Are Geneticists Qualified to Talk about GMOs?

Are Geneticists Qualified to Talk about GMOs?

GMOs - safe or unsafe?

Our previous article titled “PLoS Biology in Hot Water Over GMO Scandal” captured the entire spectrum of debate on GMO in two excellent comments. Jonathan Badger wrote -

There isnt really anything complex about the issue social or not. It basically is the same thing as the anti-vaccination issue. Yes, Monsanto isnt a very nice corporation, just as Merck isnt. But despite the whining about big-Agriculture (exactly the same as the analogous whining about big-Pharma) the situation boils down to actual facts. Is there any evidence that vaccines are harmful? No. Is there any evidence that GMOs are harmful? No. That really should be the end of the discussion, but sadly it isnt, in large part because some celebrities have decided that their skill at looking good in front of a camera is relevant.

Harold Smith replied-

Actually, the issue is complex. GM crops have significantly reduced the amounts of toxic herbicides and insecticides used in agriculture, and increased yields. However, those crops are monocultures that reduce genetic diversity, and foster non-sustainable intensive farming practices. Widespread use of glyphosphate has reduced populations of non-pest species (e.g., monarch butterflies). And while its true that current GMOs do not affect human health, theres no reason to assume that will hold true for future modifications. Finally, given all of the problems caused by introduced/invasive species, its hubris to think that we can anticipate all of the ecological impacts of GMOs.

Im not opposed to GMOs on principle (after all, I am a molecular biologist who has genetically modified a number of species in my time). The technology has the potential to expand cultivation into inhospitable (arid and saline) environments, and provide necessary nutrients (a la Golden Rice) to improve health. But big Ag has done itself no favors by focusing largely on traits whose primary function is to boost its bottom line (buy Roundup!). And, by fighting the labeling of GM products, they encourage suspicion. In the free- market economy of the US, the consumer should have the choice to select or reject GMOs, even if that choice is irrational.

Both comments are correct within the definition of ‘risk’ used by the commenters. The first definition (from Jonathan Badger) is one-dimensional and appears ‘simple’. The second one (from Harold Smith) is multi-dimensional and therefore the author correctly sees the complexity in the situation.

The biggest challenge in these discussions is that geneticists insist that they are the authority to speak on GMOs, because the name includes ‘genetically’. Moreover, they often resort to the first definition, because that is the only kind of genetics they could reproduce in the lab. So, essentially the argument boils down to ‘the kinds of genetic modification we reproduce in the lab are not risky’ and all other issues should be ignored, because we have no skills to talk about them.

The situation reminds me of pre-2007 debates about financial derivatives between the economic modelers and others. The modelers insisted that the derivatives were not risky, because their models showed that they were not risky. The opponents argued that the models were too simplistic, because they only included scenarios being taught in the books. In fact, this debate ended in a hilarious episode, when the financial derivatives collapsed in 2008 and the modelers argued that they could not see it, because their models did not consider falling house prices. That may appear stupid today, but in 2005, I received plenty of ridicule for predicting falling prices (deflation in technical terms). Deflation was supposedly banned by Federal reserves and you cannot find a single mainstream economist predicting the same in 2005.

You can see many similarities with geneticists arguing in favor of GMOs based on their simple understanding. Taleb wrote that geneticists are as qualified to talk about GMOs as carpenters about roulette games.

Now one simple analogy of why people sometimes in the profession are not qualified to talk about risk of the profession is what we call the Carpenter Fallacy. If you want to understand the risk of ruin or sequence of bets. It’s a standard result in probability. But who would you go to for that problem? Would you go to a carpenter who builds roulette? Or would you go to a probability person? The carpenter may claim, ‘Hey, you know what, you are insulting me. I know very well how this is built,’ and stuff like that. But his knowledge of the carpentry involved in building the roulette table doesn’t allow him to make claims as to the probability distribution of what is going to happen. And then less even about claims concerning large deviations, the long sequences of tail events. You see my point.

He also wrote the following paper to discuss risks of GMOs.

The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms)

We present a non-naive version of the Precautionary (PP) that allows us to avoid paranoia and paralysis by confining precaution to specific domains and problems. PP is intended to deal with uncertainty and risk in cases where the absence of evidence and the incompleteness of scientific knowledge carries profound implications and in the presence of risks of “black swans”, unforeseen and unforeseable events of extreme consequence. We formalize PP, placing it within the statistical and probabilistic structure of ruin problems, in which a system is at risk of total failure, and in place of risk we use a formal fragility based approach. We make a central distinction between 1) thin and fat tails, 2) Local and systemic risks and place PP in the joint Fat Tails and systemic cases. We discuss the implications for GMOs (compared to Nuclear energy) and show that GMOs represent a public risk of global harm (while harm from nuclear energy is comparatively limited and better characterized). PP should be used to prescribe severe limits on GMOs.

Relevant discussions are available from the following links -

Finally, our Precautionary Principle (with Application to GMOs) Is on ArXiv (without the math)

[Genetically Modified Organisms Risk Global Ruin, Says Black Swan Author

Experts have severely underestimated the risks of genetically modified food, says a group of researchers lead by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

and of course, not everyone agrees.

Nassim Taleb is wrong: Black Swan more likely for non-GMO food than GM varieties


Do GMOs provide social benefit over cost? (the golden rice haox)

Most geneticists argue that ‘golden rice’ (rice with B12) is the shining example of social success of GMOs, but when asked for more detail, they simply link to corporate propaganda. For example, they cannot answer, why people in poor countries lack vitamin B12 in the first place, but are eager to provide a solution. How quaint ! The main reason of rural poverty in India and other countries is globalized monetary system that creates inflation as an objective and makes basic commodities out of reach of poor people. Scientists being funded from government largess, of course, gain from such inflation and see nothing wrong. It is another ‘risk’ that is unimportant to them.

The following blog has excellent discussions on golden rice.

The Golden Rice Fraud Continues: China Feeding Experiment

Question: Who, by its action, shows more concern with being accountable to the people, the Chinese government or a typical corporatized US university, Tufts?

In August 2012 Greenpeace broke the story of a joint US-China human feeding experiment with GMOs conducted upon Chinese schoolchildren. The feeding experiment took place in 2008. A Tufts cadre smuggled golden rice into China (which has strict import restrictions for GMOs). This GM rice was then fed to schoolchildren in the Hunan province. Chinese technicians presented the parents with consent forms which concealed the fact that GMOs were to be used. They told them it would be normal rice.

When the crime was made public and the government launched an investigation, the lead Chinese experimenter tried to cover it all up. This didnt work, and the government has now fired three upper-level technocrats who led the experiment. Thats impressive in this age of shameless, openly criminal hierarchy.

More typical is the reaction of Tufts University, which issued a bland statement, in an annoyed tone, dismissing the Chinese action and referring to its own investigation, which we can be sure will be swift, thorough, and seek truth and justice, and wont be a whitewash at all.

Make It Up on (Propaganda) Volume The Golden Rice Hoax Marches On

The hoax product golden rice continues to be touted through the corporate media and academia bullhorn. This is even though it doesnt exist except in flawed experimental form while its own proprietor, the International Rice Research Institute, admits that even if it ever were perfected and available to the public, it may not actually work to reduce vitamin A deficiency. The PR campaign has an inverse ratio of noisy lies to real world achievement.

The media continues to spew the typical lies. The fact is that never once has anyone actually tried to deliver golden rice anywhere and been prevented from doing so by citizen action. Thats because the product doesnt exist in deployable form. Researchers continue to struggle to breed an indica variety of the product. Any phony regulatory struggle hasnt even begun yet, as the technical problems of the project remain insurmountable. Yet we keep being told by professional liars that the US government and the GMO cartel, the most powerful government and one of the most powerful corporate oligopoly sectors on earth, are being thwarted by powerful forces. When I ponder the flimsiness and sheer idiocy of the lies GMO proponents tell, I dont know whats greater, these peoples moral depravity or their intellectual stupidity.

[The Golden Rice Myth Will Always Be With Us (For the Real Thing, Keep Waiting)

In spite of the decades-long, massive propaganda barrage by governments and the corporate media, the people have always been skeptical of GMOs. It doesnt work for proponents to tell the truth, and most of the lies are similarly unimpressive. The flacks need special angles to try to make their cause look sympathetic.

For fifteen years now the golden rice scam has been a big part of GMO propaganda. Golden rice is fraudulently called the answer to vitamin A deficiency in the diets of children in many parts of the non-industrialized world. In spite of the golden rice scam having been debunked a long time ago, its still chugging along in the corporate media to this day, promoted by the cartels go-to hacks like Mark Lynas, Patrick Moore, and Stewart Brand. (These same clowns are shills for nukes, geoengineering, fracking, nanotechnology, climate change denial, etc.)

The original golden rice, called GR 1, had such a meager amount of vitamin A that youd need twelve times the normal daily intake to get the nutritionally necessary amount. Meanwhile even this amount must be accompanied by the sufficient right kinds of fats and oils in the diet to digest it. This tends to be lacking in the overall diets of the people this rice is supposed to be fed to. So this alleged vitamin A source is also non-holistic with the diet of the people who would be eating it, and would for that reason be ineffective, even if it contained significant amounts of the vitamin, which it does not. African diets, for example, are not holistic with it. As for addressing famine (caused by corporatism itself), another alleged miracle of golden rice, by definition people who are starving wont be consuming sufficient fats to properly digest rice, so its a fraud to give a hungry person rice and claim hes getting the micronutrients from it.

Written by M. //