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?"Nassim Taleb, author of
"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 The editor told me last week that Taleb, for reasons unclear, had withdrawn from the debate.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.
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.