculture, and they're making billions of dollars from these GMO crops, and then they discover there might possibly be a problem, their motivations are all pointed at burying that problem rather than bringing it to light.

          And this is part of what's become very scary about "how the world works" now. We've gotten very good at manipulation and propaganda. If someone comes out saying that GMOs are bad, there are a bunch of very good propaganda spin doctors for hire who can make those people look like crackpots. They can't convince everyone, but they can convince enough people to gridlock the debate. Meanwhile, these companies can send lobbyists and campaign contributions to all the politicians they want, and make sure the laws are rewritten to help them out.

          Now I'm not saying that GMOs are bad and dangerous. However, I do think that it should be pointed out that, if they were dangerous, some very wealthy companies would devote a lot of resources to hiding/obscuring that fact, and they would be largely successful. This is, in itself, grounds for concern. And not just regarding genetically modified food.

    • Scare mongering with the "GMO will make our planet a Mad-Max wasteland of anarchy" is really unproductive.

      Also, is that really what he's doing? From the summary, it seems like he's just advising greater caution because he believes that the risk has been underestimated.

    • What they don't bother to put in TFS is that the 85% of corn and 90% of soybeans currently running modified genes are only modified to make them immune to glyphosate (aka "Roundup-ready"). The only real risk is that maybe by some huge stroke of bad luck, some other plant (a weed, say) picks up glyphosate resistance from these genes.

      And you have a 30 year longitudinal study to back up that bald assertion?

  • by RingDev ( 879105 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @03:35PM (#48244303) Homepage Journal

    of extensive testing, trials, heck, even labeling. But after 20 years of GMO products, and absolutely no significantly measurable negative ecological/human impacts, I'm thinking maybe we should turn down the rhetoric a bit and continue on.

    Sure, there are risks with mono-culture corps (see: Bananas). And yeah, farmers who use excessive herbicides are dumb.

    But if there were truly a significant health risk in GMOs in general, we should have seen it develop by now. Odds are though that there will be some GMO products that aren't safe and that there will be some GMO products that enable dumb farming practices. But the exact same statement is true if you remove the letters "GMO".

    -Rick

    • by JWW ( 79176 )

      And yeah, farmers who use excessive herbicides are dumb.

      What I love is that the anti-GMO crowd is all about how bad herbicides are. Then they go on and freak out about plants that have been modified so that fewer herbicides are necessary.

      • by AaronW ( 33736 )

        On top of that, glyphosphate is one of the least toxic herbacides out there that generally breaks down relatively quickly in the environment.

        • On top of that, glyphosphate is one of the least toxic herbacides out there that generally breaks down relatively quickly in the environment.

          Sorry, that's just not true. Higher levels of it have been found in the internal organs of chronically ill people.

          http://omicsonline.org/open-ac... [omicsonline.org]

      • Except, those GMO plants often require higher levels of herbicides and pesticides

        http://www.reuters.com/article... [reuters.com]

    • by rycamor ( 194164 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @03:50PM (#48244491)

      and absolutely no significantly measurable negative ecological/human impacts

      You should try reading the actual paper. Taleb's precautionary principle comes from the acknowledgement that tiny, insignificant changes can become huge changes quite quickly, and quite suddenly, and that risk is a much more complex thing than most modern scientists acknowledge. That's the whole point of his warnings regarding Black Swan events. If you only look at the here-and-now small dangers and never prepare for the extended big ones, it's the big ones that get you in the end.

      Even better, read Taleb's later book "Antifragile". He lays out the wisdom of some more ancient thought patterns that the West has eschewed to its detriment.

      I'm starting to think that Western culture (especially the modern evolution of it) is a giant case of Aspberger's syndrome. Technically proficient and able to endlessly sort details but lacking in wisdom or deeper understanding.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        And the other key part is that the danger of potential consequences should be weighed against the expected benefit. Eg. if we are about to starve because a disease is wiping out corn, it's better to risk with GMO corn that to have no corn. And likewise we shouldn't introduce potentially huge unknown risks that could take decades to show -- like trans fat, if we can even trace those back -- for small benefits like 10% lower price or slightly longer shelf life.

        But you're right, we in the modern society are un

      • I'm starting to think that Western culture (especially the modern evolution of it) is a giant case of Aspberger's syndrome. Technically proficient and able to endlessly sort details but lacking in wisdom or deeper understanding.

        Someone posted a partial quote and this link in another thread. You might find it interesting and relevant with-regard-to the above sentiment: The Death of Expertise [tomnichols.net]

        I think it applies to a great many of the posts here on /. ...

        • by rycamor ( 194164 )

          Someone posted a partial quote and this link in another thread. You might find it interesting and relevant with-regard-to the above sentiment: The Death of Expertise [tomnichols.net]

          I think it applies to a great many of the posts here on /. ...

          Yes. Thanks for the link--interesting. I'll have to digest that a bit. He talks of the death OF expertise, while "Death by expert" is a phrase that keeps crossing my mind when I think about our civilization's trajectory. All those experts out there clamoring for buy-in, and sneering at the clueless masses... but if anything, the 20th and 21st century have shown us that experts are remarkably bad decision-makers. Obsessive knowledge of a specialty leads to myopic thinking. In the courtroom of life experts sh

      • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @08:26PM (#48247023)

        Taleb's precautionary principle comes from the acknowledgement that tiny, insignificant changes can become huge changes quite quickly, and quite suddenly, and that risk is a much more complex thing than most modern scientists acknowledge.

        Most modern scientists fail to acknowledge this threat because this idea is bullshit. I think the great irony of the Precautionary Principle is that the advocates don't eat their own dog food. For if they did, then they would have to rule out use of the Precautionary Principle on the grounds that the harm caused by the rule inherently can't be quantified or understood

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      Wrong question. We do know that if an unapproved or undesired strain does get out, we won't be able to get it back. It has happened several times so far including one crop that is claimed to have only ever been grown under controlled conditions on a small plot. The roundup ready gene has spread to a number of weeds now that grow wild at the roadside.

      So we now have real evidence that if a poorly chosen modification is made, it will spread and we will not be able to rein it in at all. THAT is a black swan eve

      • by RingDev ( 879105 )

        That isn't how evolution works.

        Roundup ready corn isn't breeding with crab grass to make roundup ready crab grass.

        Genetic mutations are largely a constant. Every generation will continue to exhibit mutations, the vast majority of which have no impact on procreation and are either carried on, or not.

        At some point in time, over a large enough scale, some weeds have mutated to be resistant to round up. Since some weeds were resistant, and others were not, when sprayed with roundup, those that aren't die. since

        • by TheSync ( 5291 )

          Genetic mutations are largely a constant. Every generation will continue to exhibit mutations, the vast majority of which have no impact on procreation and are either carried on, or not.

          But any effort to create a protein or change regulation changes the metabolism, which can be a selection pressure when competing for resources with native strains that don't spend the energy to make those proteins. For example, genetic alterations in bacteria for DNA computing elements [discovermagazine.com]) can disappear rapidly in a culture, so

    • by jedidiah ( 1196 )

      > of extensive testing, trials, heck, even labeling. But after 20 years of GMO products, and absolutely no significantly measurable negative ecological/human impacts,

      Actually, we are currently in the middle of a population crisis with our bees. So just blissfully assuming that there have been no consequences is probably just wishful thinking on your part.

    • But after 20 years of GMO products, and absolutely no significantly measurable negative ecological/human impacts,

      Whoa nellie! That's not exactly true.

      In areas where Roundup-ready corn has established hegemony, such massive quantities of pesticides have to be used that half a dozen studies have shown sick people with high concentrations of those pesticides in their internal organs.

      http://www.reuters.com/article... [reuters.com]

      There is actually a growing body of scientific literature that raises questions about the dire

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 27, 2014 @03:35PM (#48244317)

    In a world where shit like aspartame is railroaded through approval because of political connections, why in the fuck would I assume anything is "settled", just because it is commonly sold and used?

  • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @03:36PM (#48244323) Journal

    For example, if something, say corn, is genetically modified to have DNA from a non-kosher animal in it does that food item also become non-kosher? The same could be asked of if the restriction was vegetarian or vegan. How exactly would that work out?

    • by jeffmeden ( 135043 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @04:07PM (#48244705) Homepage Journal

      For example, if something, say corn, is genetically modified to have DNA from a non-kosher animal in it does that food item also become non-kosher? The same could be asked of if the restriction was vegetarian or vegan. How exactly would that work out?

      If you manage to engineer bacon-corn, you will face far more risk from the hordes beating their way to your door demanding the seeds than you will from the Kosher observers who protest.

  • by Overunderrated ( 1518503 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @03:41PM (#48244399)

    The first half of the paper (dealing with statistics) is all well and logical.

    The second half (dealing with GMO) makes several unfounded claims with no citation. Why does the author assume that GMOs have a non-zero risk of causing global catastrophe? Without any justification for that statement, you can just as easily claim that *not* using GMOs have a non-zero risk of causing global catastrophe.

    • by qwak23 ( 1862090 )

      We could argue that everything has a non-zero risk of causing global catastrophe. Which I suppose just backs up your point ;)

    • I think the proposition that NOT using GMOs risks global catastrophe might have more odds in its favor than using GMOs.

      Consider:
      Bananas, citrus, chocolate, coffee are all threatened by pathogens or climate change. There are some credible pathogen threats to wheat as well.

      In the case of citrus, the ONLY (**ONLY**) resistant variety to citrus greening disease, out of ALL the citrus varieties on the plant, is a GMO variety that has genes from spinach spliced in.

      So we have a case of, worldwide collapse of citrus production, OR GMO citrus.

      I think I'll take the GMO citrus, thank you very much. If I were a Florida planter, and I weren't worried about anti-GMO hysteria, I'd be replacing my citrus orchards (as they die) with GMO plants.

      As I referred to above, similar threats are either now or are poised to decimate bananas, coffee, chocolate, and wheat, though I'm not so sure that the naturally resistant variety situation is so dire in those cases.

      Best,

      -PeterM

    • The risk is (meaningfully, not formally) non-zero because GMOs ride the most potent distribution mechanism in existence for free -- natural replication and multiplication. An error in a nuclear reactor doesn't affect other nuclear reactors, but a "faulty" GM organism with potentially bad consequences (for us) can be everywhere just a few generations down. And unlike a computer virus for example, we may not be equipped to deal with the spread in the material worlds.

      A fair question would be why that is differ

  • " Today, roughly 85 per cent of corn and 90 per cent of soybeans produced in the US are genetically modified. "

    Yet we still exist. Why don't I have tentacles and nine eyes yet?

    And furthermore, I recently had another vaccination, for shingles.

  • by zerobeat ( 628744 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @04:59PM (#48245261) Homepage
    No one. Taleb et. al. claim that GMOs are under the precautionary principle (PP) - something they just invented.. I mean formalized. A nuclear accident is not because its effects are local. GMOs are, I assume because they can spread. They are 'pro-ruin'. I wonder on what time scale they expect this ruin to happen since we have been fucking with plants an animals for thousands of years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D... [wikipedia.org] . There is no accurate estimation of the chances that GMOs will ruin us because they don't understand the risks or lack of risks because they don't understand the technology and biology they are talking about. They don't understand the 'risk' of what might happen when one strain crosses with another and just how much gene mixing is going on without humans doing a single thing to guide it. But let me explain it fatuously... what happens if a naturally occurring drought resistant plant crosses with a nearby fungal resistant plant? MAYBE DEATH GENES!!!! It might spread! And humans don't need to be involved!!! Did I say DEATH??? Why aren't we all dead by now? Is it perhaps because Taleb et al really don't understand what happens when genes mix and spread? Do they not know that genes aren't magic monoliths that have been around for years, unchanging? More "weird" crossing happens every single day in Spring than mankind is likely to do in the next 50 years of cross breading (and in the next 100 years inside a lab). If they are concerned about the random events that might happen when one plant crosses with another we should immediately slash and burn all sexually reproducing crops whether GMOed or not. I see less fear mongering about Ebola on FOX News. This is appalling.
  • by Crashmarik ( 635988 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @05:00PM (#48245277)

    11 billion people is the current population projection for humanity, and that's a projection you can have some real confidence in. So the question is do you take the best means the incoming billions off the table or do we get cracking and throw everything we have at the problem. Pretty sure if we don't solve the problem nature in her usual fashion will do so for us.

  • by Cyberax ( 705495 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @06:01PM (#48245853)
    If we follow the logic in this book, then we should ban everything up to and including stone tools and fire. For example:
    - Computers: might give rise to an artificial intelligence that will destroy everything. Ban them.
    - Agriculture: might cause people to lose their natural aggressiveness so they'll be easily conquered by the alien invaders. Ban agriculture.
    - Fire: might cause the global firestorm that will destroy all the life. Ban it.
    - Stone tools: they might spark the fire that will destroy all the life. Ban it.
    - Medicine: might cause humanity to lose natural immunity to diseases. Ban it.

    And so on.
  • by goodmanj ( 234846 ) on Monday October 27, 2014 @08:21PM (#48246981)

    Let me demonstrate the authors' "precautionary principle", which says that if an action has even a slight or unknowable risk of causing absolutely devastating harm, you shouldn't do it.

    If I leave the house tomorrow morning, there is a chance I might get run over by a truck and killed -- as far as I'm concerned, that's the ultimate in devastating harm. In contrast, the benefits of me leaving the house on a given day (earning some money, keeping my job, seeing the sun) are modest. Therefore I should just stay in bed.

    It's ridiculous, but that is *exactly* the argument they're using against GMOs.

The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning, and does not stop until you get to work.

Working...