To date, Jeremiah has been mildly in favor of genetically modified foods. He believes in the science but, as we read here, he is suspicious of the motives. This is a good framework for such issues. You look at the science, and then you look at who profits.
Now, we have a new paper from Nassim Taleb that questions the science. Taleb, author of The Black Swan, is the world’s foremost authority on analyzing risk. His concern is not with the biology. It is clear that, having created a new organism, scientists can reliably check whether it’s safe to eat.
Top-down modifications to the system are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones. There is no comparison between selective breeding and … arbitrarily taking a gene from one organism and putting it into another.
Professor Taleb’s concern has to do with the probability of a genetically modified organism having some unforeseen impact on its ecosystem. Here, we are talking about a unique event in a complex system – Taleb’s home turf – with a nonzero probability of something going wrong.
Taleb draws a parallel with his work in the stock market. A trader can survive many small losses, but a trader who bets the farm will sooner or later go bust. This is not risk management, but a completely different problem – called “risk of ruin” in the business. Nature produces organisms that are safe, because each mutation is small and reversible (in the population), and other organisms have time to adapt.
This is a good way to define what “natural” means, without the hype. Taleb recommends leaving natural systems alone, whether they’re ecosystems or financial systems. In this interview, he says that governments should not intervene in financial crises. It’s nice to find someone with a consistent basis for his beliefs – even if it’s advanced statistics.
Is Nassim Taleb Right About GMOs?