Is Nassim Taleb Right About Monsanto Company and GMOs?

A draft paper injects probability theory into the precautionary principle. Does it finally prove GMOs from Monsanto will doom the Earth, or did this modern-day thinker get ahead of himself?

Mar 9, 2014 at 12:30PM

Images

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.

Images

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. 

As ecocide takes over the world, secure your portfolio with dividends

Will ecocide ever occur at the hand of GMOs? I think not, but you should still infuse dividend stocks -- which handily outperform their non-dividend paying brethren -- into your portfolio. The reasons for this are too numerous to list here, but you can rest assured that it's true. However, knowing this is only half the battle. The other half is identifying which dividend stocks in particular are the best. With this in mind, our top analysts put together a free list of nine high-yielding stocks that should be in every income investor's portfolio. To learn the identity of these stocks instantly and for free, all you have to do is click here now.

Maxx Chatsko has no position in any stocks mentioned. Check out his personal portfolioCAPS pageprevious writing for The Motley Fool, or his work for the SynBioBeta to keep up with developments in the synthetic biology industry.

The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Money to your ears - A great FREE investing resource for you

The best way to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as “binge-worthy finance.”

Feb 1, 2016 at 5:03PM

Whether we're in the midst of earnings season or riding out the market's lulls, you want to know the best strategies for your money.

And you'll want to go beyond the hype of screaming TV personalities, fear-mongering ads, and "analysis" from people who might have your email address ... but no track record of success.

In short, you want a voice of reason you can count on.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich," rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

And one of the easiest, most enjoyable, most valuable ways to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as "binge-worthy finance."

Whether you make it part of your daily commute or you save up and listen to a handful of episodes for your 50-mile bike rides or long soaks in a bubble bath (or both!), the podcasts make sense of your money.

And unlike so many who want to make the subjects of personal finance and investing complicated and scary, our podcasts are clear, insightful, and (yes, it's true) fun.

Our free suite of podcasts

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. The show is also heard weekly on dozens of radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers are timeless, so it's worth going back to and listening from the very start; the other three are focused more on today's events, so listen to the most recent first.

All are available for free at www.fool.com/podcasts.

If you're looking for a friendly voice ... with great advice on how to make the most of your money ... from a business with a lengthy track record of success ... in clear, compelling language ... I encourage you to give a listen to our free podcasts.

Head to www.fool.com/podcasts, give them a spin, and you can subscribe there (at iTunes, Stitcher, or our other partners) if you want to receive them regularly.

It's money to your ears.

 


Compare Brokers