Risk Expert: GMOs Could Destroy the Planet

George Washington's picture

 Do We Have a Right to Know If Our Food Has Been Genetically Modified?


The Government Hack Trying to Squash Discussion of Government Corruption – Cass Sunstein – Doesn’t Understand BASIC Math Or Law

Risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb predicted the 2008 financial crisis, by pointing out that commonly-used risk models were wrong.  Distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University, author of best-sellers The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, Taleb became financially independent after the crash of 1987, and wealthy during the 2008 financial crisis.

Now, Taleb is using his statistical risk acumen to take on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Taleb’s conclusion:  GMOs could cause “an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be the planet.”

Sound crazy?

Sure it does … but only because we don’t understand statistics, and so we have no handle on what’s risky and what’s not.

Taleb and his 2 co-authors write in a new draft paper:

For nature, the “ruin” is ecocide: an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be the planet.




Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs fall squarely under [the precautionary principle, i.e. the rule that we should err on the side of caution if something is really dangerous] not because of the harm to the consumer because of their systemic risk on the system.


Top-down modifications to the system (through GMOs) are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones (regular farming, progressive tinkering with crops, etc.) There is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of arbitrarily taking a gene from an organism and putting it into another. Saying that such a product is natural misses the statistical process by which things become ”natural”. [i.e. evolving over thousands of years in a natural ecosystem, or at least breeding over several generations.]


What people miss is that the modification of crops impacts everyone and exports the error from the local to the global. I do not wish to pay—or have my descendants pay—for errors by executives of Monsanto. We should exert the precautionary principle there—our non-naive version—simply because we would only discover errors after considerable and irreversible environmental damage.

Taleb shreds GMO-boosters – including biologists – who don’t understand basic statistics:

Calling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor—indeed warped—understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.




It became popular to claim irrationality for GMO and other skepticism on the part of the general public —not realizing that there is in fact an ”expert problem” and such skepticism is healthy and even necessary for survival. For instance, in The Rational Animal, the author pathologize people for not accepting GMOs although ”the World Health Organization has never found evidence of ill effects” a standard confusion of evidence of absence and absence of evidence. Such a pathologizing is similar to behavioral researchers labeling hyperbolic discounting as ”irrational” when in fact it is largely the researcher who has a very narrow model and richer models make the ”irrationality” go away).

In other words, lack of knowledge of basic statistical principles leads GMO supporters astray. For example, they don’t understand the concept that “interdependence” creates  “thick tails” … leading to a “black swan” catastrophic risk event:

Fat tails result (among other things) from the interdependence of components, leading to aggregate variations becoming much more severe than individual ones. Interdependence disrupts the functioning of the central limit theorem, by which the aggregate is more stable than the sum of the parts. Whether components are independent or interdependent matters a lot to systemic disasters such as pandemics or generalized crises. The interdependence increases the probability of ruin, to the point of certainty.

(This concept is important in the financial world, as well.)

As Forbes’ Brian Stoffel notes:

Let’s say each GM seed that’s produced holds a 0.1% chance of — somehow, in the intricately interdependent web of nature — leading to a catastrophic breakdown of the ecosystem that we rely on for life. All by itself, it doesn’t seem too harmful, but with each new seed that’s developed, the risk gets greater and greater.


The chart below demonstrates how, over time, even a 0.1% chance of ecocide can be dangerous.


I cannot stress enough that the probabilities I am using are for illustrative purposes only. Neither I, nor Taleb, claim to know what the chances are of any one type of seed causing such destruction.


The focus, instead, should be on the fact that the “total ecocide barrier” is bound to be hit, over a long enough time, with even incredibly small odds. Taleb includes a similar graph in his work, but no breakdown of the actual variables at play.

Taleb debunks other pro-GMO claims as well, such as:


1. The Risk of Famine If We Don’t Use GMOs. Taleb says:

Invoking the risk of “famine” as an alternative to GMOs is a deceitful strategy, no different from urging people to play Russian roulette in order to get out of poverty.

And calling the GMO approach “scientific” betrays a very poor—indeed warped—understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.

In addition, the United Nations actually says that small organic farms are the only way to feed the world. And growing your own food helps prevent tyranny.

2.  Nothing Is Totally Safe, So Should We Discard All Technology?  Taleb says this is an anti-scientific argument. Some risks are small, or are only risks to one individual or a small group of people.  When you’re talking about risks which could wipe out all life on Earth, it’s a totally different analysis.

3. Assuming that Nature Is Always Good Is Anti-Scientific.  Taleb says that statistical risk analysis don’t use assumptions such as nature is “good” or “bad”. Rather, it looks at the statistical evidence that things persist in nature for thousands of years if they are robust and anti-fragile.  Ecosystems break down if they become unstable.

GMO engineers may be smart in their field, but they are ignorant when it comes to long-run ecological reality:

We are not saying nature is the smartest pos­sible, we are saying that time is smarter than GMO engineers. Plain statistical significance.

4.  People Brought Potatoes from the Americas Back to Europe, Without Problem.  Taleb says that potatoes evolved and competed over thousands of years in the Americas, and so proved that they did not disrupt ecosystems. On the other hand, GMOs are brand spanking new … created in the blink of the eye in a lab.

GMOs Also INCREASE Pesticide Use, DECREASE Crop Yield, And May Be VERY Dangerous to Your Health

As if the risk of “ecocide”isn’t enough, there are many other reasons to oppose GMO foods – at least without rigorous testing – including:

On the plus side?  A few companies will make a lot of money.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
daemon's picture

" For nature, the “ruin” is ecocide: an irreversible termination of life at some scale, which could be the planet. "

Where is Klaatu ?

quikwit's picture

I'm all for open scientific debate.  Which is why I must protest Taleb's invocation of the precautionary principle.

"I can't prove my contentions.  But if I were to prove my contentions at a later date, it would be way too late.  So let's just assume I've proven my contentions in the first place."

The precautionary principle is a great evil against the scientific method.  Put up or shut up.

Oquities's picture

Slowwit -

under your premise, we should ban all FDA testing and just get all the new drugs out there as soon as they can be developed w/out testing

kellycriterion's picture

Bad article.

Genetically modified food is the least likely source of a techno disaster. It's true current scientific methods can't absolutely guarantee such food is safe. But those methods in turn are backed by billions of years of experimentation and development.

Genetically modified food is in addition to, not separate from evolutionary process. When an organism can pass muster as "food" it is based on scientific tests plus the rather extensive groundwork already laid by evolutionary processes.

I'm not a fan of Monsanto but they're at the bottom of my techno apocalypse list.

Joe A's picture

It is based on scientific tests done by Biotech itself but not verified by peer review. Biotech does not make its research public citing competition reasons. The FDA also does not verify but believes biotech on their blue eyes. More research now indicates that GMO is different from conventional crops. A research in Brasil showed that some proteins produced by GM soy are molecularly different than proteins produced by conventional soy. This can/will cause an immune response in whatever organism that consumes it.

GMO, their incorporated pesticides and the hercides used with them have the potential to completely offsets ecosystems. In Argentina in the past there were fields where there were many insects. You could clean your car after driving through these areas. With the introduction of GMO the insects disappeared along with the birds that eat them. Good news for agriculture perhaps but when the birds disappeared the number of rodents increased dramastically.

Ecosystems are very resistant and resilient but there is a threshold and once that is crosses there is a chance of ecosystem collapse and it won't recover. Humans depend on ecosystems for food, water provisioning and safety to name a few.

Marco's picture

IMO broad use of wide spectrum x-icides are insanely dangerous, especially when we use natural compounds. As antibiotics show we are able to create resistance far faster than nature, to the point where we simply run out of compounds.

Nature lacks the logistics to create resistance on these timescales ... and it's better for it.

tony bonn's picture

thank you george for this very very timely article. boycott all gmo food....buy organic and food labeled non gmo.

Joe A's picture

GMO and related herbicides and incorporated pesticides are bad for humans, animals and ecosystems. Period. And now Monsanto and the like want to bring on to the market a new product (actually an old one) that has one of the ingredients of Agent Orange, the stuff used in Vietnam which killed thousands of people and until this days causes birth and health defects.

Biotech also wants to introduce a new type of GMO that has 4 pesticides built into it and that is resistant against two herbicides. Smart stax it is called.

Some good site on GMO are:



Also look for the report 'GMO myths and facts'

Bear's picture

The fact that we even exist or still alive on this this galactic oddity Earth points to a power beyond probability. However, probability would also predict that if GMO's don't get us something else will ... because we all know that on a long enough timeline the survival rate of everyone drops to zero ... so enjoy the ride

GoinFawr's picture

So mitigate the risks for the other stuff as best you can, but don't worry about the food you eat every meal every day, day in day out year after year because in reality anyone of us could be hit by an MIC missle/meteorite at any given moment?

"O Sir do not distress,

The food is fine.

Although I must confess,

I do find the wine a wee bit dry." -Clutch

Bear's picture

Just my fatalistic tongue in cheek .... I believe we should resist everything the Oligarchs do ... Outlaw GMOs

GoinFawr's picture

Ice 9 is 99.9% GMO free


One seed to rule them all

One seed to find them

One seed to sue them all

And in the courtroom

Bind them.


Skateboarder's picture

Be glad, friend, that one day MonSauron will be no more, humans present to witness or not.

Stockmonger's picture

Let's say there is a 0.1% chance every year that a dog breeder will spawn the Anti-Dog, Destroyer of Life.  Is this worth it the risk?  Clearly not...BAN DOG BREEDING AND ALL FRANKENDOGS--ESPECIALLY THOSE FRANKENWIENIES!!!

nofluer's picture


I own a Frankentractor... rose from the dead to plant and mow again!!!

caustixoid's picture

Nice reductio ad absurdum.  Who's talking about banning?  What's wrong for asking for proof of safety before UNIVERSAL rollout?

If there is an absence of proof of safety why can't consumers decide for themselves?  Why has Monsanto fought labelling so hard?  Maybe, like so many things (eg nuclear power) GMO is not cost-effective without government intervention...

Reptil's picture

This is the so called "cautionairy principle" which is used in the European Union to allow or disallow new technologies. It's about to be thrown overboard in the runup to the TTIP/TAFTA.

They really are insane.

Bear's picture

What better way to control population. The Oligarch have always wanted a pristine Earth with no one but themselves and a few slaves, oh and a helicopter or two and plenty of fuel for themselves and their next few generations ... but heck, isn't that what we all want

teslaberry's picture

he made love like an eagle falling out of the sky. killed his sensei in a duel and never said why. 

george washington. he's coming 


ebworthen's picture

GMO's cannot, and will never, keep up with nature.

Most GMO's make the crop completely dependent upon science, labs, petrochemicals, and mechanized tillage, irrigation, fertilization, and herbicides.

Contrast this to thousands of years of local crops, each with multiple natural variations within the seed crop or livestock to withstand the vagaries of diseases, droughts, nutrient levels.

It is an insane house of cards designed for immediate gain and long term failure, famine, and death.

Utter stupidity on a generational and species (human and plant) scale.


the grateful unemployed's picture

this is a statistical issue, not biological. its not at all clear that statistics is suited to predict anything. if we know the exit polls on the other hand... the biggest problem any statistical expert has is projecting the results of sample A onto a unknown sample B. for instance you know the interdependence between bonds and currency is insignificant, then someone buys a large position in bonds and hedges the currency and the trade fails because the parties are more interdependent than was assumed (LTCM) but you can always bail out the trader, although bailing out a failed experiment in agribusiness is another issue.

dexter_morgan's picture

We have climate change, allegedly, because we've been effing with the environment for a couple hundred years, but messing with the genetics of our food supply will work out perfectly for us. And for what reason other than $$$ do we HAVE to do this again?

dexter_morgan's picture

We have climate change, allegedly, because we've been effing with the environment for a couple hundred years, but messing with the genetics of our food supply will work out perfectly for us. And for what reason other than $$$ do we HAVE to do this again?

angryBuddhist's picture

I am afraid that the midwest is beyond any hope of ever going organic. Most of was the 24" top soil is now out in the Gulf of Mexico in a region that is totally devoid of life of any kind and what remains is completely sterile as a result of decades of checmical farming. In fact, the best way to describe the entire midwest is that it depends on complete life support in order to grow anything at all. Stop spraying your herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and artificial fertilizers on your GMO crops there for just one season and the whole affair will turn into a giant dust bowl faster than you can imagine!

Carl Popper's picture

So the GMO naysayers are worried about how the GMO "experts" are assessing the risk?

And the GMO naysayers justify their concerns about inadequate analysis by pulling some random number (0.1 percent) out of their ass?


the grateful unemployed's picture

actually i think it is .05 which is the significant number

TheRideNeverEnds's picture

The planet will be just fine, the earth will continue on for billions of years pretty much the same as it is today.  The rotation will continue to gradually decrease due to tidal friction and the moon will move farther away.  The plates will migrate around, land will come and go, species will die off and new ones will come into existence then eventually the sun will expand to a point whereupon the earth can no longer sustain any form of life.   


I agree with the premise though, these people know the risks but they don't give a shit because they also know by the time any of this really has a large impact they will have made their money, lived a good life, and died.  So it is not their damn problem.       

honestann's picture

GMO is BAD.  However, what is [arguably] worse is the LAW that Monsanto has bribed into existence that mandates that ONLY GMO be allowed in the future.

Say what?

Yup.  It works like this.  Farmers (or "regulators" bought and paid-for by Monsanto) who find the wind has blown one GMO seed into a NON-GMO farmer field, and thus the NON-GMO farmer crop contains at least one GMO organism --- that farmer is NOT allowed to sell his crop (because he does not have permission from Monsanto).

That is ALREADY how things work.  And thus, the ONLY way any farmer can survive is:

#1:  get their seeds from Monsanto == become GMO.

#2:  100% encapsulate their ENTIRE farm and fields in a super-fine mesh that is SO fine that NO existing seed can possibly pass through.

About #2: Note that ANY tiny tear ANYWHERE totally invalidates the "security", and therefore makes the farmer totally controlled by Monsanto.  So all Monsanto would need to do is drive vehicles near those farmers that drop little sand and tiny stone pebbles in front of the vehicle tires, some of which would be propelled through the nets, thereby rendering the farms "not hermetically sealed" and therefore automatically subject to the presumption of GMO contamination.

On this basis alone (since this IS the "law"), GMO must be eliminated.

Of course, there are plenty more good reasons too.

Joe A's picture

In Germany thank goodness the law is like this: if you grow GMO and your neighbour grows conventional or organic and your neighbour's field get contaminated with GMO then you are responsible and liable for damages. That is why GMO has not caught on in Germany.

Mr. Ed's picture

"Farmers (or "regulators" bought and paid-for by Monsanto) who find the wind has blown one GMO seed into a NON-GMO farmer field, and thus the NON-GMO farmer crop contains at least one GMO organism --- that farmer is NOT allowed to sell his crop..."

Since when did it become your responsibility to keep the neighbor's dog off YOUR property or get fined?!!  This amounts to the same thing and what Monsanto has gotten away with in the courts is utterly insane.

But, it gets much worse... in the EU, they are about to pass a law that prohibits the use of any seed not approved by the government, including heirloom seeds.  This applies even to someone with a backyard garden!  Read the details here, here and here.

What is the mechanism of law becoming?  It seems there are no longer any legislatures or courts in the world that cannot be bought off by power and money.  You see this everywhere from some falling down drunk taking a pass in a municipal court on a drunk driving charge because they paid an attorney big money, to the IRS repeatedly breaking the law but getting of scott-free because they've got juice in the executive branch to Monsanto buying off courts around the world.

I know the topic here is the potential end of the life on planet earth; but, sometimes I think the corruption of law has gone so far that it will get us there first.

Joe A's picture

That seed law that you mentioned has been sent back by the EP after thousands of people protested and signed petitions. You see, democracy can work sometimes. Especially when politicians know that reelection depends on it. People should reject GMO whenever they can.

Golden Rule's picture

I'm no scientist and have only been eating organic for a couple of years however the studies I have read scare the crap out of me.
For instance the moment you move to the US from a non-GMO producing country your chances of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, ADHD, autisum and a host of other problems increases exponentially some as high as a 400%. Coincidence?
Why is it that several of these diseases have become so prevalent since the 70's and early 80's which also coincides with the introduction of GMOs?
Why are almost all case study's done using a very short time frame, 90 days or less and the only ones excepted are preformed or funded by either the big agri companies or the regulatory agencies which are filled with ex agri employees? The FDA, CDC and Dept of Agri are revolving doors for Monsaton, Dow and the like.
Have you seen the results of some of the independent studies like the one done in France last year using GMO corn on Rats? Scary to say the least.
Does it make any sense that GMO crops yield less and and nutritional inferior to organic? Or that globally we are experiencing a massive bee die off?

honestann's picture

Yes, there are many serious dangers with GMO, though I have to agree that not all conclusions (positive or negative) are well known.

For me at least, the fact that GMO is NOT required to be labeled, plus the kind of predator inforced scams I mentioned are being imposed is the biggest problem.

If FULL disclosure was required (as it obviously should be), I would still be very concerned, but would of course allow MORONS to be MORONS and destroy their own health.

But the fact that GMO seeds float into non-GMO farms is a HUGE problem.  If THAT issue was solved AND full disclosure was forthcoming, I'd still not trust GMO, but I'd probably have to tolerate it.

Ghordius's picture

BINGO! and there is the clinch: "the fact that GMO is NOT required to be labeled"

and the darling US AgriBusiness lobbyists that are secretly closeted with our EU officials (all rigorously NSA spied upon) in negotiation for the Great TransAtlantic Trade Pact hate, hate, hate the fact that generally speaking we europeans don't want to open our markets for GMO, and for sure not unlabeled

all this constant chatter about "the evil EU"? note that it's usual either a Briton that thinks we should open our markets moar... or an American that thinks we should open our markets way moar

if Barroso and Co. seriously open our markets this way... then the EU is dead. then the popular and political backlash would be immense. it could also kill the NATO

don't joke with continental europeans when it comes to food. no humour there

in fact, I'm appalled about your phrase "I'd still not trust GMO, but I'd probably have to tolerate it"

honestann's picture

You are probably appalled at my phrase because you don't believe in liberty or individualism.  If you did, like I do, you'd realize we must all tolerate others doing things we dislike... or HATE... if they prevent their actions from impacting us.

Unfortunately, from what I can tell, 99.9999% of EU folks consider domination by predators-DBA-government to be the natural, unavoidable, and desired state of existence.  Sadly, via public education and control of media the predators-that-be have brainwashed 99% of americans to think that way too.

When I say "tolerate", I mean "tolerate that other morons knowingly and voluntarily produce and consume it".  You won't catch me consuming any.

I don't.  I hate GMO, but if they label GMO and rigorously keep their poison out of our food, what basis do I have to object?  What?  Bad every substance that can possibly be harmful?  So much for gasoline.  So much for modern life.

Give me liberty or give them death.

Joe A's picture

Brussels is intensily lobbied by biotech and food firms. The EC wants to keep the lobby register out of sight as much as possible. The EFSA has firm connections with the 'International Life Sciences Institute' which is firmly in the pockets of biotech en food companies. The revolving door between biotech and the FDA that exists in America also exists in the EU. The only thing that works is awareness raising and voting for members of the EP that are against GMO and against big biotech and big agri-business.

Golden Rule's picture

Totally agree. But considering the flood of money into non-labeling campaigns and corporatocracy our country has become, I have little hope.

On the other hand if enough people wake up and vote with their pocketbook maybe one day. In the mean time it's the home garden for me.

honestann's picture

The time has come for all of us to collect a TON of heirloom seeds before ALL sources on earth become tainted.

REAL food will probably cost 100 times current prices in 10 years, because untained supplies will be so rare.

The_Prisoner's picture

Seed saving is something I have been doing for a while as it does not take much room.

As I still am a city dweller I have an allotment at my local community garden.

It is the duty of all free-loving people of earth to grow a garden even if it is a pot plant in your windowsill.


the grateful unemployed's picture

even if monsanto went out of business individuals would get their hands on this stuff. at some point we're going to take charge of evolution and make decisions about which way the organism(s) should develop. imagine if the same GMO technolgy that allows greaters tolerance toward pesticide were used to develop human immune systems which could withstand enough chemotherapy to eradicate any cancer? you could remain holisitic but in the grand scheme of things you are neandrathals for doing that. well maybe next time the neandrathals will come out on top

Joe A's picture

They are called neanderthals, you neanderthal. I see you've been eating too much GMO. It went to your brain. Every time humans want to 'take charge of evolution' it ends up being the destruction of evolution. You think that every scientific discovery means progress? Tell that to the folks in Fukushima. Or have a look at military cemetaries and see how the invention of explosive material worked out for the people burried there.

Never mind, the planet eventually will recover long after humans destroyed themselves. The planet has the time, humans don't.

honestann's picture

See my comment above.

IF... GMO is FULLY DISCLOSED in product labeling...

... and ...

IF... the problem of pollution of non-GMO farms could be solved...

... then ...

Those of us who do not trust GMO would have no reasonable basis to stop those of you who wish to experiment.  However, the responsibility is upon YOU to assure that there are ZERO irreversible consequences on natural organic foods (plus fully compensate for every instance of reversible damage).  IF you can do that, you have a right to pursue this even though some of us are extremely skeptical and nervous.

caustixoid's picture

So... we need to allow Monsanto to bully the world into eating GMO so we can cure cancer? 

effendi's picture

Use that same stupid law to stop any Monsanto crops being sold.

Find any gene that is benign and splice that into your crop. That gene doesn't have to do anything, it is just a marker.

You now have a GMO crop. Register it.

Now make darn sure to spread that gene far and wide and contaminate all Monsanto approved seed.

When Monsanto tries to stop any farmer selling crops that have been contaminated by their patented GMO crap you turn around and do the same to the farmers that work with/under Monsanto.

So if you are screwed by Monsanto then Monsanto is screwed by you.

They will have to cut a deal with you to stop enforcing their patents over crops contaminated by them.

caustixoid's picture

When Monsanto tries to stop any farmer selling crops that have been contaminated by their patented GMO crap you turn around and do the same to the farmers that work with/under Monsanto.

Good plan, but it requires a huge biotech firm with a huge legal department, kinda like a good Monsanto.  Ain't gonna happen.

effendi's picture

Not so.

Gene splicing can be done by individuals with just a reasonable understanding of the principles and little more than a high school sience lab. It isn't hard to get Restriction Enzymes or Gel Electrophoresis equipment. In away that is the scary part as any science undergraduate could make a weoponized superbug by accident or intent on their kitchen bench.

Or make weeds that are resistant to Roundup and other herbicides.

honestann's picture

Then why not engineer a species that seeks out and destroy all GMO strains.  Hmmm.  Let me think about that?  Like, what is something unexpected goes wrong?  Duh!  That's one of the big problems with GMO in the first place.

honestann's picture

Sadly, it may come to that.

Yeah, that's gonna work great.

That means nobody has the right to sell ANY FOOD.

mccvilb's picture

Right or wrong what is clear is that people intuitively sense GMO foods create an unnecessary biological risk to ourselves, foisted upon us by those who think they alone know what's best for us. Before Taleb came along no one had extrapolated that risk out to include all life as we know it. Suddenly that makes the cheese more binding.

Remember when a handful of scientists were discussing CERN while it was under construction and a couple of them thought one of the biproducts might be microscopic black holes, which they predicted would fall into the earth's core? WTF. I mean, who determined this was an acceptable risk, and what exactly was the benefit? Someone would win a Nobel for proving or disproving the Higgs-Boson, while the center of the earth disintegrated?  It still might happen if they keep cranking up the voltage. I'm not anti-science or anti-scientist, but does anyone else think the mad hatters have been put in charge?