A Precautionary Take On GMOs

Opponents of genetic engineering in agriculture have been engaged in something of an uphill battle in the United States, with independent scientific groups largely finding that genetically modified crops seem safe to grow and eat, and such crops now accounting for a majority of the country’s corn and soybeans. However, a recent paper by a group of New York University researchers — including former trader and noted risk philosopher Nassim N. Taleb — looks to alter the debate with a strong note of caution.

Titled The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms), the paper asks whether the risks associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) warrant application of the precautionary principle. In the view of the authors, they do.

In short, the precautionary principle states that if an action is suspected to carry a risk of extreme negative outcomes on a global scale, that action should not be taken unless “scientific near-certainty” of its safety can be established. Acknowledging that the principle, when too loosely applied, can lead to “paranoia and paralysis,” the authors spend much of the paper putting forth a framework for a reasoned, probability-based, “non-naive” application of the rule.

In discussing GMOs, the authors warn that genetic engineering separates crops from their evolutionary context — bypassing “the process of natural selection by which things become ‘natural’” — with unknown, and possibly irreversible, effects. The authors also stress that GMOs introduced into ecosystems have the potential to cross-breed and spread uncontrollably, elevating the risk beyond “localized harm” (such as that which might be caused, in the paper’s example, by a limited-scale nuclear accident) and into the realm of “systemic ruin.”

In arguing that the precautionary principle be applied to GMOs, the authors seek to steer the GMO debate away from empirical evidence and toward the consideration of frightening unknowns. Scientific models, the paper warns, can cover only “the subset of reality that is accessible to the scientist.” Lax regulation of GMOs in the United States is thus presented as an unacceptable gamble being made with the world’s ecosystems and human health.

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