Regarding the Safety and Risk of Genetically Modified crops

Labeling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor—indeed warped—understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management. A lack of observations of explicit harm does not show absence of hidden risks.
— The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms)

GM crops have been grown in WA for several years. Proponents for the use of GM crops will tell you they're safe, but there is a loud and growing voice against the use of the crops claiming the safety of the environment and humans is far from assured. 

A paper recently published by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a high profile commentator on risk, and other high profile co-authors, argues that the issue regarding GM crops calls for a thorough understanding of the risk of ruin, and the Precautionary Principle.

The co-authors include a number of well-known researchers such as Raphael Douady at the Institute of Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in Paris and Yaneer Bar-Yam at the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge.  

The paper shows why GM crops need to be approached using the Precautionary Principle. 

Here's a quote from one of the paper's authors Nassim Nicolas Taleb,: "GMOs have a peculiar illustrative role because they multiply, have systemic not just idiosyncratic risks, and opacity about the interactions is compounded under the curse of dimensionality."

The argument regarding the use of GM's is not regarding what we know, but what we don't know, and what the potential for harm is. 

The paper is called "The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms)."

From the first paragraph:

"The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety. Under these conditions, the burden of proof about absence of harm falls on those proposing an action, not those opposing it. 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 unforeseeable events of extreme consequence."

PP is a widely understood approach for those familiar with risk analysis. Your insurance company probably has that special "no floods" cover because they know that if there's a widespread flood, they go bankrupt if everyone is covered. They understand they cannot afford the risk of ruin. 

But politicians don't necessarily understand PP, and how it compares to regular risk management. This is the reason for the paper. 

Essentially, the paper argues that the burden of proof regarding the safety of GMOs falls on the proponents to demonstrate their safety, not others to demonstrate their danger; and also that the potential side effects of GMO's is systemic rather than localised, meaning we really can't predict the possible harm GM crops could cause. 

While the paper is very heavy on mathematics, it's well worth a read whatever side of the GM debate you find yourself on. Click here to read. 

Risk of ruin

Those who are pro GM often accuse those who oppose it as being against progress. They say, rightly, that everything involves some degree of risk, and while GM involves a level of risk, the reward is greater than the potential risk. 

That logic seems fine at first. 

There's a risk in driving to the shops. You might die in a car accident. But that's a small possibility, and you will have food if you go. So it's worth the risk. 

But GMO's fall under a special type of risk; that is the risk of RUIN. 

Society can recover from a car accident. Your death will not stop our society from functioning. By definition, society cannot recover from ruin. 

Why do GMO's pose the risk of ruin?

There's several points argued in the paper that demonstrate why GMOs should be treated under the PP as they pose the risk of ruin. Here's one:

"Ecologically, in addition to intentional cultivation, GMOs have the propensity to spread uncontrollably, and thus their risks cannot be localized. The cross-breeding of wild-type plants with genetically modified ones prevents their disentangling, leading to irreversible system-wide effects with unknown downsides. The ecological implications of releasing modified organisms into the wild are not tested empirically before release."

Aren't GMO's natural?

"One argument in favor of GMOs is that they are no more "unnatural" than the selective farming our ancestors have been doing for generations. In fact, the ideas developed in this paper show that this is not the case. Selective breeding over human history is a process in which change still happens in a bottom-up way, and can be expected to result in a thin-tailed distribution. If there is a mistake, some harmful variation, it will not spread throughout the whole system but end up dying out due to local experience over time. Human experience over generations has chosen the biological organisms that are relatively safe for consumption. There are many that are not, including parts of and varieties of the crops we do cultivate [12]. Introducing rapid changes in organisms is inconsistent with this process. There is a limited rate at which variations can be introduced and selection will be effective [13]. There is no comparison between tinkering with the selective breeding of genetic components of organisms that have previously undergone extensive histories of selection and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from a fish and putting it into a tomato. Saying that such a product is natural misses the process of natural selection by which things become “natural." While there are claims that all organisms include transgenic materials, those genetic transfers that are currently present were subject to selection over long times and survived. The success rate is tiny. Unlike GMOs, in nature there is no immediate replication of mutated organisms to become a large fraction of the organisms of a species. Indeed, any one genetic variation is unlikely to become part of the long term genetic pool of the population. Instead, just like any other genetic variation or mutation, transgenic transfers are subject to competition and selection over many generations before becoming a significant part of the population. A new genetic transfer engineered today is not the same as one that has survived this process of selection."

So the argument for why we should hold off on using GM crops is not so much to do with proof of danger as it is largely to do with the fact that we cannot know all the risks involved at this point in time, and rolling the dice with our entire ecosystem is downright foolish.