NYT lets investment bankers discuss GMOs, pseudoscience ensues

By Nicholas Staropoli — Jul 14, 2015
Here s a hot investment tip: buy shares in Blockbuster. As many as you can afford. Put in all of Johnny s and Jill s college funds. A wave of nostalgia is bringing VHS back. Are you going to do it? Do you trust me?

VHS-cassetteHere s a hot investment tip: buy shares in Blockbuster. As many as you can afford. Put in all of Johnny s and Jill s college funds. A wave of nostalgia is bringing VHS back.

Are you going to do it? Do you trust me?

No, and why should you? I am a biologist; I deal in genes, not stocks.

Given that, why did the New York Times let a couple of investment bankers, Mark Spitznagel and Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Universa Investments, print an opinion piece stating scientists don't understand GMOs?

The answer, in short, is that it s really hard to find a scientist who finds fault with GMOs so investment pundits and environmentalists are all that is left. In fact, there are more scientists that believe GMOs are safe than there are scientists who believe climate change is caused by humans. (Why GMOs are considered controversial and climate change is considered consensus scientific fact is a story for another day).

So what did these two investment experts have to say about biology? Nothing new and nothing even remotely relevant.

The authors' main premise is to liken GMOs to the 2007 financial collapse. Banks were too big to fail back then and now, according to the authors, so are GMOs.

To make their point they list 5 fallacies they claim brought down the financial system that they now see in GMOs.

1. Labeling anyone who dislikes GMOs as anti-science, because citing scientific consensus is not a valid argument. Except when it comes to climate change. They then remind the reader that snake oil was also once considered scientific.

My Response: Classically, they may be right. Scientific consensus has been overturned frequently in recorded history. However, most of those examples come from times when outside bodies of power (i.e. the Catholic Church) persecuted legitimate scientific thought. Furthermore, the openness of scientific research today legitimizes the phrase scientific consensus more than at any other time in human history.

2. It is wrong to conflate a GMO tomato with a naturally occurring tomato because nature built the ladder "from the bottom up."

My Response: First and foremost, there is no GMO tomato. Secondly, organic crops also have had their genomes extensively manipulated by humans. Techniques like mutagenesis, radiation, artificial selection and selective breeding are all staples of genetic manipulation allowed in organic farming.

3. Technological salvation present in GMOs to save children with vitamin-enriched rice is likely to cause bigger problems because we do not know the causal chain in this complex system.

My Response: This is not a complex system that we risk exacerbating by treating. This is a simple problem: millions of children worldwide are afflicted with vitamin A deficiency. The cure? More vitamin A. Golden Rice does this in the same way oranges provide people with vitamin C to stave off scurvy or milk provides people with vitamin D to stave off rickets.

4. Dependence on monoculture will lead us to relive the Irish potato famine but on a planetary scale.

My Response: Monoculture, the practice of growing a single crop on a field, isn t a great practice. But guess what? Organic and non-GMOs are both grown this way too. If you have a problem with monoculture, you have a problem with farming in general. GMOs could have prevented the Irish potato famine, they won't duplicate it.

5. We can t use GMOs because they can lead to complex unpredictable changes of our ecosystem.

My Response: Grasping for straws? If so, just reword the precautionary principle, the same argument detractors of vaccines do. It is true that any crop that is wind pollinated risks crossbreeding with neighboring crops. But again, why is this a criticism of just GMOs? Organic crops that have their genomes manipulated (see chemical mutagenesis and ionizing radiation) also wind pollinate and therefore spread their unnatural seeds to neighboring GMO fields. Why aren t these organic crops vilified for spreading their seed where it isn t wanted?

In their closing, the authors claim humans are currently the subjects of a GMO experiment which they describe as the greatest case of human hubris ever." When researching their article, they must have missed the part where GMOs were thoroughly tested for over a decade before they were made available commercially and almost two thousand studies have verified their safety, but it appears they missed a lot when doing the research for this article.

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