I can understand why Neil deGrasse Tyson made these off the cuff remarks about genetically modified organisms. There’s a lot of tin foil hat thinking on the anti-GMO side. But his comments also reveal that Tyson does not understand the difference between conventional plant breeding (something human beings have been up to for thousands of years) and GMOs.
For me, the best argument against GMOs come from a risk-management perspective. Statistician, author and former Wall Street trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, along with four co-authors, published an article, “The Precautionary Principle: Fragility and Black Swans from Policy Actions” that describes, from a risk management perspective, why GMOs are not a good idea,
Monoculture in combination with genetic engineering dramatically increases the risks being taken. Instead of a long history of evolutionary selection, these modifications rely not just on naive engineering strategies that do not appropriately consider risk in complex environments, but also explicitly reductionist approaches that ignore unintended consequences and employ very limited empirical testing . . . There is no comparison between tinkering with the selective breeding of genetic components of organisms that have previously undergone extensive histories of selection and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from a fish and putting it into a tomato. Saying that such a product is natural misses the process of natural selection by which things become “natural.” While there are claims that all organisms include transgenic materials, those genetic transfers that are currently present were subject to selection over long times and survived. The success rate is tiny. Unlike GMOs, in nature there is no immediate replication of mutated organisms to become a large fraction of the organisms of a species. Indeed, any one genetic variation is unlikely to become part of the long term genetic pool of the population. Instead, just like any other genetic variation or mutation, transgenic transfers are subject to competition and selection over many generations before becoming a significant part of the population. A new genetic transfer engineered today is not the same as one that has survived this process of selection.
With GMOs there is the chance, albeit small, of total systemic failure of the system. The “bottom up” nature of conventional breeding–a much longer time frame and localized effects–prevents this kind of systemic failure.
Hopefully Tyson will read this article himself. It’s evident from his non-apologetic backpedaling on Facebook, that he still doesn’t understand the risks of GMOs.
Taleb’s article is worth reading. In addition to his argument on GMOs, the papers serves as a convenient summary of his “black swan” theory.