Is genetic engineering a Black Swan for humanity?

Is genetic engineering a Black Swan for humanity?

Farming made civilization possible. Does crop technology spell the end of human existence? Some believe doom is a certainty. Fortunately, science is never certain and empirical evidence says no.

by Steven Slezak and David Zilberman

Norman Borlaug, the “Father of the Green Revolution,” spoke in his Nobel acceptance speech of “the scientific power of food production and the biological power of human reproduction.” Borlaug was echoing Robert Malthus, who laid out in 1798 the 21st Century problem of food security and the struggle over the Genetic Engineering (GE) of crops.

Borlaug was an unapologetic advocate of genetic engineering in the service of food security. He praised scientific “breakthroughs, using biotechnology transgenic gene-splicing techniques” in 2000.

Since 1980, significant research into the risk GE presents to food safety and the environment. An Italian study of over 1,700 pieces of scientific literature on GE safety during the last ten years concluded, “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops.” The Economist pointed out in 2013, “There is now no serious scientific evidence that GM crops do any harm to the health of human beings.”

Deadly deadlock

In his 2000 speech, Borlaug called for breaking the “deadlock between agriculturalists and environmentalists over what constitutes ‘sustainable agriculture’ in the Third World.” Despite advances in dynamic agricultural development, its contribution to improved human welfare, and the lack of empirical evidence of harm, the deadlock continues.

A recent contribution to deadlock is “The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms),” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, et al. Readers should explore the document in full. Its take on GE technology is an unusual display of academic vanity – “no amount of expertise in the details of biological processes can be a substitute for probabilistic rigor” – and global apocalypse – “total irreversible ruin…the extinction of human beings or all life on the planet.”

There is a serious argument, deserving consideration, that GE technology holds a remote potential for an outcome combining “low predictability and large impact” – a Black Swan. To the authors, GE technology contains “a small, non-zero risk” of “infinite harm” which could yield “outcomes (of) infinite costs.”

Proof is burdensome

But the end of human civilization? Could this be true? It doesn’t really matter. The authors say the burden of proof of their position does not fall on them.

It is not their job to demonstrate the scientific validity of their view that policy should “prescribe severe limits on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms).” This is convenient because the authors cannot, by their own admission, support their claims against GMOs with empirical evidence.

Probability without probabilities

To the authors, empirical evidence in defense of GE is meaningless. What’s more important is a principle supporting “precautionary action…not based on direct empirical evidence but on analytical approaches based upon the theoretical understanding of the nature of harm.” This article characterizes this method as “probability theory without computing probabilities.”

The authors claim GMOs are not the domain of risk management. But they confuse risk with uncertainty, and they try to demonstrate uncertainty can be addressed quantitatively. It cannot and it is a mistake to do so.

The Precautionary Principle (PP) does not apply. They advocate inaction in the face of a Black Swan, an unknowable and unspecified risk. Their understanding of failure in a complex system is flawed. Failure is by no means a certainty, despite what probability theory without calculations says. The principles of failure summarized by Richard Cook in 1998 form a more appropriate engineering risk paradigm than PP.

Risk mitigation is possible with GE crops. The systemic failure Taleb et al fear results from a series of smaller, localized failures that occur over an extended period of time. At any single stage, adjustments or corrections can be made, just the kind of “tinkering” the authors assert is not possible in GE. Circuit-breakers, redundancies, and fail-safes exist.

It’s possible but not probable

So effective risk management is possible. Many GE risks are controllable and containable should they materialize. Bad genetic crosses are not released from the lab. Plants that perform inappropriately can be uprooted. Bad seed is not used. There is no reason to invoke apocalyptic scenarios.

On the other hand, the risks of not using GE crops to improve food security are manifest. Millions of unfortunate people in the developing world pay already pay heavy costs. Nearly 700,000 children die each year of vitamin-A deficiency. Taleb et al advocate vitamin supplements costing US$4300 a year per life saved. Golden rice costs about US$100. Undernutrition costs up to US$2.1 trillion a year according to the FAO. The developed world suffers, too. The G20 reports 400 million of its citizens are malnourished.

Taleb et al dismiss these as “fallacious arguments,” but the enduring benefits of GE crops can be demonstrated. Just consider the Green Revolution. It is intellectual hubris to advocate a “theoretical understanding of…harm” that denies the poor, the hungry, and the sick of the economic, environmental, and social benefits GE can deliver.

Rigorous oversight for GE technology is prudent. Practicing reasonable risk aversion has never been in question. But deploying the Precautionary Principle is irresponsible. It sows confusion where clarity is needed. It contributes to deadlock when action is possible.

Studies have shown GE can save lives, reduce health risks, and benefit the environment. Credible scientific evidence that GE crops are as safe as conventional or organic crops should not be dismissed. Nor should evidence that GE helps lift rural communities in developing nations out of poverty.

Theorists, not doers

Taleb is right. Black swans are more common than we think they are. But when it comes to GE crops, their existence is questionable. For the most part the risks can be contained. We can address uncertainty without banishing the technology.

Norman Borlaug warned of this when he wrote, “The most conservative man in traditional agriculture is the scientist….(He) should lead us out of the wilderness of static, underproductive agriculture, and yet…he keeps us in the swamp of despair….There is no faith or understanding between the farmer and the scientist. Almost without exception the farmer says, ‘This man is a theorist. He is not a doer, and he can’t help us.’”

It does help to understand there is nothing worse than the fear of imaginary swans.

Steven Slezak is a GRI analyst and a professor of finance and strategy at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. David Zilberman is a professor in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at University of California, Berkeley.

Tags: Agriculture, GMOs

About Author

Steven Slezak

Steven is on the faculty at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, where he teaches finance and strategy. He taught financial management and financial mathematics at the Johns Hopkins University MBA program. He holds a degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and an MBA in Finance from JHU.