The New York Times Gets It Wrong about Genetic Engineering

(Sean Gallup/Getty)

It’s not unusual for a person with expertise in one discipline to get into trouble when he expresses opinions in another. An example is William Shockley, a Nobel laureate in physics for his research on semiconductors, blundering into advocacy for racial eugenics. The phenomenon recurred recently when financiers Mark Spitznagel and Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan), neither of whom possesses the most rudimentary understanding of the history or techniques of genetic modification, warned about the dangers of genetic engineering in a bizarre commentary in the New York Times. They went so far as to posit the possibility that modern molecular genetic engineering could cause “complex chains of unpredictable changes in the ecosystem” that could lead to worldwide catastrophe.

It’s true that as complexity increases, so does uncertainty and the possibility of calamity. Arguably, it was the synergistic failure of complex systems that gave rise to the great Northeast blackout of 2003, in which 50 million people lost power; and even to the First World War, which, because of the complex web of alliances and treaties, the assassination of a relatively obscure Austrian nobleman was able to trigger.

What Spitznagel and Taleb fail to appreciate is that the molecular techniques of genetic engineering that they think are so dangerous decrease the complexity of modern agriculture and the probability of unforeseen outcomes.

According to Spitznagel and Taleb:

We are told that a modified tomato is not different from a naturally occurring tomato. That is wrong: The statistical mechanism by which a tomato was built by nature is bottom-up, by tinkering in small steps (as with the restaurant business, distinct from contagion-prone banks). In nature, errors stay confined and, critically, isolated.

What is wrong is their reasoning. A “modified tomato” is, as they maintain, different from a “natural occurring tomato,” but not in the ways they think.

Spitznagel and Taleb obviously have no clue about the pedigree of “naturally occurring tomatoes.” Genetic modification by means of selection and hybridization has been with us for millennia, and the techniques employed along the way are part of a seamless continuum. Breeders routinely use radiation or chemical mutagens on seeds to scramble a plant’s DNA to generate new traits, and more than a half-century of “wide cross” hybridizations, which involve the movement of large numbers of genes from one species or one genus to another, have given rise to plants that do not exist in nature; they include the varieties of corn, oats, pumpkin, wheat, rice, tomatoes, and potatoes that we buy routinely. 

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In fact, with the exception of wild berries, wild game, wild mushrooms, and most fish and shellfish, everything in American diets is derived from organisms that have been genetically improved in some way. Even today’s “heirloom” tomatoes, which predate the pest- and disease-resistant hybrids most often grown commercially, are a far cry from their South American forbears — small, hard, toxic fruit closer in appearance to a golf ball than to a food. All of the tomatoes that we consume have been modified to be different from their “natural” ancestors.

Grains have a similar story. They have been intensively engineered over millennia for higher yields, pest and disease resistance, and various desirable characteristics, yielding durum wheat for pasta, for example, and so-called common wheat for bread. Although wheat varieties cultivated now vary widely in their traits and genetics, all are derived from a common precursor first domesticated in Turkey around 9000 b.c. and later genetically improved by farmers, plant breeders, and biologists.

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Animals, too, have been genetically engineered, mostly by laborious and imprecise trial-and-error breeding techniques. For example, the dozens of varieties of cattle raised today are all derived from the now-extinct auroch, which was used both for food and as a beast of burden from ancient times until the 17th century. A relatively recent (20th century) new food animal, the “beefalo,” a cow–bison (buffalo) hybrid, combines the superior hardiness, foraging ability, calving ease, and low-fat meat of the bison with the fertility, milking ability, and ease of handling of the cow.

And wonder of wonders — not only has there not been an apocalypse from all this genetic modification, but it has markedly increased food security and humans’ longevity. (Recall the past century’s Green Revolution!)

So what’s new? Not the genetic engineering of food, but only the techniques for accomplishing it. And the newest methods — recombinant-DNA technology, or “gene-splicing,” and the new gene-editing techniques — are far more precise and predictable than their predecessors. They’re an extension, or refinement, of more-primitive techniques.

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Here’s the take-home lesson: Because the techniques of molecular genetic engineering lead to greater control and certainty about the result, their use decreases the complexity of food production and the likelihood of what Spitznagel and Taleb call “unpredictable changes in the ecosystem.”

It’s noteworthy that the imprecision of the earlier, pre-molecular techniques led to several prominent mishaps, including the introduction of a disastrous susceptibility of corn to mold (which in 1970 caused a significant reduction in the U.S. harvest), and new varieties of potatoes, squash, and celery with (inadvertently) elevated levels of endogenous toxins. These kinds of unforeseen problems are vastly less likely with the newest techniques. 

Because mishaps, significant or inconsequential, are far less likely with the late-20th-century and 21st-century genetic-modification techniques, Spitznagel and Taleb have gotten the logic exactly backwards. What a sad commentary.

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