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GMO Alarmist Nassim Taleb Backs Out of Debate. I Refute Him Anyway.

Fallacious arguments against developing and growing modern biotech crops is cause for great moral concern.

NassimTalebwikimediaNassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and NYU statistician extraordinaire, has ducked out of a debate with me that had been arranged by the Journal of Markets and Morality. The topic of the debate was to be, "Do GMOs [genetically modified organisms] present cause for moral concern?"

"The goal of this controversy," the editor explained, "is to assist our readership (economists, political scientists, theologians, moral philosophers, ethicists) in developing a more informed understanding of the issues at stake in the current state of the GMO debate, addressing concerns of fact, morality, and policy." The plan had been to publish two rounds of back-and-forth between us.

Taleb was invited to participate because he and several colleagues had earlier published, at his fooledbyrandomness website, a very anti-GMO working paper, "The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms." In that paper, Taleb and his colleagues claimed that "GMOs represent a public risk of global harm," suggesting that GMOs could result in global "ecocide" and even perhaps "the extinction of human beings or all life on the planet." Taleb and another colleague were afforded the opportunity to express their alarm in The New York Times, where they declared that "the risk of G.M.O.s are more severe than those of finance." Human extinction is certainly worse than even a global financial meltdown. The upshot is that Taleb wants "prescribe severe limits on GMOs.”

After Taleb had agreed to contribute to the journal's GMO debate, the managing editor contacted me and asked if I would like to participate. Citing my "previous scholarly and popular work and experience," he asked me to write the first essay in the debate series. I duly submitted my essay, in which I debunk the many claims made by Taleb and his colleagues about the dangers allegedly posed by modern biotech crops. I conclude that it was fallacious arguments against developing and growing modern biotech crops that are cause for great moral concern.

I waited for Taleb's response. It never arrived. The editor told me last week that Taleb, for reasons unclear, had withdrawn from the debate.

But since my essay responds pretty directly to the claims made in Taleb's anti-GMO working paper, let's go ahead and debate anyway.

Do GMOs Present Cause for Moral Concern?

Banning biotech crops under the pretense of implementing a "non-naive" version of the precautionary principle would be a great moral wrong. Such a ban would deny access to the significant known benefits that modern biotechnology is already providing to human beings and the natural world, all based on wholly unjustified assertions that these crops one day will somehow produce catastrophic "ruin."

First, let's review the extensive benefits offered by the current versions of biotech crops. Next, let's evaluate what recent research has found with regard to the human health and ecological safety concerns associated with modern biotech crops. We'll end by considering the argument that the absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of an inevitable GMO doom.

So far, biotech crops have chiefly been enhanced to resist pests and herbicide applications, although other traits—including resistance to disease, drought, and salt—are now being made available to farmers too. Pest resistance has generally been instilled by adding versions of a gene from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) for a crystal protein that kills insect pests when it is activated in their alkaline guts. Bt has been used widely in organic farming. Decades of research have shown that it is safe for people and other vertebrates to eat. Herbicide resistance has been conferred on most modern crops by adding a gene for the EPSPS protein obtained from the soil microbe Agrobacterium sp. strain CP4. Again, research has shown that the amount of the EPSPS protein regularly consumed by people is safe to eat.

In 2014, a group of Italian biologists did a comprehensive review of the last 10 years of research on biotech crops that encompassed 1,783 different scientific studies. These studies dealt with such concerns as the crops' impacts on natural biodiversity, the possibility that they'll exchange genes with wild relatives, and their effects on the health of people and other animals. In the review, the biologists concluded that "the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops."

So most scientific evidence finds that biotech crops are safe for people and the environment. What then are the benefits? In a 2014 meta-analysis of 147 studies, a team of German researchers reports that the global adoption of genetically modified crops has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent. They conclude that there is "robust evidence of GM crop benefits for farmers in developed and developing countries." Therefore it is no surprise that farmers around the world have (when regulators permit it) embraced these enhanced crop varieties. The global extent of biotech crops has increased more than 100-fold from 4.2 million acres in 1996 to about 450 million acres in 2014. Eighteen million farmers in 28 countries planted them in 2014.

Future Benefits

Ideological opposition to biotech crops is actually killing people and harming the natural world. Consider the case of Golden Rice, in which non-profit Swiss researchers used genetic engineering to boost the production of the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene. Researchers estimate that vitamin A deficiency is responsible for 1.9 to 2.8 million preventable deaths annually, mostly of children under five years old and women. Some 125 million children under age five suffer from vitamin A deficiency, of which 250,000 to 500,000 go blind each year. Half of these children die within a year of becoming blind. Vitamin A deficiency also weakens immune responses, greatly increasing the risk of severe illness. According to one 2014 estimate, the 10-year delay in getting Golden Rice to poor farming families has resulted in the loss of 1.4 million life-years in India alone.

Meanwhile, biotech crops increase yields. Increased yields mean that farmers can grow more food, feed, and fiber on less acreage, thus sparing more land for nature. Biotech crops are partially responsible for the imminent arrival of peak farmland. If global crop yields had remained stuck at 1960 levels, farmers around the world would have needed about 3 billion more hectares to grow enough food for the world's current population. That's about the size of the USA, Canada, and China combined.

Instead, the amount of land farmed for crops increased from 1,371 million hectares in 1961 to 1,533 million hectares in 2009. In other words, the amount of land plowed increased by only about 10 percent as yields have tripled. Recent research estimates that continued agricultural intensification, including the further deployment of genetically enhanced crops, could return 150 million hectares of land to nature by 2060. The amount of farmland restored to nature could rise to as much as 400 million hectares if ethanol subsidies were eliminated.

In addition, shifting wood and pulp production to plantations of faster-growing genetically enhanced trees would help speed the trend toward restoring natural forests and thus aid in the protection of many endangered species. In addition, plant breeders are making strides toward dramatically lowering the amount of nitrogen that fertilizer crops need, strengthening disease resistance, incorporating salt and drought tolerance, and boosting photosynthetic efficiency. Much progress is being made using molecular techniques that enable researchers to rapidly identify and crossbreed crop plants that express promising traits like drought tolerance, disease resistance, or higher yields.

The advent of the fantastically versatile CRISPR genome-editing technology gives plant breeders "molecular scissors" that can cut and paste genetic information, producing stable and heritable genomic changes quickly and easily without introducing foreign DNA. Heretofore, once plant breeders had identified a useful gene—say, one for disease resistance—in a landrace, it would take years of crossbreeding to transfer it to a high-yielding cultivar of the same crop species. With CRISPR, if breeders identify a natural gene variant conferring natural fungus resistance in a less productive landrace, they can simply edit the corresponding gene variant to match in the more productive strain, thus conferring the same natural fungus resistance on it. Using CRISPR means that plant breeders can dramatically speed up the process of getting useful genes into high-yielding crop varieties.

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  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I waited for Taleb's response. It never arrived. The editor told me last week that Taleb, for reasons unclear, had withdrawn from the debate.

    I would think the reason to be very clear: Steven Pinker was wrong on the Internet!

  • MSimon||

    I had a long e-mail discussion with him about drugs. He dug in. A few years later I found he had adopted my position.

  • ||

    Admirable. I have read his books and found his thinking somewhat confused, but he does pursue the truth in his funny way.

    I think the thing with biotech crops will go along like nuclear energy. There is no reason we can't have safe biotech crops and safe nuclear energy, except it's too expensive, especially because it's hard to mitigate unfamiliar risks. So the proponents cut corners. Pride, greed, and envy set in. Eventually, a disaster occurs. Then there is a great uproar and the technology goes on the shelf for a generation.

  • todaytechspot||

    In our modern life various Today TechSpot and many technologies we are used, which helps to improve our life and easy going. Use of technology has a kind of the gift, which we can see in our society as well as our life also ...
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  • todaytechspot||

    In our modern life various Today TechSpot and many technologies we are used, which helps to improve our life and easy going. Use of technology has a kind of the gift, which we can see in our society as well as our life also ...
    http://todaytechspot.com/

  • ||

    Sounds like you won by default. Well done, Ron Bailey.

  • Alcibiades||

    Slunk out of town to avoid a thorough trouncing.

    Also well done Mr Bailey.

  • Rich||

    "ecocide"

    Cool concept, bro.

  • alcarruth||

    I think it's economicide we should be worried about.

  • Mr Drew||

    My response to those who try to promote the supposed benefits of non-GMO to me is "you have almost certainly never eaten a non-GMO food product in your life"

    I figure that most people have have never or very rarely eaten wild ground game and while fish caught in the wild are probably non-GMO, I think it's true enough to make my point.

    Animal and plant husbandry have been around for a long, long time. Cross and selective breeding are a slow way of genetically modifying an organism, are they not?

  • Jordan||

    Anybody who's ever eaten an orange has eaten GMO food.

  • robc||

    Or carrot.

  • robc||

    Carrots are orange due to Dutch patriotism.

  • Garth Bigelow||

    And so hunters won't shoot them.

  • ConstitutionFirst||

    This is a result of people buying into the corporate BS, instead of doing their own research.
    Cross breading is as old as the first farmers. Synthesizing rattlesnake venom as a built-in pesticide or making Round-up resistant plants so they can over-spray crops with herbicides is all about profit and highly dubious nutritional value.

  • sdkluber||

    Or Papaya

  • Alcibiades||

    Yes.

    All right-minded decent people worship at the feet of Norman Borlaug, also the Haber Process.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    Jeebus HM, where do you come up with this shit. You must have orphans monitoring you tube 24/7.

    It would be pretty easy that Borlaug had the greatest positive impact on humanity in the 20th century. Fortunately the billion he saved was far in excess of those that Rachel Carson killed with "Silent Spring" and the banning of DDT. Estimates I've read are 20 million.

  • MSimon||

    It will be Raphael Mechoulam in the 21st.

  • The Last American Hero||

    And just so we're clear, Borlaugs don't have wings.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The response to this argument is always that the manual insertion of genes is wholly different than what would happen in nature. In nature, you'll never get the genes of a lightning but co-mingled with that of a tomato plant.

    We are playing god and hence, wandering into immoral territory.

  • Alcibiades||

    That's false, longitudinal DNA and gene transfer happens all the time in nature.

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    Meh, the lateral transfer with the Water Bear was way over stated. So it happens but not very common. With something like a Water Bear, I can understand the physical mechanism desiccation and re-hydrating pulls the strands apart but what is the mechanism for rice?

  • Agammamon||

    Bacterial and (especially) viral infection.

    Which is, amazingly enough (not really), a major technique used for 'artificial' GMOing.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    That's false, longitudinal DNA and gene transfer happens all the time in nature.

    I'm not a geneticist, so I can't argue for or against this.

    I'm just saying that because I've actually heard that argument.

  • Alcibiades||

    It happens all the time and has happened throughout evolution, an entire kingdom, the Archaea have genotypes that appear to be hybrids of the other two kingdoms the Eukarya and Eubacteria.

  • robc||

    As Agamemnon pointed out above, very common via viral infection. Virus collects gene from one species and inserts into another.

  • Agammamon||

    "mm", not "mn".

    I ain't Greek.

  • robc||

    Ive never read it close enough to realize. I assumed you were royalty all this time.

  • Agammamon||

    Nah man - royalty's just what you call stationary bandits once they've beaten their prey down enough that they stop fighting back.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Everything I learned about genetics I learned from playing Bioshock

  • Alcibiades||

    Well someone has to play God, he's done such a lousy job what with famine, plagues and pestilence being the default condition for humanity till about a "second" ago.

  • robc||

    He gave us all the tools, we just havent been using them. He even gave us viruses as a cheat sheet.

  • Alcibiades||

    Viruses are probably our oldest enemy.

  • robc||

    And friend.

  • Alcibiades||

    Frenemy.

  • R C Dean||

    Excellent book which, if memory serves, has the premise that the viruses are really the life forms that matter, and we are just their current temporary vehicles:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/produ.....TF8&btkr=1

  • Juice||

    Kinda like "The Selfish Gene".

  • GILMORE™||

    "" In nature, you'll never get the genes of a lightning but co-mingled with that of a tomato plant""

    Who says those genes "belong" to the lightning bug?

    I recall being told humans share half their DNA with a banana. (in the case of Buttplug, i believe its 80%). Or ....is it that bananas *have human genes*??! (cue scare music)

    My god, think of the BANANACAUST?!

    The point here is simply to note that genes are genes, and they aren't specific to organisms. Swapping some here and there isn't exactly some process hitherto never witnessed by 'nature'.

  • Eternal Blue Sky||

    Assume this is true: Things that don't happen in nature that involve genetics are 'playing God' and therefore immoral.

    Please either confirm the following list as things that are immoral, or explain to me why they, despite being WHOLLY UNNATURAL creatures created by human genetic meddling, are exceptions to your moral schema:
    -Chickens
    -Cows
    -Dogs
    -Cats
    -Oxen
    -Mules
    -Oranges
    -Horses
    -Camels
    -Sheep
    -Donkeys
    -Goats
    -Ferrets
    -Alpaca
    -Llama

    The above are immoral based on what you have said. Explain.

  • Delius||

    That response demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how genetics work. There is no such thing as the "genes" of a lightning bug. All life on Earth is made from the same genes, put together in different sequences. Some of these are identical between virtually all lifeforms. A small sequence taken out of a lightning bug will not be stamped "ORIGIN: Lightning Bug". Its just a series of genes which cause a particular kind of behavior when inserted at a given point in the genetic code of a particular organism.

  • alcarruth||

    It would be kinda cool to have flying, glow in the dark tomatoes.

  • Michigan Dave||

    Would definitely raise skeet shooting to a whole new level

  • Overt||

    Well informed GMO-critics have long had answers to this. By definition, GMO are organisms containing genes that could not have been added through natural breeding- e.g. adding squid genes to corn.

    So really all you are doing is engaging in an argument of definitions, but it is in many ways silly. It is the act of trans-species gene transfer that critics object to. Saying that intra-species gene transfer happens all the time isn't a counter point to their objection, unless you can clearly demonstrate that the slow transfer of genes inside a species is no more dangerous than the transfer of genes between species- which is the whole point of the debate.

  • Alcibiades||

    It is when they assert that organisms are genetic "walled-off" entities whose boundaries are never broached.

  • Agammamon||

    Except the 'natural' GMO foods you've been eating - and you've been eating them whether you know it or not - are *mutations, deliberately caused by exposing plants and seeds to mutagens*.

    As in there's no specific targeting or anything, we give plants radiation poisoning or induce cancer and see what happens. If something useful happens then we breed that plant.

    Similar technique for all those other GMO foods you've been eating, from corn to tomatoes. At some point a plant mutated - because of DNA *damage* - and that mutation was useful to us so we worked to spread it through breeding.

    Basically the 'well-informed' GMO-critics are just engaging in an argument of definitions - sure that gene set didn't come from a squid, its just a natural mutation that happens to be the exact same sequence as what is already in a squid.

    Totally different brah.

    Oh, by the way - interspecies gene transfers happen all the time also.

  • ||

    There is no such thing as a "squid gene". All DNA is made from the same four base pairs. Nothing in our genes identifies which species it comes from and most genes are shared by many different species.

  • ||

    There is no such thing as a "squid gene". All DNA is made from the same four base pairs. Nothing in our genes identifies which species it comes from and most genes are shared by many different species.

  • Cytotoxic||

    That's not strictly true. Squid will have unique DNA sequences that you can use to identify it as such with sequencing.

  • SKR||

    Right, but it will have many more sequences that are not unique. If you transferred the nonunique ones it would be silly to label them squid sequences since they show up in other species as well.

  • ||

    Well, those aren't likely to be the sequences we're inserting into other species.

  • SKR||

    Yes they object to interspecies transfers as being unnatural even though those happen in nature through horizontal gene transfer.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Release the Krakorn!

  • Sir Chips Alot||

    funny, i did not know 1000 years ago people were able to splice genes. Heck, when were genes discovered again?

  • Swiss Servator||

    That is your answer to everything!

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    Progressive Alarmist Kill Millions? Millions more (DDT)? Millions and millions more (shutting down coal fired power plants)? When are they gonna stop mass killings?

    According to one 2014 estimate, the 10-year delay in getting Golden Rice to poor farming families has resulted in the loss of 1.4 million life-years in India alone.
  • Alcibiades||

    Guess who opposed and is trying to block the implementation of Golden Rice, the scum at Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, who never so much have suffered a hunger pang in their entire fucking miserable lives.

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    Greenpeace are scum sucking tyrants. WWO as well.

  • Alcibiades||

    They are truly evil, and their fellow-travelers, and I literally mean this, not being hyperbolic in the slightest.

  • ||

    Yes.
    One should always be ware of becoming excessively fanatical about any cause. So often the fanatic devotees of a cause get to the point that they are willing to commit otherwise evil actions in the name of that cause. And in so doing they become evil.

    The problem with GreenPeace and Friends of the Earth is that they have become so convinced that their cause is so important and so desperate that they must do anything to advance it, and so have crossed the line into fanaticism and evil.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Thing is, the very cause of GP and FoE is evil. Environmentalism is evil.

  • ||

    I disagree with that. As a basic concept, believing in preserving the healthiness of the physical environment, preserving biodiversity and rare species, and maintaining lots of wilderness and wildlife habitat is a noble goal.

    But the whole anti-GMO thing is rationally divorced from that. GMOs AREN'T a threat to natural biodiversity in any meaningful way, unless you're an complete purist who thinks that ANY change to "nature" is inherently bad. And that's a nonsensical position to hold, since what is considered "natural" is arbitrarily defined anyway. Is natural pre-human? Is it pre-industrial? Is it pre-agricultural? Are windmills and hydroelectric dams natural?

    When people get to attached to the idea preventing the creation of GMOs what they are really displaying is a fanatical attachment to the concept of preserving an arbitrarily defined state of nature, rather than a rational concern for human health or the environment. And those people have displayed a willingness to indulge in lies, propaganda, and violence to pursuit of that goal. That's what makes them evil.

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    Very well stated, Hazel.

  • plusafdotcom||

    ... characteristic of any cult...
    religious
    economic
    social(ist)
    political
    etc...

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    Maybe we should implement common sense background checks before a Progressive Politician is allowed to vote or implement any sort of policy action. If nothing else for the children.

  • Brochettaward||

    We need to start calling these people deniers. Progressives bitch and moan about global warming, but can't point to any real world impact or consequences. Not legitimately. Meanwhile, there is a lot of research that shows that people die because of their anti-science views.

    Also, the same people who are horrified by a genetically modified tomato tend to think its swell that we can genetically modify human beings and gay couples can now have kids.

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    That's right! Fucking Science Denying ProgTards engaging in mass murder.

    Sounds good.

  • The Last American Hero||

    But I FUCKING LOVE SCIENCE THAT REINFORCES MY NARRATIVES

  • ||

    We need to start calling these people deniers.

    ^This, this, a hundred times this.

  • ||

    I was re-reading this great piece about Borlaug earlier this week and Ron's adventure in debates reminded me about what Norman went through trying to save people from starving to death with his technology:

    Similar successes followed when the Mexican wheat varieties were planted in Pakistan and India, but only after Borlaug convinced politicians in those countries to change national policies in order to provide their farmers both improved seeds and the large amounts of fertilizer needed for wheat cultivation. Borlaug liked to recall one strategy that he used:

    Whenever I reached New Delhi the first question I was asked was: “How are the Mexican wheats doing in Pakistan?” And whenever I reached Lahore the first question was: “How is India doing with the new varieties?”

    To each I always answered the same: “They are doing very well, very well indeed. You are going to have to work as hard as you can just to keep up with them.”

    Norman Borlaug remains the greatest American our nation has ever produced.

  • DK||

    And people like him should be honored with holidays, street names, school names, etc. And not politicians and police officers.

  • ||

    Agreed. It's a crying shame that he remains so obscure to most Americans.

  • Agammamon||

    If you find yourself on Norman Borlaug street, RUN!

  • DK||

    I guess Trump won't be honoring him. Mexico named a street after him:

    In 1968, Borlaug received what he considered an especially satisfying tribute when the people of Ciudad Obregón, where some of his earliest experiments were undertaken, named a street after him.

  • Col. Chestbridge||

    Fly, you fools!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Norman Borlaug remains the greatest American our nation has ever produced.

    What am I, chopped liver?

  • Swiss Servator||

    "Perhaps you could be...."

    /Ghost of Jeffrey Dahmer

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    Norman Borlaug is the greatest thing in the world - except for a nice LLT - liver, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, where the liver is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe
  • Animal||

    Fava beans.

  • Swiss Servator||

    Norm Borlaug is a hero to the entire effing WORLD!

    There should be a giant statute of him outside every college of agriculture, farm bureau, etc, ....in the world.

  • ||

    There is one at the U.S. Capitol, but I agree there should be one in every state.

    There's also one of him in New Delhi, after they awarded him The Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award of the Republic of India.

  • JeremyR||

    I was looking for lists of top scientists and he almost never appeared on them. However, Noam Chomsky was on most lists...

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    If anybody should be on the 10 dollar bill it's Norm. He's arguably the best American ever.

  • Brochettaward||

    The amount of farmland restored to nature could rise to as much as 400 million hectares if ethanol subsidies were eliminated.

    Bailey really packed it all in here. It's articles like this that help me tolerate the likes of Chapman.

  • robc||

    Its articles like this that help me tolerate Bailey's global warming articles.

  • JeremyR||

    I'm convinced he only does those like other climate people, to get free vacations in various luxury spots.

  • Eric Bana||

    'Atta boy, Ron!

  • ||

    a team of German researchers reports that the global adoption of genetically modified crops has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent

    Out of curiosity, what has been the effect on food prices? And what effect on starvation and malnutrition rates can we expect from that drop in food prices?

  • Overt||

    Left off that list is herbicides. My understanding is that use of chemical herbicides has increased due to GMOs because of the various roundup resistant products out there.

    Mind you, I don't think this is a bad thing. But is a point that I've heard dozens of GMO-deniers harp on. If we are going to shut them up, we need to engage the entire chain of evidence, not just cherry pick like they do.

  • ||

    Using herbicides is an aspect of no-till farming. There are basically two mail ways to control weeds: the the soil, or spray herbicides. Tilling causes soil erosion, which pollutes rivers, and destroys soil quality. What herbicide tolerant crops do is they allow farmers to use a relatively low toxicity herbicide and avoid tilling while maintaining the same yields.
    Secondly, while pound for pound, the amount of herbicide use has risen, the farmers have switched herbicides, so it's an apples to oranges comparison. A pound of glyphosate isn't equivalent to a pound of terbuthylazine.

  • Chumby||

    One can mulch.

    Surfave cultivation. Hardly tilling.

    Cover crops (a form of mulching).

  • C. fumipennis||

    A frequent point of confusion (unless you're an applicator) -- "pesticides" is an umbrella term that includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, and so on.

    While glyphosate use has increased, overall herbicide (and more broadly, pesticide) use is down, as are the number of passes over the fields (fossil fuels, soil compaction, applicator exposure reduced). And glyphosate is safer than what it replaced.

    'Can't find the exact piece I was looking for, but here are 2 items that cover detail you might be looking for. Snipped up to over-ride 50 character limit:

    See -- appliedmythology.blogspot.com /2013/01/ the-muddled-debate-about-pesticide-use.html

    And -- geneticliteracyproject.org/ 2015/04/08/ gmos-food-and-pesticides-101- no-chemical-flood-but- yields-are-soaring/

  • Swiss Servator||

    "restored to nature"

    Or used for a different crop, perhaps? Or turned into a baseball field? Or whatever the owner would like, hmmm?

  • LynchPin1477||

    To be fair, I don't think Taleb is claiming that "these crops one day will somehow produce catastrophic 'ruin.'" He is worried that they will spread and reduce biodiversity, making the entire global food supply susceptible to a disease or some unseen danger, whereas with enough biodiversity, the risk is compartmentalized. He then says that even if the probability of this happening is small, the consequences are so catastrophic that the precautionary principle should apply.

    I don't share his concern, but it's not as simple as "GMOs are going to cause cancer" or some such.

  • Brochettaward||

    Bailey did provide several arguments in this area, though, as well. Not only did he show that there is still a large amount of genetic diversity, but there's really no threat of such a disease spreading globally. Bailey also had a nice line on how this isn't like global finance. These people try to point to the Irish Potato Famine as an example of what will happen. It's an absurdity.

  • LynchPin1477||

    Yeah, but I didn't RTFA yet :-)

  • Agammamon||

    If so then he misunderstands how this shit works.

    1) This isn't runaway nanotech that will eat the Earth, they're plants. Sure, these plants are *more useful* to us, but often they're *less able to compete* in the wild. A lot of our food crops require very specific conditions to grow - its why you don't see wheat and cornfields choking out forests.

    2) There's not just one variety of these plants. Farmers have had to deal with the problems of genuine monocultures before - not just one type of plant, but plants that are close if not genetically identical to each other (clones) - and they realize that shit ain't a good idea. These genes can be inserted in multiple varieties to deal with this.

  • R C Dean||

    And, of course, his fellow travellers in trying to get GMO banned have attacked Monsanto for developing sterile strains.* Monsanto did this to prevent their customers from buying one season, and then harvesting seed and replanting, rather than buying new every year.

    But it also ensures that there is no way these strains can escape from agriculture to the wild.

    *Naturally, they continue to fearmonger that the genes can still escape. . . . Intellectual honesty is obviously not a requirement to be an idiot Green.

  • JFree||

    The legitimate problem with sterile/hybrid seeds is that they can be a negative externality. There are no GMO tomatoes anymore - but a tomato farmer growing hybrid seeds can easily destroy his neighbors heirloom tomato business depending on which way the winds blow.

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    You are pretty stupid, aren't you. You should not talk when you don't know what the fuck you are talking about.

  • jester||

    So you're saying there was a potato famine once? In Ireland? But potatoes belong in Peru? What are you saying!!!!!!

  • ||

    Which is the whole point of Black Swan if I remember correctly - that is, our arrogance blinds us to the possibility to the unforeseen.

  • SKR||

    The threat of monoculture is pretty overblown. What monoculture are we talking about, the one where you have a thousand acres of one variety or the one where every cultivated plant is a clone of themselves like bananas. Well the latter is pretty damn tenuous I'll agree. The first is not really all that bad. Sure you might lose a thousand acres of the crop but it's not a global catastrophe. Plus it's also very unlikely that the whole 1000 will be the same variety. Most farmers would have that 1000 mapped out and they would plant a drought tolwrant variety on the hills, a mlisture tolerant variety where water collects, etc. If you check out the dofferent offerings from the seed producers you see that there are hu dreds of different corn and soy varieties available for different circumstances. So while there are only a few main crips there is still a decent amount of variation left with Crispr adding more variation everyday by splicing in seauences from wild genotypes.

  • Intn'l House of Badass||

    If your summary of Taleb's position is correct, how can he avoid applying the same logic to human miscegenation?

  • R C Dean||

    Anyone who seriously proposes using the precautionary principle can pretty much be dismissed, for a couple of reasns:

    (1) The PP is inherently, internally contradictory. If you apply the PP to the PP, it tells you not to use the PP.

    (2) The PP is fundamentally flawed, as it compares the downside of proposed change to the status quo, and does not take into account the benefits of the proposed change. Its like trying to analyze an investment opportunity, without taking into account ROI. Its a transparently, laughably rigged "principle".

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Exactly this.

  • ||

    Hi Ron, Amsoc here. Question...

  • LynchPin1477||

    Now everyone is going to think you're Tulpa

  • Swiss Servator||

    But we are all Tulpa, so ....

  • Agammamon||

    NO! I'M TULPA!

  • Agammamon||

    And so's my wife!

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Go on.

  • Chumby||

    I am Spart...Tulpa!

  • ||

    This Tulpa feller really has everyone paranoid huh.

  • Trshmnstr, terror of the trash||

    Is everybody a sock puppet??

    /sarc

  • ||

    Awful editing Ron. WTF?

    The plan had been to puclish two rounds of...


    ...Taleb wants "prescribe...

    Taleb is a caveman?

    my essay responds to pretty directly to the claims
  • R C Dean||

    Well, now we at least know where that missing "to" wound up.

  • Hyperbolical||

    If global crop yields had remained stuck at 1960 levels, farmers around the world would have needed about 3 billion more hectares to grow enough food for the world's current population. That's about the size of the USA, Canada, and China combined.

    No problem. We could discontinue the use of GMO technology and merely kill off about half the world population. But think of the bio crises we could avoid!

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  • mconroytx||

    The article's author's use of words like "alarmist" and "debunk" suggest to me this is not a reasoned debate piece (and thus not worthy of Reason magazine). It also suggests that the author doesn't understand what Taleb has been going on about for some time. The concept of a series of small incremental gains at the cost of a later cataclysmic result is a theme that pervades much of his work. The author might be right and GMO crops might be safe, but the unknowable risk is that they might not. He might ask a banana about about genetic modification, but he he better hurry up cause they are about to go extinct as an example.

    I would rather read a less hysterical piece with evidence from the author and from Taleb, but I can understand why Taleb would not engage in school ground posturing with him

  • Sevo||

    mconroytx|2.19.16 @ 6:11PM|#
    "The article's author's use of words like "alarmist" and "debunk" suggest to me this is not a reasoned debate piece (and thus not worthy of Reason magazine). It also suggests that the author doesn't understand what Taleb has been going on about for some time. The concept of a series of small incremental gains at the cost of a later cataclysmic result is a theme that pervades much of his work. The author might be right and GMO crops might be safe, but the unknowable risk is that they might not. He might ask a banana about about genetic modification, but he he better hurry up cause they are about to go extinct as an example.
    I would rather read a less hysterical piece with evidence from the author and from Taleb, but I can understand why Taleb would not engage in school ground posturing with him."

    Do you have an argument other than you're afraid of the boogy man?

  • ||

    The author might be right and GMO crops might be safe, but the unknowable risk is that they might not.

    What doesn't have "unknowable risks" ?

    Keep in mind that the environment is not a static system, It is constantly evolving and adapting. If GMOs have unknowable risk, isn't there unknowable risk inherent in the environment as it is? For all we know, the environment might be on the verge of some totally natural cascading ecological catastrophe, irrespective of any human action. And there is no reason to think that GMOs add to or subtract from that risk. They are simply one more source of variation and adaptation among millions.

    Taleb is not a biologist and the environment is not a rube goldberg machine.

  • mconroytx||

    If you are familiar at all with Taleb's work, you will note that he talks a lot about the problem of thinking you understand risk, when you haven't really understood the distribution (fat tails, etc). Natural selection can create bad organism, but has not, on a large scale, for sometime. GMO introduces a whole new level of risk, if you start bring in trans-species genes etc. Not sure what you mean by rube goldberg machine as opposed to any other machine

  • jester||

    Hysterical? You're using that word to hyperbole.

  • AD-RtR/OS!||

    Without lies, The Left has no argument.

  • rxc||

    The precautionary principle is just a form of delegating responsibility for a society to the people who can tell the scariest stories. People have been cross-breeding foods since agriculture started. Both plants AND animals can be cross-bred, and the products sold into the market without ANY testing whatsoever, for safety. People interbreed among themselves, even when they have demonstrated heritable genetic deficiencies, and there is no law that prevents this from happening - actually, the law insists that medical care be offered to these people to enable them to breed, even though it is possible that they might create a being who could have a serious negative effect on the human population or the environment.

    It is all a crock.

  • Delius||

    I had a couple of interactions with Taleb on his Facebook page. I will give him credit for one thing: he didn't automatically ban anyone disagreeing with him, as so many science-denying pages will do. (I've been banned from quite a few of them.) But he never debated. He would simply repeat the same nonsense that people like me were replying to and debunking, as if simple repetition would make it so.

    It doesn't surprise me at all that he would back out of a live, person-to-person debate, where such tactics would be somewhat less effective.

  • Migrant Log Chipper||

    Boom, get's pwnd by Ron, scurries to find the nearest rock to hide under, not very surprising wrt these assholes. they are not honest debaters.

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  • MSimon||

    puclish - it is whats for supper

  • ||

    Gosh, it would almost appear that anti-science numb-skullery was not just a product of the right./s

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  • gah87||

    Excellent arguments! Well done.

  • plusafdotcom||

    Need link on page to post to FaceBook home page!

  • jester||

    Well done Ron. I'll reference this piece frequently. You're a great contributor to scientific debate. Yes it's political as policy is hopefully based on its principles. We need more honest policy makers. You help bring that to fruition.

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  • ConstitutionFirst||

    This is as simple as a "controversy" gets.
    Label foods containing GMOs. Let the consumer decide.
    If you can't see your way to that, then is conversation is over, ban all GMO.
    If you are too afraid to inform the public, we have every right to suspect the worst.

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  • RobertFl||

    This is easy. If you want to eat GMO, fine, eat it. Give me the option - that's the Libertarian way.
    The other problem with GMO is the fact that the courts have ruled that these hybrids can be patented, and that you must buy your seed every year from them, and if their pollen contaminates your non-GMO crop you owe them for damages, not the other way around. THAT isn't very Libertarian, is it.

    1. Give me a choice
    2. Pollenate your own crops.
    3. The value or virtues of GMO are irrelevant as long as you don't violate the first 2.

  • cherrybuster||

    If you wanna go this way: patent you own hybrid. Is that libertarian enough for you?
    GMO don't pollenate shit, don't you know?

  • BruceLeeRoy||

    My default is for the march of scientific progress, including GMOs, but I'm always a little leery of positions that say all upside and no downside. Not being an expert in the field of biotech, I'm wondering has peer-reviewed risk analysis and research been done that take into consideration both the speed and number at which these changes are happening and deployed over the long term? Did the biotech industry and scientists approve the use of antibiotics in livestock that have created quite a problem for us now? Were risk analysis studies done for antibiotic use in animals over the long-term?

    "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."

  • Juice||

    First, let's review...

    Extraneous comma #1

    Next, let's evaluate...

    Extraneous comma #2

    So far, biotech crops have...

    Extraneous comma #3

    In 2014, a group of Italian biologists...

    Extraneous comma #4

    You get the picture. This essay is replete with them.

  • cherrybuster||

    introductory words, google them

  • Ship of Theseus||

    Banning biotech crops under the pretense of implementing a "non-naive" version ...

    I am for banning all naive things, including GMOs and Donald Trump voters.

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  • cherrybuster||

    If Thaleb is so scared of the "unknown risks" I wonder how exactly did he get his job as a risk analyser?

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