"It’s 10am, your rottweiler has just chewed your Italian leather boots, your wife has burnt your pancakes and your mistress is on the phone proclaiming that “it’s over because, really, you’re pretty lousy in bed.” Oh yeah, and while you’re at it, your broker is leaving you a message that the stock market is crashing and you’ve lost a third of your savings. A bad hair day? No, my friend. You’re likely living in a fat tail!..."
So in his paper, Nassim and his coauthors work through some pretty complicated mathematics and based on definitions related to things like fat tails, fragility, ruin, harm, uncertainty etc. (in the appendix) conclude that what they refer to as a non-naive version of the precautionary principle should be applied to GMOs.
I probably need to read the paper again and spend more time in the appendix and maybe it will all sink in, its technical. In the EconTalk podcast one interesting way Nassim presents GMOs is through a Hayekian lense:
Reading between the lines, I think he wants to think (which I concur) of nature as a spontaneous order of checks and balances and that recombinant DNA techniques are like a top down planning approach that ignores or bypasses this process. But...biotechnology actually represents a small incremental genomic disruption in a system compared to a wholesale genomic disruption like conventional breeding or mutagenesis (used in organic methods as well). If a Hayekian model applies, I would think you could make the same argument against other methods of crop improvement as well.
"Unlike GMOs, in nature there is no immediate replication of mutated organisms to become a large fraction of the organisms of a species. Indeed, any one genetic variation is unlikely to become part of the long term genetic pool of the population. Instead, just like any other genetic variation or mutation, transgenic transfers are subject to competition and selection over many generations before becoming a significant part of the population. A new genetic transfer engineered today is not the same as one that has survived this process of selection."
"The limited existing knowledge generally does not include long term testing of the exposure of people to the added chemical, even in isolation. The evaluation is independent of the ways the protein affects the biochemistry of the plant, including interactions among the various metabolic pathways and regulatory systems—and the impact of the resulting changes in biochemistry on health of consumers."
The literature certainly indicates that GMOs may be the less benign approach to crop improvement, and to appeal to Hayek in another way, our knowledge of the specifics of genetic disruptions from biotechnology is much more precise and less assuming than conventional approaches.
Research on Genomic Disruptions
Batista R and others (2008). Microarray analyses reveal that plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene insertion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105(9): 3640–3645
Baudo MM, Lyons R, Powers S, Pastori GM, Edwards KJ, Holdsworth MJ, Shewry PR. (2006). Transgenesis has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding. Plant Biotechnol J. 2006 Jul;4(4):369-80
See also: Biotechnology and Genetic Disruptions