The missing context in the “Mathematical” argument against GMOs

The missing context in the “Mathematical” argument against GMOs

Our new guest writer Stuart Hayashi examines a basic flaw with the idea that math coupled with the use of the precautionary principle argues for the danger of GMOs.

 Stuart is a freelance writer based in Hawaii. He is the author of The Freedom of Peaceful Action: On the Origin of Individual Rights and Life in the Market Ecosystem. He has also spent time as an analyst and aide at the Hawaii State Capitol in both legislative houses.

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The Important Context Omitted from the “Mathematical” Argument Supposedly Proving the Unacceptable Danger of GMOs
By Stuart K. Hayashi

Some public commentaries proclaim that, on account of a philosophic notion called the Precautionary Principle, a moratorium or ban should be placed on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Among such commentaries, we sometimes find the claim that, when you look at the math, you should concede that GMOs are too dangerous for human use and that genetic engineering technology should be curtailed.  The argument is as follows.  If we talk about the risk of a GMO doing damage on any one particular day, it seems that that risk is minuscule. But what is the statistical risk of a GMO inflicting harm one day . . . eventually? As time advances, that risk of a GMO eventually causing turmoil increases exponentially just as, with every passing minute, your risk of dying increases. Therefore, the argument concludes that as long as transgenic technology is employed, it is inevitable that one day, something devastating concerning GMOs will occur.  Therefore, the one method whereby we can guard ourselves against this otherwise-impending harm is to avoid usage of genetic engineering altogether.

A serious flaw detracts from that argument.  The argument is akin to an experiment employing an experimental sample but no control sample.  The experimental sample in question is the risk to human life and the ecosystem posed by the use of transgenic technology.  However, it is ultimately meaningless to speculate about such a risk in a vacuum.  In real life, there are myriad other risks. For the supposed calculation of the risk of employing GMOs to provide any contextual meaning, that risk must be compared against other risks—known risks. The risk of GMO usage is not put into perspective until it is compared against the alternative. There are risks within agriculture—both within the organic and conventional methods—that can be mitigated by GMO technology. For example, if GMO technology can reduce the quantity and amount of natural-resource inputs per unit of food produced, that can mollify some environmental risks that for decades have been associated with farming prior to the development of agricultural GMOs.

The “mathematical argument” against GMOs therefore omits important context. It fails to compare the risk of transgenic technologies against the risk of using currently existing technologies in the absence of transgenics and other GMO-related technologies. In a controlled experiment, the experimental sample would measure the risks associated with GMOs and the control sample would provide data on the risks associated with not using GMOs.

Moreover, many of the hypothetical risks presumed to arise strictly from the advent of GMO technology actually have already been present since farmers first engaged in traditional selective breeding. One might say that there is the chance that a GMO will run loose and become an “invasive species” that out-competes other organisms in the wild. But consider that traditional selective breeding has always brought forth this very same risk. Something selectively bred in captivity can also escape into the wild and theoretically become an “invasive species.” Yet organisms bred in captivity have seldom caused catastrophe when released in the wild, because such organisms are normally dependent on human beings to survive and propagate. On account of their being bred primarily to exhibit traits that are useful to humans, such organisms created for human use seldom express traits that make them well-suited to propagating in the wild.

Those circumstances are unlikely to change with GMOs. When scientists alter an isolated gene of some species—say, corn—for agricultural applications, that change is not radical but incremental and targeted. The scientists change a very specific protein—a very specific gene. By contrast, when you engage in traditional selective breeding, thousands more genes are sorted randomly. Even if you alter twenty specific genetic sequences simultaneously through transgenic technology, those alternations will, overall, still be less drastic, on a chemical level, than the alterations made through selective breeding. Therefore, when you engineer corn through old-fashioned crossbreeding, that crossbreeding imposes a much more radical change in the gene pool of corn plants than does the recombination of an isolated sequence of DNA.

It is possible that, one day, someone might exploit genetic engineering to weaponize a disease such as anthrax or smallpox. However, that is a matter very different from scientists altering corn and rice for agricultural purposes. GMOs are a very broad category of life forms and products, and the “mathematical argument” is too vague and ill-defined in its concept of what “GMO” entails. Given the broadness of the GMO category, the possibility that someone might try to weaponize anthrax, for instance, fails to provide evidence that it is unacceptably dangerous to employ transgenics for the purpose of allowing corn to produce Bt to protect the crop from predatory insects.

Image Credit: Lynn Friedman  | CC