Neil deGrasse Tyson, GMOs and Risk Management

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.

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  1. A while back my wife (who lives in the USA because she takes care of an invalid mother) contacted me all in a flurry because of her concerns about genetically-modified food. She and her mom had seen a movie on line that blamed it for damn near everything short of WW2. I walked her through the issues involved and she commented that “it’s OK for you to do all of this. You are an ex-farmer with a Master’s in philosophy, but how do you expect ordinary people to figure this stuff out?” With that in mind, I wrote a couple blog posts on the subject, that I think work through the two issues with some clarity.

    At risk of shameless self-promotion (wrapped in the guise of trying add some light to a debate that sometimes seems quite murky), I’m going to offer the following links:

    The first is a response to the film and book “Genetic Roulette” (the one that totally freaked out my dear and much loved wife):

    The second deals with the issue of genetically-modified organisms and the agricultural sector in general:

  2. I don’t think “because they give me the heebie-jeebies” is necessarily a bad argument against GMOs, especially on a personal level.

    The burden of proof for the safety of genetic modifcations should be on the scientists making these things and the companies commercializing them, not ordinary people who want to have some control of what they eat. Prove to me, Neil Tyson, Monsanto and Co., that I shouldn’t have any heebies or jeebies.

    • Taleb agrees with you–the burden of proof should indeed be on the GMO side. And I also agree that the heebie-jeebies are a real thing. Just look at recent placebo/nocebo studies.

  3. Saying GMOs are bad is like saying medicine is bad. There are some medicines and medical procedures that are horrific. Especially in retrospect, they don’t offer healing, and certainly don’t abide by the goal to “Do no harm”. Other medicines/procedures improve the quality or quantity of life, relieve suffering, etc. (Can you tell I just finished listening to “The Emperor of All Maladies”?) It is the same with GMOs. Some of them don’t contribute to an improved existence for any life form. Others are nothing short of brilliant. I think it is important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is why it behooves all people to take enough science and statistical classes to learn how to read papers from refereed journals. Then you can intelligently assess things on a case-by-case basis yourself.

  4. This comes from a reader James Marshall who had problems with the captcha system on our website. He sent me the following comment on this post. James says,

    “Usually this site is spot-on, so I feel bad for only commenting on the very few posts that seem mislead.

    And I understand that GMOs are often associated with Monsanto, which is a few henchmen away from being a James Bond villain.

    But for me, there is really just two issues here: are we willing to accept our own ignorance, and are we willing to trust the judgement of those that know more about a specific area? You and I know next to nothing about GMOs. We read that they put DNA from a fish into a tomato, and suddenly we imagine some horror movie monstrosity or a genetic off-switch for life on earth.

    The experts, the people who have been working in these fields for their whole lives, who understand not only what they know, but also understand the limits of their knowledge, find these scenarios laughable. Not because they are condescending, or blinded by ambition and money, but because they understand the problem at hand. They have a better understanding of reality (in this particular area) than we do, and they do not share our fears. Our fears are unfounded.

    And keep in mind that the training of these scientists is to question EVERYTHING along the way. All possibilities where questioned, investigated, and then those results reproduced. Anything not found to be consistent was investigated further.

    So sure, argue about the costs / benefits of mono-culture. Or pesticides. Or anything else you want. But leave your fear of the unknown at home.

    On a side note, was the article you linked published in a peer reviewed journal? Has there been peer reviewed work that validates any of your fears?”

    • James–you make some good points–thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      The article was not published in a peer reviewed journal, to my knowledge. I would love to see a rebuttal to it. I agree that we should not demonize people working on GMOs. But I still share Taleb’s concern about experts in all fields underestimating the frequency of “black swan” events and the overall fragility of industrial agriculture. I’ve seen this fragility first hand in the world of beekeeping. Beekeeping has been hit by multiple black swans in the past 30 years and the experts are still advocating the things that got beekeeping into trouble.

      I have not seen peer reviewed work relating to what Taleb is talking about. The peer reviewed work that brings up objections to GMOs that I have seen is about the induced demand problem–make crops immune to herbicides and farmers use more herbicides.

      I had a friend in grad school who was working on GMO corn. He would probably agree with you. It’s too bad that I’ve fallen out of touch with him, otherwise I’d have him on the blog or the podcast to talk about this issue. Again, thanks for the comment.

    • “The experts…find these scenarios laughable. Not because they are condescending, or blinded by ambition and money, but because they understand the problem at hand. They have a better understanding of reality (in this particular area) than we do,…”

      With all due respect, I’ve a problem with this statement, in particular the ambition and money bit.

      If memory serves me, NdGT and the latest Cosmos did a show on the history of Lead and its ultimate official recognition of how hazardous it can be to humans. It took a while to get that official recognition because of many scientists, experts in their field, denying any adverse effects.

      This isn’t an isolated occurrence. There’s also the case of Tyrone Hayes, Syngenta and Atrazine that the New Yorker wrote about not long ago.

      given all this, I think it healthy to be skeptical, even of the experts…

  5. Thanks for posting about this video. I was taken by surprise when I first saw it on the old FB. He is comparing two different things and I would have assumed he knew better.

    I am repeatedly confused as to why people trust experts blindly. Call me radical but I question peoples conclusions when they have something to gain monetarily.

  6. NdGT says:
    “practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food… we have systematically modified all the foods, all the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated now we can do it in a lab and you’re going to complain?”

    Here’s an observation:
    In Spanish (and apparently in French and I’d hazard a guess and say Italian and Portuguese) one says “transgenic” for the term GMO in English. Transgenic implies taking the genes from one species and inputting them into another species, another species that would arguably never have those genes mixed in under typical procreation. Has that practice been going on since we began cultivating all the foods? I am assuming it hasn’t. If that assumption is correct, then yes I am going to complain given that we don’t fully know the potential impacts on humans, other life and the environment of that practice.

  7. If GMO produce manufacturers have nothing to hide, why don’t they put a label “GMO” on their packaging?! Let the customers decide!

    Europeans are highly skeptical of GMOs, but unfortunately there’s a whole lot of successful lobbying going on at EU level.

  8. I do have a friend with a Ph.D. in Soil Science who has never been a strong proponent of GMO’s. She would not feel comfortable making public statements about astrophysics, as that is not her area of expertise. This reminds me of the oncologist who replied to my question about stopping hormone treatment after my cancer diagnosis (as recommended by literature) that the pill was not hormones. He was an expert in melanoma; obviously not in women’s medicine. My local oncologist told me to stop.

  9. I can tell that this vid was uploaded July 2014, but does anyone know when it was actually filmed?

    What’s funny is that Neil says that Red Delicious apples are sweet. They are red, but not delicious. They are tart, or at best, tasteless. I bet those little teeny wild apples he refers to are super sweet. (Sorry for this month-overdue comment!)

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