17 Jul 2015

GMOs: Pro and Con

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Mark Spitznagel and Nassim Taleb deploy their “fat tails” framework (initially developed for financial markets) to GMOs.

This guy on Forbes is not a fan.

26 Responses to “GMOs: Pro and Con”

  1. Andrew_FL says:

    Taleb is a classic example of what I’d call a “buzzwords guru.” He throws around the same few words vaguely describing a concept at every issue imaginable, and the media eats it up because hey, people who talk like that sure sound like they know what they are talking about.

    And buzzwords are magic! “Fat tails” for example, can justify being overly concerned and worried about just about anything. What makes it magic is that just saying it guarantees a conclusion, even thought the word(s) themselves are basically content free.

    Fear of GMOs is just repackaged opposition to the division of labor.

    • Tel says:

      Fear of GMOs is just repackaged opposition to the division of labor.

      What about fear of government-granted monopoly in the form of farmers getting sued every time some pollen containing pantented DNA blows over their fence?

      There are only a handful of big seed companies, and they are very powerful lobbyists, they are also in a position where government can regulate the life out of any small start-up competitors that might come along… because you know, can’t take risks with safety, need to have a whole department of rubber stampers before you can even start doing any biological research.

      The so-called “heirloom” seeds that you can legally plant every year without license fees will gradually get contaminated with DNA from other sources and sooner or later someone will show up with a test kit and “prove” that your yard of tomatoes is now going to cost you more in license fees than it was worth to grow. You can try to develop your own test kit and “prove” him wrong, but there’s many millions of dollars of regulatory hurdles before you are allowed to do that kind of research, or you can knuckle under and pay the fee and then there’s no point ever growing tomatoes again (which is exactly what the big business wants… less competition) or you can go hire lawyers and try to defend yourself, but agri-business hires a lot more lawyers than you ever will and that’s just on their regular staff payroll.

      Make no mistake, this is not about science, it’s about ownership, and deciding who is allows to feed themselves and who isn’t.

      • Z says:

        What is the reasoning behind the law working that way? It would seem to me that to most people pollen that crosses over into your land is now ‘trespassing’ and according to most people’s moral codes, it would be Monsanto or whoever who now needs to pay the farmer, instead of the other way around. I never understood that.

        • Tel says:

          My apologies, I thought everyone was familiar with the case to which I was referring. At any rate, how the law works is only partly a matter of reasoning.


          • Harold says:

            From the article “The case drew worldwide attention and is widely misunderstood to concern what happens when farmers’ fields are accidentally contaminated with patented seed.”

            The farmer had some crop contaminated in 1997. Originally Monsanto sued over this crop. The farmer apparently deliberately singled out the contminated crop for seeds for thre following year 1998. When the case came to trial all mention of the original crop had been dropped. It was about whether the farmer could deliberately use the contamintated crop for his own benefit without paying Monsanto. He did not put forward a contamination defense. “Both courts found that a key element in Mr. Schmeiser’s patent infringement in his 1998 crop was that he knew or ought to have known the nature of the gylphosate-resistant seed he saved and planted.” He specifically concentrated the crop from roundup resistant plants for re-planting the following year.

            It is possible that your tomato scenario would play out like you describe, but it is not certain from the case you cite that it would have that outcome.

            • Tel says:

              Kept contaminated material separate from uncontaminated material, you say? What a bizarre thing to do.

              How badly do you think they would have busted him if he mixed it up and all of his seeds became subject to patents and license fees? Of course he could have thrown out his entire contaminated seed corn stores and just purchased new seeds from … errr from … hmmm.

              It was about whether the farmer could deliberately use the contamintated crop for his own benefit without paying Monsanto.

              It’s about whether property ownership of a crop is vested in the farmer who grew that crop, or in someone else.

              • Harold says:

                It was judged that he had deliberately selected the resitant crop for replanting.

                “The evidence showed that the level of Roundup Ready canola in Mr. Schmeiser’s 1998 fields was 95-98%”

                Thus level of purity was judged to have been impossible by accidental means.

                If he randomly included some contaminated crop for replanting the outcome may have been different.

                This ruling does not say that you cannot re-plant material that has become contaminated by neighbouring GM crops. You cannot single out the contaminated material knowingly for re-planting.

              • Harold says:

                “The courts at all three levels noted that the case of accidental contamination beyond the farmer’s control was not under consideration but rather that Mr. Schmeiser’s action of having identified, isolated and saved the Roundup-resistant seed placed the case in a different category. The appellate court also discussed a possible intermediate scenario, in which a farmer is aware of contamination of his crop by genetically modified seed, but tolerates its presence and takes no action to increase its abundance in his crop. The court held that whether such a case would constitute patent infringement remains an open question but that it was a question that did not need to be decided in the Schmeiser case.”

              • Tel says:

                Every court will attempt to leave open whatever they can, in order to wash hands of responsibility.

                However, the property rights are either stronger for the patent holder, or they are stronger for the landholder. It cannot be both.

                Once the patent rights have demonstrated supremacy, it’s game over for every landholder’s property rights. Or to put that another way: if the seeds belong to the farmer who grew those seeds (i.e. they are his property) then it doesn’t matter should he put them into bin A or bin B, because they are his property and he can dispose of them in any way he please. Contrary wise: if the seeds do not belong to the farmer then there’s nothing he can do with them that could ever satisfy a court.

                You want to pretend that there’s a Schrödinger’s cat of a property right, where if the farmer looks at the seeds and sees them for what they are, suddenly they no longer belong to him… but should he look away and see nothing the seeds remain his property. This is impossible. No property can ever operate like this. This cat is dead my friend, regardless of how many people might feel comforted by some feeling there’s a chance it might be alive so long as they keep their eyes shut.

      • Andrew_FL says:

        The real problem here being patents, not GMOs.

        • Tel says:

          Possibly yes, but Taleb and Spitznagel put forward monoculture as one of the things they are concerned about, and I think there’s a real risk of monoculture in any technology industry where big government gets involved and hands out strong property rights. It happened to some extent in the computing industry because of Microsoft’s domination of the operating system market and patents had nothing to do with that (although software patents are coming into play more and more often these days, but that’s a separate issue).

          Patented living organisms are another example, and I happen to believe that patents should be restricted much more than they are (both in duration and in what they can apply to, and how broad they can be).

          The exact mechanism of monopolization and ownership doesn’t matter as much as a general recognition that concentrated ownership should be discouraged and we should set the bar for the creation of artificial property rights very high.

          • Ken P says:

            I think monoculture concerns are relevant but don’t rise to the level of regulation. Also, seed banks exist. In general, I’m not easily persuaded by precautionary principle arguments/ fat tail assumptions.

            A lot of the Microsoft story was caused by convincing the IT world that Windows 95 was about to be released, which drastically reduced sales of IBM’s product.I think a big part of it is path dependence. We build on what exists. Patents in the IT world are a huge barrier to entry but not a threat to large companies since they have their own arsenal of patents to use in a legal dispute.

            • Tel says:

              No, Microsoft created tie-in contracts with hardware manufacturers. If a PC manufacturer wanted to sell hardware with Windows pre-installed, it had to pay a licence fee on every piece of hardware regardless of what was pre-installed.

              This produced a guaranteed income stream that no other OS manufacturer could equal, and acted as a massive disincentive for anything else to be pre-installed.

              Linux eventually managed to compete by giving the entire OS away at zero cost, and even now if you buy a laptop to install Linux you are basically paying Microsoft for the privilege. Apple was able to compete by becoming both a hardware and software producer, and doing their own bundling (although Apple would have gone bankrupt if not for iTunes but that’s another story, at any rate they couldn’t possibly have survived on OS alone).

      • E. Harding says:

        “What about fear of government-granted monopoly in the form of farmers getting sued every time some pollen containing pantented DNA blows over their fence?”

        -I doubt this happens much. Only in cases of mass seed storage and usage would resorting to lawsuits be profitable.

        • Tel says:

          Beating up the Amish for milking cows cannot possibly be profitable, but it doesn’t need to be. Taxpayers cover the costs, lobbyists get to control the objectives, and in the bigger picture a very clear message is sent out: don’t compete with powerful vested interests.

          Thing is, it takes a certain kind of person to send SWAT to hunt down an Amish milkmaid, once you understand you are dealing with people like that, you have a pretty good idea how they are going to operate in other situations.

      • Ken P says:

        Tomatoes typically self-pollinate due to flower structure. A tuning fork is actually quite effective at pollination. I agree with your point. Just bringing that up because I grew tomatoes in a small greenhouse in the 90s.

    • RPLong says:

      I couldn’t make it through his book Fooled By Randomness. I made it halfway through, expecting it to eventually turn into a discussion of how he applied some interesting mathematical theories to a series of problems.

      But no, instead it’s just page after page of his saying, “People kept telling me I was wrong, but I didn’t care, and now look – turns out I was right and they’re broke! HA HA!”

      I think for the most part people like me are reading his stuff going, “Maybe this next article or this next book will contain an actual description of his methods…” but no matter how many books or articles, the information never comes.

      Reading his books is like watching like the edited-for-television version of Basic Instinct or something.

    • Vangel says:

      “Taleb is a classic example of what I’d call a “buzzwords guru.””

      I have to disagree my friend. The man may be somewhat arrogant but he is a deep and thoughtful thinker. I think that his major problem has been accepting some claims as empirical facts when they are nothing of the kind. He is applying what he knows, statistical analysis, to data that he considers sound but isn’t.

  2. RandomGermanDude says:

    While I have some respect for Taleb he’s pretty unconvincing on GMOs (and pretty obnoxious to those who don’t agree with him – but I guess that’s irrespective of the topic). I won’t argue with his math but for me he fails to demonstrate that the various techniques used for creating GMOs have a different quality compared to mechanisms used in conventional breeding or natural processes. The “bottom-up” argument just doesn’t cut it for me.

    • Z says:

      It’s a known fact that most previous attempts at fruit and nut breeding has been carried out by squirrels. They generally carry pollen from one fruit or nut tree to another. Most early varieties of apples came about this way, before about a few hundred years ago when humans took over most breeding efforts.

    • Ken P says:

      RandomGermanDude, I totally agree. In fact, most of the tools used by genetic engineers were not invented by humans they were copied from other organisms. For example, Agrobacterium tumefasciens is a common vector used to transfer genes to dicots. It’s a bacteria that specializes in transferring genes to new organisms. A large number of human genes are believed to have come from other organisms.

  3. Levi Russell says:

    Spitznagel/Taleb’s article is full of false analogy. In fact their entire argument rests on it.

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