Arguments against GMOs fall into two main categories. The first warns of potential harm for tampering in nature’s domain. The second is to level an accusation that, while possibly true, also applies to conventional and organic crops and therefore is not a good reason to oppose genetic modification.
Some anti-GMO types are extreme enough to be dangerous, such as when Greenpeace eco-terrorists destroyed farmers’ fields in the Philippines. Worse, activists convinced Namibian and Zimbabwean governments to prohibit import of GMO corn during a famine. An organic food enthusiast featured on Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! defended this by saying that if the victims lived, the GMOs would have given them three heads.
While not making that claim, professor Nassim Taleb warns of unspecified dangers that GMOs may bring. One of GMO’s most zealous opponents, Taleb mostly confines himself mostly to Twitter and Facebook. He was scheduled to debate Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey but backed out a week before. Had Bailey been afforded the chance to debate, he may have raised these points, which he did in a Reason column about the cancellation:
- “In 2014, a group of Italian biologists did a comprehensive review of the last 10 years of research on biotech crops that encompassed 1,783 different scientific studies. These studies dealt with such concerns as the crops’ impacts on natural biodiversity, the possibility that they’ll exchange genes with wild relatives, and their effects on the health of people and other animals. In the review, the biologists concluded that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”
- “In a 2014 meta-analysis of 147 studies, a team of German researchers reported that the global adoption of genetically modified crops has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, increased crop yields by 22 percent, and increased farmer profits by 68 percent. They conclude that there is robust evidence of GM crop benefits for farmers in developed and developing countries.”
Taleb would have been very unlikely to have answered these points with facts or contemplation. He lashes out at anyone who disagrees with him and calls opponents “non-thinking animals.” His recommendation for debating GMO proponents is not to cite a scientific study or raise a point related to the chemistry of agriculture. Rather, he advises his followers to “deeply insult them” and “get them angry.”
He reserves most of his venom for University of Florida horticulturist Kevin Folta, as Folta has arguably done more to raise the profile of GMO safety than anyone else. When Folta offered to discuss GMOs over pizza and beer, Taleb refused and called Folta a “lowly individual” and a “disgusting fellow.” He also leveled the Monsanto shill accusation at him, even though Folta has never received a dime from the company. Taleb based this on Folta attending a conference which Monsanto helped pay for. Of course, even if Monsanto was paying Folta $10 million per annum that would have no bearing on whether what he was saying about GMOs was true.
Folta has hosted many podcasts and given hundreds of presentations on GMOs, and Taleb has never highlighted a possible error in Folta’s conclusions. Being unable to attack the science, he attacks the scientist, and as we’ve seen, the 56-year old Taleb does so in a manner benefiting a petulant grade schooler not getting his way on the playground.
Taleb pretty much concedes there are no known dangers and his beef with GMOs is based on the precautionary principle. He feels they are too much of a danger to take a chance with. Exactly why he thinks that is anyone’s guess. A Twitter user who requested from Taleb more information on how the precautionary principle would apply to GMOs was told to “fuck off.”
When applying the precautionary principle, the danger would actually seem to be in ignoring GMOs’ proven and potential benefits. As we have seen with the African famines, failing to take advantage of the technology can be fatal. Also, genetic modification saved the Hawaiian papaya, has given us synthetic insulin, and could prevent Third World blindness if bureaucratic roadblocks to Golden Rice could be overcome. GMOs also give farmers better crop yields and reduce the need for fertilizer and pesticides.
Then there’s the work of 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaugm, whom the Nobel Committee credited with saving one billions persons from starvation. He did so by pioneering the use of hybrid and genetically modified crops through the development of strains that could thrive in arid places without pesticides or herbicides. Why would anyone oppose this substantial technological progress? Let’s look at some of the arguments raised by Greenpeace and counters to them.
- The insertion of foreign genes can produce proteins that may prove toxic or allergenic.
Response: One of the main reasons research is done is to ensure food with toxins and allergens don’t reach the market. When a prospective genetically-modified food is shown to produce these, they cannot be sold.
- Scientists add genes that confer resistance to common antibiotics.
Response: What is actually happening is that researchers are making crops resistant to harmful bacteria by incorporating the right toxins into the crop. This eliminates the need to apply the toxin in pesticide form.
- Genetically engineered crops represent new and potentially invasive forms of life.
Response: All plant species are potentially invasive, which is why farmers apply sound management techniques. While invasive species sometimes occurs, this can happen with crops that are genetically modified, traditional, or organic.
- Non-GMO stocks are contaminated due to cross pollination, either through seeds being carried or by being mixed up during handling.
Response: This has always been true of all plants. Cross pollination has nothing to do with GMOs. Calling it “contamination” when it happens with GMOs is unnecessarily raising the alarm about a normal process that has always been part of agriculture.
- Because genetically engineered seeds are patented, the seed company can maintain strict control over how the seeds are used.
Response: This is true of all patented products and irrelevant to the safety or efficiency of GMOs.
A final argument is that GMOs are unnatural. But so too is all food, which has been modified for millennia. Food crops have always been hybridized, but with traditional methods there was a limit as to how different the species could be. With genetic modification, scientists can move individual genes from one species to almost any other. The goal is select specific genes that possess a desirable trait such as disease immunity or the ability to thrive in dry conditions and transfer it to another plant. Genetic modification allows this to be done much quicker and with much more control.
While these are all solid facts, fear sometimes wins out, with resulting famine, crop vandalism, and import bans. We largely don’t have those issues in the United States. But I see orange juice in the grocery store labeled “non-GMO,” even though this is a redundancy since there are no genetically-modified oranges. These labels are slapped on many other foods that have no GMO counterpart and the only reason is to take advantage of the fear. For reference, the only GMO crops sold in the United States are corn, sugar beets, soybeans, papayas, canola, arctic apples, alfalfa, cotton, innate potatoes, and summer squash. So Taleb could have had that pizza and beer without having to worry about growing three heads.