The Precautionary Principle

PP Chart

Yaneer Bar-Yam, Rupert Read, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb elaborate why under the precautionary principle GMOs should be banned but not nuclear power in a draft paper on the precautionary principle:

Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs fall squarely under PP not because of the harm to the consumer [but] 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.) To borrow from Rupert Read, there is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from an organism and putting itinto another. Saying that such a product is natural misses the statistical process by which things become ”natural”.

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…

In large quantities we should worry about an unseen risk from nuclear energy and certainly invoke the PP. In small quantities it may be OK and a matter of risk management—how small we should determine, making sure threats never cease to be local. Keep in mind that small mistakes with the storage of the nuclear are compounded by the length of time they stay around. The same with fossil fuels. The same with other sources of pollution.

More here.