The Precautionary Principle: the basis of a post-GMO ethic

GMOs have been in our diets for about 20 years, writes Rupert Read. Proof that they are safe? No way – it took much, much longer to discover the dangers of cigarettes and transfats, dangers that are far more visible than those of GMOs. On the scale of nature and ecology, 20 years is a pitifully short time. To sustain our human future, we have to think long term.

A swathe of Ecologist articles have recently considered various different aspects of the case against GM crops.

The purpose of the current article is slightly different. It is to take a step back, and think through systematically the reasons why GM crops are (and will for the foreseeable future probably remain) wrong.

From the point of view that is increasingly, I believe, becoming understood as the ethical basis for such reasoning: that of the Precautionary Principle.

GMOs have unknown 'tail risks', that is, unknown potential risks of ruin that they harbour as possibilities. No rigorous risk analysis has been done, with regard to these.

Nor has any analysis been done using an emergent properties / complex systems approach. This is particularly regrettable, given that nature is the quintessential complex system.

Let's consider one by one then the reasons why the claims of apologists for GM are suspect, as brought into prominence especially by the new Precautionary stance that Nassim Taleb et al have laid out, and that the Philipines Supreme Court have in effect recently adopted, in their landmark decision.

No scientific concensus of GMO safety

There is supposedly a 'consensus' that GMOs are safe; but in reality there is no such scientific consensus from meta-analysis. Risk analysis should – must – be based on proper meta-analysis which weighs negative (falsifying) tail-observations more than confirmatory ones.

Risks of ruin should be considered far weightier than benefits; because potential benefits of a technology simply cannot outweigh the potential for a truly disastrous outcome, even if the chances of that outcome are relatively small. There is strong evidence of lobbying-pressure to repress the tail-risks of GM.

And of course the whole point about most tail risks is that they are rare: i.e. they nearly always haven't happened (yet). But it is reckless to allow any risk of them happening, precisely because they are potentially ruinous.

Note that the 'war' between GMO and organic firms doesn't neutralize the point about lobbying-pressure – for GMO propagandists outspend organic by one or two orders of magnitude.

This is a very very asymmetric 'war'; there is no level playing field between GM and organic, in terms of the corporate money being used to downplay the risks-of-ruin inherent in GM technology. The claim that there is an 'evidence-based' case that GMOs are safe is actually corporate propaganda in disguise.)

There is supposedly a 'consensus' that GMOs are safe: but even if such 'consensus' were real, there is a risk-asymmetry: 80% consensus that a plane is safe is entirely insufficient for us to let it fly. Indeed the FAA standard is > 99.999 %. On the other hand, a mere 20% consensus that human-triggered climate change is real would be plenty for us to really worry about.

For science, against risky technologies

We allegedly know enough about genetics to know that GMOs are safe. But Rule 101 of complex systems is that one cannot understand a macroscopic system by appeal to its components in isolation. Without careful controlled and independent long-term study at (e.g.) the organismal and ecological scales, it is incorrect to claim the GMOs have in general been shown to be safe.

We allegedly need GM agriculture to feed the world: But, in spite of much-trumpeted claims, no clear difference in yield has been established; to the contrary, if one takes into account weed resistance treadmill effects.

There is no logical necessity for G agriculture as problem-solver: GMOs are not a 'science' but the products of a technology; and upward of 99% of technologies fail. It is thus logically erroneous to claim that if one takes climate change science seriously then one must take genetic engineering seriously: genetic engineering is to the science of genetics as geo-engineering is to the science of climate change.

Taking the latter seriously obviously does not commit one to favouring the widespread actual introduction (let alone the heavy funding and promotion) of the former. Hunger is largely caused by limitations in distribution, not in production. Other agricultural research can and should be done that generates less risk and bring us closer to sustainable solutions: agroecology, for example.

If you are skeptical about GMOs you are (said to be) 'anti-science'. But the truth is that the GMO problem hinges on rigorous risk-analysis – a topic out of the standard job definition of most scientists. In any case, as indicated above, GM is properly a technology, a form of engineering, not a science itself.

It must be up to society to decide which technologies to adopt: cries of "Anti-science!" are designed to terminate that project of decision-making prematurely, and to impose technocratic unwisdom from above instead.

Precautionary thinking – because the outcomes matter!

Transgenic techniques are allegedly a 'more precise' extension of other breeding techniques: but transgenic synthesis is qualitatively distinct from mutation and breeding processes. They map to completely different statistical mechanisms and generate different risk profiles. And moreover, it is a false opposition to paint opponents of GM as necessarily supporters of (e.g.) mutation by radiation.

What the Precautionary Principle - as presented by Read, Taleb et al, and as adopted now by the Philippines Supreme Court – enjoins is the requirement to search for a solution that is not potentially ruinous. Such solutions are available (e.g. agroecology; seed-saving and the using of the immensity of already-available-varieties; etc).

GE Crops have been around almost 20 years. That's a long time, some might say. But moving from 0% to nearly 100% GE in major cultivars such as corn in a 15-20 years' time period is much too rapid an adoption rate to be able to rigorously assess the impact of adoption. And to claim that 'GMOs are safe' based on lack of evidence of harm in some GMOs is a generalization similar to saying 'all drugs are safe because aspirin is safe' – itself a highly arguable proposition.

It took much, much longer than this to discover the dangers of cigarettes and transfats, risks that are local and much more visible than those of GMOs. On the scale of nature and ecology, 20 years is a pitifully short time.

Now is the moment in human history to raise our gaze to include much much longer time-spans. Human beings tend to be hopelessly short-termist, especially when pressed by institutional factors such as quarterly profit reports.

The GM issue calls upon us all to become genuinely long-termist, and to think precautiously – if we care enough to want to stick around for the genuinely long term, that is. It is encouraging to see a Supreme Court recognising this, and leading the way toward a newer less reckless attitude toward our common future.

Perhaps their example will be picked up: especially once the realisation spreads of how there is solid philosophy undermining the claim that the evidence which purports to show that GM is safe is statistically significant. For that claim is precisely what our precautionary reasoning undermines.