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Saturday, July 18, 2015
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The New York Times recently published an article about genetic crop modification (“GMO“, as popularly known) by financial experts Mark Spitznagel and Nassim Taleb. Spitznagel and Taleb (yes, the “black swan” Taleb) think that tinkering with agricultural products by intentionally altering their genes through now-common scientific techniques is a formula for trouble. They feel that “complex chains of unpredictable changes in the ecosystem” could lead to catastrophe (shortages, high prices, economic depressions, starvation) if important crops get unexpectedly wiped out or are no longer able to grow in a changing environment.

To give their argument some weight, Taleb and Spitznagel compare the current GMO situation with the growth in the late 90’s and early 2000’s of hybrid financial arrangements for sub-prime investments (e.g. credit default swaps, tranched mortgage backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, etc). These investments were designed based on detailed economic studies, statistical analyses and complex mathematical and computer techniques, and became very popular in the big-money world of high-finance. Unfortunately, they had some unforeseen flaws in them, such that changing conditions in the US housing market triggered a cascade of events that ultimately led to a financial crisis and a “Great Recession”.

Their logic was criticized in an article in Forbes by Henry I. Miller, a biomedical scientist and former FDA drug regulator. Miller first points out that Spitznagel and Taleb are financial experts, not biologists. He then makes the point that current genetic modification techniques for food and fiber crops are basically just souped up versions of what humans have been doing for thousands of years with important plants. I.e., changing them. In the past, this was done by a slow, trial-and-error process of hybridizing through cross-breeding, mixing one plant’s pollen with another. Although slow, over decades and centuries we changed many fruits, veggies and grain plants to give high yields of stuff that we like (and won’t poison us, as the predecessor plant for the tomato did). And yet, somehow we are still here, and growing more stuff than ever.

In my opinion, it’s way too late to go back from GMO foods and products. The world is changing quicker and quicker; one factor is increasing climate change, another is the widespread commerce that interconnects most every region of the world. In centuries past, a new type of fungus or parasite bug could destroy a crop in a particular region, but that crop could continue to grow in other parts of the world. Today, bugs and fungus’s (and other bad stuff) get around much more quickly, through people traveling on jets, containers on intercontinental ships, etc. Given that environmental challenges are coming faster and faster, we will need ways to respond that are just as fast.

Two agricultural products that are very popular in the developed world (and which find their ways into my own household) are now threatened by emerging parasites and changing climate patterns. These are bananas and coffee. Both bananas and coffee are now being seriously attacked by parasites, and both are also threatened as weather patterns change in places where they are best grown. If shortages and high prices make coffee and bananas increasingly rare, life in the developed world will become a bit less pleasant. However, life will go on (although the developing world economies that depend on growing and selling these crops will suffer, causing increased regional poverty in Latin America, Africa, etc.).

What is more scary is that some very basic crops like seeds, grains and legumes are also threatened, crops whose failure could cause malnutrition and starvation in many places. Genetic modification of these threatened crops are pretty much all that humankind has to avoid some very unpleasant consequences (sorry, but widespread reductions in production of climate-changing gasses just isn’t in the offing, not gonna happen anytime soon despite all the serious talk). Not to say that the current GMO situation is perfect; far from it. Crop modification efforts are pretty much the bailiwick of huge multi-national corporations, whose main focus is maximizing their own profits. We need much more GMO effort by governments and non-profits; the more the better.

Let a thousand ideas blossom; the more different approaches to solving a particular crop challenge, the less that we will rely on a “monoculture” hybrid plant that may solve the immediate problem, but become vulnerable to a new challenge in a few years (or have an unanticipated side-effect like causing indigestion for certain people). If we develop 10 different kinds of new beans or grains, we are hedging our bets. This would help meet Taleb and Spitznagel’s concern about over-reliance on a particular technology that could have hidden time-bombs, as the financial modeling of the early 2000’s had for the financial system. That’s the better way to do GMO.

We also need more government oversight and standards for testing GMO modifications, as to avoid any “Frankenfood” scenarios. Admittedly, there are concerns about GMO’s that need to be addressed. Given the international implications of crops, we need the UN to become a key player in this effort. But as to banning GMO’s outright — that’s just plain stupid. As some critics point out, it is the leftist-liberal version of the climate-change denialism found within certain Republican and conservative political factions.

The pro-GMO faction now has its chance to impress the developed world in a positive way. If they can save coffee and the banana as we now know them, I believe that the various anti-GMO social and political factions will be greatly deflated. So, good luck to the GMO coffee and banana experiments, I hope that they work!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:40 pm      

  1. Jim, I think I’m going to have to bow out of commenting on GMOs as I know next to nothing about them. I *have* heard quite a bit about them lately, tho; seems GMOs are getting a lot of people interested in them.

    From the little I know about them, it seems to me that likely they are one of those things that in some cases are good and in other cases are bad; thus, not easily capable of classifying.

    And yes, I agree how does a GMO differ from what humans have been doing much more slowly until now – modifying plants in some way. One consideration that comes to mind is that doing something slowly may have better consequences than doing something quickly. It would be possible to “catch” the problems developing from changing a plant/food slowly before the big problems arise. Changing some plant or even living organism (say a fish) in some way and doing it quickly could more easily result in a problem multiplying greatly before the problem might be noticed and “fixed”.

    Recently, I’ve read that one change being made in some seeds (which were not mentioned but which were definitely in the food category) was to change them in such a way as to make them unable to reproduce themselves; thus, giving the company control over the supply of the particular food involved. Specifically, the seeds from such foods would be unable to reproduce the food a second time around. For most food plants their seeds, if planted, will reproduce themselves, making more plants. However, having seeds in the food supply genetically modified in such a way as to make them unable to reproduce themselves could possibly bring some serious trouble down the line for areas where famine is a serious problem. That’s one place I see a problem in GMOs. Big companies (such as Monsanto? perhaps) might be very interested in such seeds in order to take control of a particular food needed by people. The ramifications of such a product go on and on and are frightening.

    So it seems to me that this is one of those topics that is complex and not easily classified as “good” or “bad”; there seem to be a great deal of “depends upon the circumstances” built into the nature of discussing this topic.

    As to coffee and bananas: I’m glad for you if have your favorites. As for me: I don’t care. After about 60+ years of drinking coffee (I don’t know how many times a day) I suddenly became tired of it, woke up one day, and quit cold turkey; no aftereffects either. As to bananas, I won’t go out of my way for them either. Thus, when it comes to those two things, it’s more of an “I don’t care” issue for me. However, mention “chocolate”, and there might be a different reaction. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 18, 2015 @ 2:43 pm

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