Is Nassim Taleb Right About Monsanto Company and GMOs?

Every financial pundit's worst nightmare. Source: FooledByRandomness.com / Bloomberg

Nassim Taleb, one of my favorite authors and thought donors alive today, is making my efforts to spread knowledge about the benefits of genetic engineering pretty difficult. I've read all of his books, from The Black Swan to Antifragile, and absolutely respect his dedication to schooling so-called experts on economics and risk management. His logic-based dismissal of ignorant (to history, reality, and the validity of their financial models) and unapologetically bullish Wall Street analysts captures the Foolish attitude in many ways. It's pretty hilarious, too.

What isn't so hilarious is that his characterization of the risks associated with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, as they are released into the environment lends an air of credibility to the anti-GMO movement. Many, including those that don't know a thing about Taleb, will loosely mention his name or well-thought out idea in an attempt to capture credibility for their own arguments without fully understanding the message. Fellow Fool Brian Stoffel -- not one of those people -- brilliantly described Taleb's views on the systemic risks presented with the planting of GMO crops developed by agricultural biotech companies such as Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) , Syngenta (NYSE: SYT  ) , Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW  ) , and DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) .

It may be easy to dismiss Taleb by saying he doesn't understand biology and leave it at that, but that's not a productive argument. Let's review what he is and isn't saying about GMOs.

What Taleb is and isn't saying
Brian did an excellent job of describing Taleb's views, but it's important to reiterate them here. A recent draft paper (link opens PDF) by Taleb, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Rupert Read presents a non-naive interpretation of the precautionary principle. Rather than use it to justify acts of paranoia -- as is commonly done -- the three are applying probability theory to describe risks in which a lack of statistical evidence exists due to a lack of time. Think about it: by the time enough evidence piles up to expose a risk it may be too late. These "ruin" problems can be the large-scale deployment of nuclear energy or the widespread use of GMOs, according the paper.

Taleb argues that the chance of ecocide, or the destruction of the environment and potentially humans, increases incrementally with each additional transgenic trait introduced into the environment. He's not saying that human ignorance to the potential risks presented by GMOs will doom the planet by 8:34 a.m. on Aug. 13, 2082 -- choreographing potential events as absolute certainties as many financial pundits do. Nor is he specifying which trait or traits will combine to cause which specific environmental disaster. Taleb doesn't deal in specifics; he deals in probability, but that doesn't take away from the validity of his argument. He's simply saying that given enough time and enough new traits (or ignorance) something big, such as ecocide, is almost guaranteed to occur.

Is Taleb wrong about genetic engineering?
Unfortunately for those looking to refute Taleb, it's impossible to argue with probability theory itself. Many have failed in their attempts over the years -- whether they know it or not. In the sense that an environmental (not health) calamity related to GMO use is almost certain to occur given enough time, Taleb is right. We can't sit here and go through each trait and how it interacts with the environment because all it takes is one unknown interaction to spell disaster. That's the point of Taleb's argument. Brian conjured up the following graphic for illustrative purposes only to serve as a visual for the argument.

Source: Brian Stoffel's interpretation of Taleb, Read, Bar-Yam paper.

However, no one knows where the ecocide barrier resides on the graph or how many traits need to be introduced (the slope of the graph) for the barrier to be crossed. That doesn't change the probabilities of disaster, but it's important to remember that Mother Nature is a robust system with its own set of checks and balances. Saying that ecocide is a certainty given enough time does not account for the fact that, given enough time, Mother Nature will effectively neutralize any "leaked" traits, whether through dilutive mutation or selection. Of course, that doesn't disprove that an ecocide from GMOs could occur, but saying that such an ecocide could destroy the planet is an irresponsible claim. That's where I believe Taleb is wrong.

The natural environment has encountered new traits from similarly unthinkable events (extremely rare occurrences of genetic transplantation across continents, species, and even planetary objects, or extremely rare single mutations that gave an incredible competitive advantage to a species or virus) that have led to ecocides and genetic bottlenecks in the past -- yet we're all still here and the biosphere remains tremendously diverse. And it didn't take decades, centuries, or millennia for Mother Nature to bounce back. It took a matter of years. Consider, as one shining example, the surprising robustness of ecosystems within Wormwood Forest in the Chernobyl exclusion zone to see the incredible, natural system of checks and balances work its magic. 

Foolish takeaway
I'm not arguing that the mathematic characterization of the systemic risk presented by GMOs on an infinite timescale is inaccurate, as many others will unsuccessfully attempt to do. Taleb may not be a biologist, but you simply can't argue with probability theory as presented. Could you try to explain various biological principles to support an argument in favor of GMOs? Absolutely, but you still won't be able to account for the unknown risks.

Either way, it's wrong and irresponsible to suggest that an ecocide caused from GMOs could wipe out life on Earth. It only works to foster a mistrust in science and adds no value to the broader debate. Then again, I suppose Taleb could argue that just because life hasn't been wiped out by a genetic calamity in the past, whether created by man or nature, doesn't mean the probability of the event occurring is zero. That's the problem with arguing against probability theory. 

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Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (10)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2014, at 9:23 AM, ardoucette wrote:

    The failure in his logic is to presume that change has a chance of being bad.

    Which would be true if it were not thought out first.

    But they ARE thought out first.

    Which significantly reduces the chances of a bad trait being introduced and very significantly reduces the chances of an "ecocide" trait being introduced, to the point of being VANISHINGLY SMALL.

    Probability doesn't work when the chances are introduced only upon significant scientific scrutiny.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2014, at 12:59 PM, MikedotR wrote:

    It's not just probability, it's probability amplitude which is probability * the significance of the event.

    ardoucette - your failure in your logic is to assume scientists get things right when they think them out first (thalidomide anyone?) and neglecting probability amplitude. A vanishingly small probability times infinity is still infinity, and ecocide is effectively infinity.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2014, at 7:33 PM, AlainCo wrote:

    Nice analysis that I tried to propose to NNtaleb.

    He describe well some mechanism in his "toolbox".

    mother earth, and even humanity is not a single system than can be killed like a big bank too bog to fail.

    It is a comblex network of opposing actors that can control each others.

    He raise a good point by being concerned that "blackswan" traits appear in the earth system with never observed consequence... unlike old genes which have circulated much.

    but in fact GMO are reusing our old gene pool.

    virus themselves do GMO every minutes.

    I disagree on hi fear of the number of traits, and I see more risk in the homogeneity of the gene pool.

    countrary to him, I would try to increase the variaty of species on earth, naturat, mutated, selected, and GMO, FORBIDINg concentration and too wide usage of a single species.

    we need mixing.

    sure ther will be catastrophe like AIDS, like potatoes disiease, like wineyard disease, but it will be solved via others crops, via technology, via ... chance and massive losses... but not ecocode.

    we also have to (Judith Curry proposed that for resistance to climate uncertainty monster) develop our capacity to react to anything, that we don't know... this mean learning all science, even the most stupid looking, learning to manipulate anything we can imagine, even useless... just in case of desperate need.

    as taleb says, if you are still in correct health, don't use drugs that may kill you... if you are dying for sure, don't hesitate to use a killing drug if there is a chance it does not kill you nor let you die...

    we should sure learn geoengineering techniques... and sure not use it until it is really desperate, and I don't imagine anything can be that desperate for humans... we can survive from north pole to Kalahari deserts, and from Mariane Island depth to the moon...

    I'm more afraid on the consequence of current food despair on systemic wars and planetocide by war.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2014, at 7:34 PM, bobschu wrote:

    DNA changes are normally validated by natural selection. GMO changes are not, hence from the point of view of natural selection they are mutations.

    The background mutation rate for plants seems to be much lower than the number of induced gmo mutations. So you might expect consequences like that of substantial radiation exposure.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 11:22 AM, jag529 wrote:

    Frankly I find this analysis silly. Virtually all modern food sources are ‘genetically modified’. However, it appears his analysis, which is indeed dubious, refers to only those “GMOs” produce by modern biotechnology. History has taught us that older, conventional breeding technologies, i.e. genetic modification, can lead to undesirable phenotypes as well. So the distinction is completely irrelevant.

    Moreover, I find the argument/comment:

    “..... but you still won't be able to account for the unknown risks.”

    which equates to ‘science should stop advancing because something bad might happen’, well, simply ludicrous.

    The Precautionary Principle is the religion of Malthusians.

  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2014, at 11:49 AM, TMFBlacknGold wrote:

    @jag529

    There are many scientific facts that can be used to argue why we have nothing to fear from genetic engineering. However, there is no argument against the unknown. That's a central theme to Taleb's work that many people fail to recognize. We can write volumes about the safety of GM crops now, but it only takes one unforeseen catastrophe to render them useless.

    Do I think we're at risk from playing around with the software of life? No, but you have to accept the risk of the unknown.

    Maxxwell

  • Report this Comment On March 12, 2014, at 6:31 PM, Weitzhuis wrote:

    What utter bull*. Genes created or inserted by human intervention will cause a near certain ecoside with just a thousand seed types, whilst the constant barrage of random mutations doesn't do squat? His graph only shows number of seed types created with no time scale either.

    This is just more anti-gmo trash.

  • Report this Comment On March 12, 2014, at 11:40 PM, DrBT wrote:

    A little biological knowledge would serve Dr Taleb well. Had he asked one of the many awesome biologists he probably bumps into on the subway every day what they think of his analysis, they would have provided any number of factual counterexamples that would send him back to his thought lab to recalibrate his intuitions. Here's one: horizontal transfer of genes between any number of wild species occurs at a substantial frequency in nature, and has occurred thus for a period of time many orders of magnitude larger than the past and likely future extent of human history. This has not resulted in ecocide.

  • Report this Comment On March 14, 2014, at 11:17 PM, MarkDonner wrote:

    Monsanto is factually a global terrorist organization. They are not only responsible for the deaths of millions, they are attacking future generations and the very future of all life on the earth. Monsanto and its partners in crime in companies like Syngenta are the stuff of nightmares, a company run by the worst possible criminal psychopaths. Any decent citizen and government on the earth must stop them with an even greater urgency than existed for stopping stellar criminals in history like Hitler. This is a terrorist organization that must never be allowed to exist.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2014, at 1:32 PM, daz10000 wrote:

    He's clearly a smart guy in his own domain. Reminds me of a lot of bright people who don't vaccinate their children, and then children (theirs or others die) or get maimed, because they don't have the faintest clue about risk in a biological setting. His fundamental is making up this "top down" versus "bottom up" engineering distinction and imbuing the top down with magical properties. Adding a few genes in a controlled fashion has far less consequence than either traditional breeding or the constant evolution of organisms coming into contact with one another, mutating, undergoing horizonal gene flow etc. He should spend an hour or two reading up about gene flow in the oceans for example. I find it tremendously sad that a clearly gifted guy can make such a fool of himself. The "I'm not a biologist so I have more credibility" line is sad too. When we all start touting our ignorance and lack of curiosity as a badge of honor, then we are truly screwed. I don't want to get stuck in a 19th century farming museum.

  • Report this Comment On November 28, 2014, at 9:57 PM, maxhodges wrote:

    Fools indeed. "Either way, it's wrong and irresponsible to suggest that an ecocide caused from GMOs could wipe out life on Earth."

    Why would it be wrong to suggest something which is certainly possible. Look at Colony Collapse Disorder to get a since of the fragility of our agriculture system. 30% of US commercial crops depend on honey bees.

    Biological systems that are organized in ecological networks have many interacting and mutually-supporting entities and behaviors, implying the potential for cascading failure. Human activity links distant parts of the globe, and therefore previously distant ecologies, and now is directly introducing within short timeframes genetically-modified organisms worldwide, creating a globally interconnected system, whose lack of boundaries make globally unbounded cascades possible.

    http://necsi.edu/research/social/pp/responsetrevorcharles.ht...

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