‘Genetically Modified Organisms Risk Global Ruin’ By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“Experts have severely underestimated the risks of genetically modified food.” 

It is 20 years since the FDA approved the Flavr Savr tomato for human consumption, the first genetically engineered food to gain this status. Since then, genetically modified food has become a significant part of the human diet in many parts of the world, particularly in the US. In 2013 roughly 85 per cent of corn and 90 per cent of soybeans produced in the US were genetically modified.

Given the ubiquity of this kind of foodstuff, you could be forgiven for thinking that the scientific debate over its safety has been largely settled. It is certainly true that a large number of scientists seem to take that view. In 2012, for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science declared that genetically modified crops pose no greater risk than the same foods made from crops modified by conventional plant breeding techniques

Today, Nassim Nicholas Taleb at New York University and a few pals say that this kind of thinking vastly underestimates the threat posed by genetically modified organisms. “Genetically modified organisms represent a public risk of global harm,” they say. Consequently, this risk should be treated differently from those that only have the potential for local harm. “The precautionary principle should be used to prescribe severe of limits on genetically modified organisms,” they conclude.

Taleb and co begin by making a clear distinction between risks with consequences that are local and those with consequences that have the potential to cause global ruin. When global harm is possible, an action must be avoided unless there is scientific near-certainty that it is safe. This approach is known as the precautionary principle.

The question, of course, is when the precautionary principle should be applied. Taleb and co begin by saying that their aim is to place the precautionary principle within a formal statistical structure that is grounded in probability theory and the properties of complex systems. “Our aim is to allow decision-makers to discern which circumstances require the use of the precautionary principle and in which cases evoking the precautionary principle is inappropriate.”

Their argument begins by dividing potential harm into two types. The first is localised and non-spreading. The second is propagating harm that results in irreversible and widespread damage. Taleb and co say that traditional decision-making strategies focus on the first type of risk where the harm is localised and the risk is easy to calculate from past data.

In this case, it is always possible to make a mistake when decision-making about risk. The crucial point is that when the harm is localised, the potential danger from a miscalculation is bounded. 


Posted By F. Sheikh