The Precautionary Principle & GMOs

By Keith Kloor | June 28, 2013 10:40 am

Via Twitter, I learn that Nassim Taleb, author of the The Black Swan, a mega-selling 2007 book, has some interesting thoughts on biotechnology.




CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs
  • bobito

    Tweets from someone who will NEVER have to worry about price and availability of food.
    If you only focus on one side of the argument, and have been long removed from the “real world”, it would seem that there are only risks to GMOs. The positive side of GMO would have no affect his life one way or the other…

    • carolannie

      Prove that this is what he is thinking. Face it, you are projecting.

      • bobito

        I have no idea what he’s thinking, I was merely stating his situation.

        However, what he’s thinking isn’t as important as the idea that if you only focus on the negatives you will only see the risks and not the benefits.

        Drought tolerance, more output per acre, less fertilizer, less water requirements are all positives. One could even argue that the precautionary principle dictates that we explore all avenues to insure we have a sustainable food supply for an ever more populated world.

        • carolannie

          I agree. It is important not to make fun of people when you reason with them, all you do is get their back up. You might feel superior, but you have only talked to yourself.

    • Tony Mitra

      There is no positive side to GMO
      It survives because of corporate push and political corruption.
      The Technical Expert Committee report just submitted to the Supreme Court of India in the Rodrigues versus India case on GMO can be an eye opener. It recommends indefinite ban on all GMO, including field trials, till such time the country sets up independent labs to test safety of GMO to health and environment, and not base approval on data submitted by GMO promoter. Since the nation is far away from being able to set up these facilities. Not only that, it recommends that no GMO should be allowed that completes with any animal and plant groups for which India is the centre of origin.
      Finally, the environment ministry has openly come up against GMO in India despite support from the ministry of agriculture and science & technology as well as the corporate and financial sector.

      This, on top of whats happening in EU, is sending shivers down the biotech industries spine.

  • Tom Scharf

    The Black Swan was a decent book. He appears to be surprisingly falling under the naturalistic fallacy here. I don’t think the burden of evidence should be any different between “natural” and man made products. He asserts this, but doesn’t really back it up.

    Like I have stated before, most of this type of propaganda flows from an inherent belief that GMO’s are immoral, that man should not be playing God with the “natural” evolutionary process. I think this is a valid argument worthy of debate (I don’t agree with it), but those who believe this sense this argument is a loser with a capital L, so they cloak this belief in sciency sounding words in an attempt to bolster its credibility.

    • carolannie

      Meh. A lot of arguments against GMOs have to do with the strange interlacing of genes from different kingdoms and fears that someone might have an allergic reaction to unknown genes incorporated into a formerly safe product. Hence it isn’t “religion” driven, it is “Frankenstein effect” driven.

      • FosterBoondoggle

        Loaded phrases like “strange interlacing” and “Frankenstein effect” give away that this is emotional reasoning, not fact-based.

        Regarding your specifics on “genes from different kingdoms”. We are chock full of viral and bacterial genes in our genome already. One of the interesting recent discoveries in genetics is the extent of horizontal transfer that’s going on all the time. David Tribe’s site has links to lots of examples.

        • carolannie

          I am giving you a clue as to what spooks people. It has nothing to do with me. You are correct, it is emotional, but that is my point. You can’t get around that by sneering at people and telling them how stupid they are.

          Education and sincere empathy are key. Scientific pseudo-rationality are not.

          • FosterBoondoggle

            Huh… I would have thought a guy like Taleb would not need to be coddled. And if you check out the exchange around this on Taleb’s twitter feed, you will see plenty of sneering. But it’s all from him.

  • Karl Haro von Mogel

    The precautionary principle is used and abused, and although it has a nice name, in every practical way it is useless. You cannot prove anything 100% safe, whether it is GMOs, the internet, or treating someone with chemotherapy. All three are permanent in their effects on the world in one way or another, yet, we only hear this principle invoked for one of them.

    The other weird problem with the precautionary principle is that it is
    self-defeating. When you consider the other risk of the risk equation,
    the benefits, you reveal that there are risks to not acting. So by
    invoking the precautionary principle to prevent the use of a technology,
    you are giving rise to risk. Here is a great, short paper on the topic, which has a wonderful quote I would like to share.

    “The precautionary principle forbids genetic modification of food because it gives rise to risk, but the precautionary principle also forbids forbidding of genetic engineering of food because forbidding genetic engineering of food gives rise to risk”

    • Isaiah Taylor

      Maybe the proactionary principle should be a phrase more widely used.

    • Collin Thornhill

      Nice quote, Karl! But could you explain in more detail the last clause: “forbidding genetic engineering of food gives risk to risk.” I think I understand it as “not acting to alleviate problems means those problems will continue, or multiply.” But it’s the phrase “gives risk to risk” that I’m having trouble with. If you (or anyone for that matter) could elaborate, it would be much appreciated!

      • Isaiah Taylor

        Risk of avoidable crop failure.

        • Collin Thornhill

          Thank you, Isaiah!

          • Isaiah Taylor

            I wrote a reply but chrome ate it… Let me paraphrase. After thinking about it, I would generalize to this: a risk to using only non-GM technology is that we will almost certainly obtain less overall agricultural yield. Conversely, a benefit of using GM technology is that we will almost certainly increase agricultural yield. I think the lesson of the trolley problem (linked above) is that people don’t see these two statements as logically equivalent, even though there is really good reason to think they are.

            edit: spelling

          • Karl Haro von Mogel

            Yeah, exactly. I have described GE as being like the trolley problem in a talk, particularly golden rice. On its current course, the train (business as usual) will cause harm to people, and the decision is over whether to change the course of the train by switching the track. There is the possibility that you could harm someone else by switching the track, but you also have the benefit of saving the people who the train would have otherwise hit. We can look down the side track to see whether anyone is at risk of being harmed if the train is diverted, but how long do you examine that course to determine this? The longer you examine the alternate route, the more harm is being done to people on the current route. That’s where doing nothing can be riskier than doing something.

            The precautionary principle is like saying you should search the alternate route, scrutinizing every possible way someone could be harmed, before ever thinking of switching the track. It’s not a risk analysis, its a political tool.

    • Matt B

      Good post Karl….your link discusses an excellent example of the Precautionary Principle bogeyman, the irradiation of food…..that issue offers a perfect showcase of technological ignorance (by the anti-irradiation zealots and the media) creating all the FUD they need to shut down a technology with definite potential health benefits and little downside.

      The irradiation issue to me showcases the media’s fundamental inability to assess scientific information and to give proper weight to differing arguments. This one is a no-brainer but it will not be reported that way; I don’t ascribe the poor reporting to malice but to prejudice ( any thing nuclear = bad & dangerous) and ignorance of how the physical world works. I don’t see the media getting smarter anytime soon and that is a shame……….

  • Dallas Wood

    I’m not sure why Taleb’s comments are more interesting that anyone else’s who claims that the burden of proof on the safety of GMOs has not been met. The only difference is that he invokes the precautionary principle.

    Am I missing something?

  • Rachael Ludwick

    Oddly, I’d seen some of these tweets the other day (someone retweeted them into my feed). But I had no idea who the author was so I shrugged. People say an awful lot of reductive and ridiculous things on twitter (note: I’m no exception!)

    The precautionary principle is curious to me. I really had no idea it was a “thing” that was really used until the last few years. What makes it different than risk assessment and consideration of what risk people are willing to tolerate (i.e. values)? I still haven’t read anything that has convinced me that it isn’t just a really (really) conservative form of risk assessment that favors inaction because, I guess, we can at least say we didn’t actively break things more. The way it seems to be used now (e.g. how it is sometimes applied to biotech), implies to me that we never should have allowed solar panels (toxic manufacturing and recycling, changing of heat absorption patterns) or wind farms (risk to wild life, unknown effects on local weather patterns). I assume there is some thoughtful applications of PP out there, but its use by some seems to be a way to block change without actually having an honest discussion of moral questions or comparative risk of alternatives.

    • Joshua

      I still haven’t read anything that has convinced me that it isn’t just a really (really) conservative form of risk assessment that favors inaction

      The principle in itself is just an important, logical, and integral concept of risk assessment. In itself, it is not necessarily “really, really conservative.” It would depend on the particulars. Certainly we could find examples where applying the PP (caution in advance) is just basic common sense and not particularly conservative at all.

      How it is applied may be a conservative form of risk assessment, or it may simply be reasonable balancing of potential costs against potential benefits. People use the PP to leverage their arguments on both sides of this and many other similar issues. It’s like some kind of algorithm where they introduce the variables they want to get the return they want.

      You use that basic principle, I’m sure, quite often in your day to day life.

      • Rachael Ludwick

        Hrm. Perhaps I’m just only seeing how PP is applied on more
        controversial topics where it doesn’t seem like risk assessment. That is, it seems to be a hammer to shut down real
        discussion of risks and benefits to positive actions in favor of the
        status quo (whatever that is).

        And I agree we do risk assessment every day but it’s really hard: people often perceive risks as higher than they are for emotional or values-based reasons. That’s on reason why I think GE is so hard to talk to. Even if the outcome of the process (particular trait in a particular crop) is identical to one developed using a “traditional” breeding practice (mutation breeding, etc.) it is perceived as more risky because GE is associated with emotional and moral issues (large agribusiness controlling markets, hard to understand things people do in scientific laboratories, etc.)

        • jh

          The PP could sensibly be interpreted as a “go slow” approach, rather than an “inaction” approach.

          Risk Perception:

          The reason that risk assessment is “hard” is that we can’t possibly know all the risks for most actions. That’s why “quantitative” risk assessment is somewhat of a laugher.

          Even “knowledgeable” (excluding unforeseeable events) risk assessment isn’t as beneficial as people seem to think. It may say “If you ‘try’ this action 20 times you’ll have a favorable outcome 19 times”. While those are decent odds, there’s nothing about it that prevents a negative outcome from occurring on the first three or even five tries. Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No.

      • Joshua


        . That is, it seems to be a hammer to shut down real discussion of risks and benefits to positive actions in favor of the status quo (whatever that is).

        Sure, that could be (and probably is) the case sometimes; but the problem is that is an inherently subjective assessment. Sometimes you might think that an appeal to the PP is trying to shut down the convo – but someone on the other side is legitimately saying that they don’t think that the risks have been sufficiently quantified. Even if you don’t agree with that assessment, it doesn’t mean that their appeal to the PP is trying to shut down the convo.

        … but it’s really hard: people often perceive risks as higher than they are for emotional or values-based reasons.

        Again, no doubt true. But we know that this is a problem that is absolutely embedded into the process of risk assessment. Just pointing to someone and saying that they are being emotional rather than rational will get nowhere. And determining just who is being purely rational and not allowing any emotional influence on their risk assessment is incredibly complicated. It’s a conundrum.

        That’s on reason why I think GE is so hard to talk to. Even if the outcome of the process (particular trait in a particular crop) is identical to one developed using a “traditional” breeding practice (mutation breeding, etc.) it is perceived as more risky because GE is associated with emotional and moral issues (large agribusiness controlling markets, hard to understand things people do in scientific laboratories, etc.)

        Again, no doubt a problem. But IMO, it is hard to draw the line precisely where economic concerns about corporations/markets are more “emotional” than rational. These are not black and white issues. If you assume you know where that line should be drawn but miscalculate than you’re exacerbating the communication problem. IMO, people on both sides need to step back from the battle lines and accept that people in general have similar interests and that there are legitimate concerns on both sides,. Simply dismissing concerns about GMOs just won’t get the job done, IMO.

  • FosterBoondoggle

    It’s all about “trolley problems” in disguise. Our moral instinct is to avoid action that would be the direct cause of a harm, even though inaction might cause greater harm.

    But it’s clear that (1) this is a moral instinct, not a “rational” one, and (2) it’s a “problem” (even perhaps a paradox) because the conclusions are troubling – as KHvM notes.

    Taleb seems to be giving unreflective absolute weight to the first horn of the dilemma and completely ignoring the second. Like bobito says, easy to do when you’re well fed and can shop at the fancy organic grocery. Not so easy if you’re an Indian farmer trying to figure out how to earn more than subsistence wages from your cotton crop, half of which gets destroyed by boll worms.

  • Isaiah Taylor

    Does anyone know what he is talking about in the first tweet- “on statistical grounds”?

  • mem_somerville

    This reminds me very much of an item that Mike the Mad Biologist highlighted some time ago. It’s a common problem especially in twitter discussions, but it’s true of the larger ones on this issue too.

    The Asymmetric Advantage of Bullsh-t

    The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing
    argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.

    Mike referenced creationism for that, but it’s something I see all the time on many science-related subjects.

    • Isaiah Taylor

      guerrilla logic?

  • Joshua

    Seems to me like a rather ordinary viewpoint in these kinds of debates, be they GMOs, vaccinations, climate change, etc.: simplistic arguments that use selective reasoning to confirm biases.

    The debate about GMOs is not so simply aligned to the precautionary principle, just as it isn’t simply” described by “anti-science” or “junk science” or “bat-shit crazy, or “shill for Monsanto” or “millions will starve” or “frankenfood.”

    All of this is easily predicable by examining how people approach risk assessment – yes, rather notably ironic in this case but informative of nothing.

    It’s just same ol’ same ol’.

  • Alex Muir

    We need to be hearing more from our scientists. Dr. Thierry Vrain, formerly Head of Biotechnology @ Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station, once a supporter of GMO is now sharing his understanding of why the science behind genetic engineering is flawed in his recent Ted talk entitled The Gene Revolution, The Future of Agriculture:

    Petition CBC News, The National to Interview Dr Thierry Vrain Regarding GMO & The Future of Agriculture

    • RobertWager

      And I can say first hand he is selling fear generating pseudo-science. I know as I debated him and every single thing he put forward has been discredited as pseudo-science.

      • Alex Muir

        I just watched your video you seem to suggest that classical plant breeding is not a natural process. That’s just ridiculous. You think that humans cross pollinating plants is not natural? And when bees do the same thing I suppose that is natural? You start you whole line of reasoning with illogic.

        • RobertWager

          Some pollen transfer is from natural events, some not. but many types of “classical breeding ” have zero to do with natural pollen transfer. Please look up ionizing radiation mutagenesis, chemical mutagenesis, somaclonal variation, embryo rescue. Now of these are natural yet thousands of commercial crops are made with these techniques. As for the selection process, it is far from natural. We select plants for traits we want not what is good for the plant. There are almost zero commercial crops that can withstand the competition from wild plants. Therefore there is nothing natural about agriculture. I hope that clears up your confusion.

          • Alex Muir

            I agree that using ionizing radiation mutagenesis is not natural. We’ve done that with wheat and it’s probably why so many people are getting allergic to gluten. Were gluten allergies as common historically hundreds of years ago there would be more documentation and writings about the problem because it’s so obvious when you have it. The thing is your presentation purposefully tries to argue that because we’ve been altering genetics of plants using those more random gene altering techniques that GE is okay. That might not be the case. We could introduce proteins that we have trouble digesting or cause allergies much faster and more readily with such techniques. Thierry Vrain argues and so did FDA scientists that the means in which we alter DNA can cause rogue proteins that cause allergies. According to the CDC the rate of allegies in kids has increased 18% from 1997 to 2007. 60-70 million americans are affected by digestive diseases. What’s clear is there are a lot of problems with our diets and not many clear explanations as to why.

          • RobertWager

            And after 17 years of commercial GM crops there is not a single documented case of an allergenic reaction against any engineered protein. And GE crops are the ONLY crops that are examined for potential allergenic reactions before they are commercialized.

          • Alex Muir

            Yet there have been some GE crops developed that have been shown in the lab to cause allergies and not marketed. The thing is it can take a person 35 years to develop celiacs. It’s not logical that short term lab tests can be certain to determine the long term affects of introducing altered proteins. It makes sense to take precaution doesn’t it?

          • RobertWager

            Only one and the testing before commercialization found the potential allergenic issue and the event was cancelled. That is the only case of any allergenic protein being engineered into a GM crop. Every engineered protein is compared to the known allergen data bank before it is commercialized.

            When you change gene sequences randomly (many breeding methods) and never know what genes, how many genes or what changes to the genes has occurred and then they are commercialized and somehow no one has issues with this fact. But add one gene in a known position with known sequence, with known expression patterns with known effects on neigbouring genes, with known allergenic potential (none actually) and people get up in arms. that makes no sense.

          • Alex Muir

            Well according that paper and wikipedia there were two not 1.

            Well that’s not quite true some people are wondering if what we did to wheat has made it less healthy and is causing gluten intolerance. It’s been suggested the radiation has caused the gluten protein to be a bit different. It doesn’t seem to be well researched though. It’s almost like no one really cares to look into it. Perhaps it’s not even possible given we may no longer have the seeds for the wheat grown before radiation techniques although I haven’t looked into it and probably you would need a huge long term test with people eating different wheat sources. It’s essentially impossible to test just like so many other things are nearly impossible to test.

            Where scientists actually able to figure out what the causes of all our health problems are we no doubt would be changing a lot of things. The reality is were constantly finding out that something we’ve been doing for a decade is harmful because it often takes that long to notice and the research isn’t easy. I prefer to eat an Organic diet and to avoid any chemical uptake because I know that is the most likely way to avoid health problems.

      • Alex Muir

        You also say that it’s hard to understand why people wouldn’t want to eat the bt in the corn but are fine with it being sprayed on plants. I’ll help you out with that, it’s simple. When it’s sprayed on the plant you can scrub it off before you eat it. When it’s in the plant tissues due to genetic alteration you must eat the bt and it’s not clear what affect that has on the gut bacteria. Healthy gut bacteria are essentially for a healthy digestive system. The reality is very little research has been done to show the effects of bt on gut bacteria and any logical person would take precaution and wait for more research to be done on the subject.

        • RobertWager

          You do not seem to understand how Bt proteins work. they do not target bacteria but insects. the Bt protein binds to a specific protein lining the gut of the sensitive insect, the protein then causes a hole to form in the cell and the ion regulation of the gut cell is lost and the gut lining dies. Only the specific insect that has the specific receptor protein is affected. Bt is digested in our stomach/intestines. The pH of the insect gut is alkaline while ours is acidic. bt only works under alkaline conditions. I suggest you go to my website and read the UN-OECD Consensus document on the safety of plants expressing insecticidal proteins (Bt) You can learn a great deal about Bt research. cheers

          • Alex Muir

            While you and Monsanto suggest that Bt is digested in our stomach/intestines, and yet the toxin was identified in 93% of 30 pregnant women, 80% of umbilical blood, and 67% of 39 non-pregnant women in a Canadian study It does work as you say and yet the research showing that no gut bacteria are affected by digesting food with the toxin or that baby development is not adversely affected has not been done. You may be right and you may be wrong. Any intelligent women is not going to want that in her blood. Given the rate at which developmental disorders are increasing in our populations and how little we know as to why, we should be looking to have nothing in the umbilical blood that is not naturally present in a chemical free environment. The FDA is not seeking to increase the level of glyphosate residues in food because the technology is no longer as affective and farmers need to apply more and more of it on the so called super weeds. No one can honestly tell you that this won’t have negative effects on baby development as that research is almost impossible to carry out.

          • RobertWager

            That so-called research was completely debunked. They used a technique for plant tissue to measure blood. A huge mistake for those who work in this area of science. further the values they found were below the detection limits of the test. They found nothing and demonstrated they did not know how to do the tests properly. I see you did not go to the UN-OECD Consensus document on Bt proteins..

          • Alex Muir

            The “The service is unavailable.” on the UN-OECD Consensus document

          • RobertWager

            Go to my website its there.


          • Alex Muir

            Thanks,, do you have a direct link?,, your website is a bit all-over-the-place.

          • RobertWager

            Yes it definitely needs a re-work. Go to the resources section and scan down to the document “Consensus document on Safety…

  • jh

    I’m a big fan of Taleb with respect to economics. But with respect to scientific issues he has some strange ideas.

    In Black Swan, he pointed out that the gulag hardened some Russian criminals, in effect invoking the old maxim “that which does not kill me makes me stronger”. He then invoked the same principle to (as I recall) radiation poisoning, which is complete BS.

  • Stuart Tozer

    I’ve come to wonder whether in the years ahead the gmo issue will actually become detached from environmentalism and relabel itself more under a human freedoms type argument. One commenter here a few months ago (very sorry but I forget who it was) claimed that the organics movement was never about the environment, but people’s desire to be free from synthetic pesticides. A strange comment but it stuck with me, not least because I’ve always felt that the organic movement was always about the environment. If this perspective were to really take off, the argument that ge could increase crop yields/reduce arable lands would be a moot point for those people. Strange to think about.

  • JonFrum

    This from the guy who misused the term ‘black swan’ to sell a book. The term black swan had a long currency in biology. The proper usage comes from the fact that before Australia was discovered and explored, Europeans defined a swan as a large, white water bird with a long neck. When black swans were discovered on the other side of the world, it showed the difficulty of defining species without complete knowledge. Thus a ‘black swan’ in not a rare occurrence – it is an ‘unknown unknown’ that surprises us. Because of Taleb’s book, this useful term has been lost, replaced by long tail rarity.

  • jinng

    It’s all about “trolley problems” in disguise. Our moral instinct is to avoid action that would be the direct cause of a harm, even though inaction might cause greater harm.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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