Jared Diamond: GMOs and a Guide to Reducing Life’s Risks

Respected writer Jared Diamond recently published an overall excellent opinion piece in the New York Times discussing how we often obsess about the wrong things, while failing to watch for real dangers. 


Jared Diamond’s Guide to Reducing Life’s Risks - NYTimes.com.


Many of us in the Plant biology community were quite surprised at one phrase buried in an otherwise excellent article:


'It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops. '


Please take a moment to read our responses below.



Dear Prof. Diamond,

I am a big fan of yours and have read your last three books and enjoyed them all. I think  that 'GG and S' should be reuqired reading for all US citizens, best in my view, would be high school seniors.

As a son of parents who are more or less your age, I appreciated your recent column on 'falls' and risk:


However, I wonder about this sentence:

'It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops. '

While I agree with the sentiment, the statement loses its potency in the last example. GMOs have killed who, where,and when, in 'spectacular ways' (or, for that matter, at all!)? It's inclusion in this otherwise crystalline sentence demeans your point entirely.

Surely a misprint that you could correct at the NYT?

Thanks again for all that you have contributed to science and its role in popular culture.


Jeff Dangl


Jeff Dangl, PhD.

John N. Couch Professor



Dear Professor Diamond,

I am also a fan of your work and loved your recent NYT article.

My husband, an organic farmer, and I devote a chapter of our book "Tomorrow's Table: organic farming, genetics and the future of food" to risk perception and GE crops.

We begin chapter 7  with a quote from Peter M. Sandman, a risk communications consultant who said that “The risks that hurt people and the risks that upset people are almost completely unconnected”

We note that just the mention of genetic engineering, a process that has been used for thirty years and so far has not harmed a single person or animal, is enough to incite violence. The apocalyptic quality of the anti-GE advocacy seems wildly disproportionate to the potential risk, particularly in the context of the benefits.

I agree with Jeff that it would be excellent to correct the article on this point.  

And thanks for the reminder. I will continue to very careful in the shower (and will remind my parents as well).

All the best



Dear Prof. Diamond

Can I echo that (on all points- loved GG&S in particular)? The extraordinary thing about GM crops is that unlike regulation of the pharmaceutical, chemical and nuclear industries, regulation of GM is on the basis of completely hypothetical risks.  Those other 3 industries killed people and their regulation is quite justified- not so GM crops

Please see some links below, and particularly the recent speech by Mark Lynas






Best regards

Jonathan Jones

From: Bob Goldberg <bobg@ucla.edu>

Subject: NY Times Essay

Date: February 3, 2013 6:48:49 PM PST

To: jdiamond@geog.ucla.edu


Dear Jared:


I enjoyed reading your essay on life's risks in the New York Times.


However, I was startled (and shocked) to see that you lumped genetically modified crops into events that cause many deaths --such as nuclear radiation, crazy gunman, and terrorists).


Perhaps you were making the point that many people exaggerate the risks of genetically modified crops.  However, for the record —

despite over a billion acres of genetically modified crops being grown word-wide by millions of farmers and eaten by hundreds of millions of people — there has not been one documented case of even a sneeze.  Quite the contrary, there have been numerous documented advantages of using biotechnology for the improvement of agriculture and humanity.


The "GMO controversy" has been driven by an anti-science media propaganda campaign that has done much harm to using state-of-the-art genetic engineering science to generate a more sustainable agriculture for all.  It is ironic that in the most exciting time ever for the plant sciences - when those of us who are working on plant genes — are discovering genes such as drought, insect, and fungal resistance — and obtaining more knowledge of how plants grow and develop than at any time in history — that the anti-GMO forces have succeeded in slowing progress substantially.  For example, Golden Rice, which can benefits millions, has languished in regulatory purgatory for over ten years.


I worry that a statement lumping GMOs into a category with terrorists, crazy gunman, and plane crashes only perpetuates the anti-science myth that GMOs are "risky" when, in fact, they are the safest crops ever developed in the history of agriculture —

as documented by our own National Academy and many other lean red Academies around the globe.


Your colleague,


bob goldberg



Distinguished Professor & Member, National Academy of Sciences (Section 62)





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I have no disagreement with the letters of reply above and they are very nicely and respectfully written. It will be interesting to see if you get any response.

I also think your interpretation of what he wrote is a very reasonable one, and a very likely one for any casual reader to share, but in Diamond's defense I might point out that the sentence construction does not unambiguously present GMO as an example of events that "kill in spectacular ways", it could just be an example of events that are "beyond our control".

These responses illustrate what is religious weakness of some otherwise very good scientists. How?

Religious thinking prevents Jeff Dangl from recognizing the logical operator "or" in Diamond's original claim. In his zeal to defend GMO's from association with clearly identified risks and attack critics, Dangl overlooks what is otherwise obvious; GMO's are in the sub-category of events with widely exaggerated risks AND beyond our control.

Note the frequent fallacious reasoning (strawman) used to attack critics and their motivations, rather than the strongest critical arguments. These arguments object to the methods by which GMO's are approved and used, and are based on reasoning which these scientists would surely support under normal circumstances. This is another indicator of a religious view: inability to subject one's own opinion to the same criteria used to dismiss opposition.

The strawmen above also use the fallacy of appeal to motives, claiming "anti-science". While certainly this is valid for some critics, it has ZERO relevance to the issue of whether GMO's present an unknown amount of risk.

Religious claims are often presented with absolute certainty (no error bars) and without evidence. We see this with the claim: "genetic engineering, a process that has been used for thirty years and so far has not harmed a single person or animal". Really? We are to believe that zillions of experiments using radioactive material on genes has not ever produced a problem, not even a paper cut while handling a memo? That appears to be a magical claim. People tend to make these when their faith must be defended at all costs. That cost often tends to be good, clear, rational thinking.

If GMO's are as safe as implied by advocates, there should be no objection to insuring that engineered genetic materials to be put into our bodies are tested and approved in the same way we test non-genetic engineered chemicals like medicines, food additives, and the like.

I would like those who object so strenuously to Diamond's innocuous sentence to reasonably address this.

By Buck Field (not verified) on 04 Feb 2013 #permalink

Regarding the statement: "zillions of experiments using radioactive material on genes ",

Just to clarify- genetic engineering does not employ radiation. There is, however, a technique classified as conventional breeding and used for 50 years that involves radiating seed to induce random mutations. Breeders then sort through the resulting seed and identify those that have useful agronomic traits. Approximately 2500 varieties have resulted from this work. There are no federal requirements for safety or environmental testing. As described in our book, Tomorrow's Table, such seed is used widely including on organic farms.

Thanks for the clarification, apparently I incorrectly remembered gene guns as using ionization acceleration of the particles.

2 questions: regarding your reply: Do you know or can you explain why artificial radioactive bombardment to induce mutations is or should be categorized as ?conventional breeding"? This strikes this outsider as counter-intuitive.

Second question: can you comment on my concerns above re: the inability of GM defenders to comment on what seem reasonable objections appears an almost religious aversion?

Even your reply seems to avoid the history of massive investment by agri-business corporations to ensure " There are no federal requirements for safety or environmental testing". This history would seem to strike the outside observer as relevant, especially when attacks against GMO critics feature fringe anti-science wacko's so prominently, implying relevance.

By Buck Field (not verified) on 04 Feb 2013 #permalink

Yeah, when I first saw that paragraph I was confused. I suspect it was bad sentence construction or possibly mangled in editing.

But I'm glad you guys organized a response. I hope it will get fixed.

How do we walk the line between firm communication and reasonable scientific doubt? Most of us in the science community can talk about quantified risk and understand what is meant. Most people, as Diamond points out, don't know what these small percentages mean. Especially when it comes to biotechnology, how can we express risk and scientific consensus in a way that doesn't bore everyone to sleep without dumbing down to the point when we are saying such statements as "GMOs never hurt anyone" that are technically accurate yet mask the actual science?

I'll talk the ear off anyone willing to listen to all of the safety studies (see GENERA), how we have no evidence that the technique of biotech is inherently harmful, how it is possible to have a result that is harmful but that's why we regulate each event separately, etc.... but that's not very sound-bite-able.

For the record - Diamond may have meant something more nuanced with this sentence, but he just lumped biotech in with terrorists. I call bs that this was merely bad phrasing. No writer as accomplished as Diamond would make such a 'mistake' lightly.

By Anastasia (not verified) on 04 Feb 2013 #permalink

@ Buck

The statement: ” There are no federal requirements for safety or environmental testing”. though wrt the FDA is true, there has never been a commercialized GM crop that did not go thru the FDA examination/evaluation process. The USDA and the EPA regulations are law. I think that loophole (that has never been used) is about to close so that all GM crops will also have to go thru the FDA approval process.

In Canada both Health Canada and the CFIA and Environment Canada (I think) regs must be met to before any GM crop is allowed to be commercialized.

I hope that explains the discrepancy,

By Robert Wager (not verified) on 04 Feb 2013 #permalink


On more question if I may. What "reasonable objections" are you referring to? The devil is in the details in GM crop science.

By Robert Wager (not verified) on 04 Feb 2013 #permalink

Seems we have been sparring for days now Buck.

you said: 'If GMO’s are as safe as implied by advocates, there should be no objection to insuring that engineered genetic materials to be put into our bodies are tested and approved in the same way we test non-genetic engineered chemicals like medicines, food additives, and the like. "

By what logic would you directly link GM foods regulations with clinical drug trials?. The two are almost entirely separate.

If you could demonstrate adverse reactions to GM foods similar to those found with drugs, that would be fair but no such evidence exists. And there is no logical way to prove a negative conclusively. The best that can be done is to show safety records of consumption of over three trillion meals containing GM ingredients with not a single documented case of harm. There has never been a documented case of an allergic reaction to any inserted protein in any GM crop either.

A far more reasonable comparison would be regulations of GM foods with conventionally bred foods. Now that is a fair comparison. And those comparisons have been going on for over a decade.

By Robert Wager (not verified) on 04 Feb 2013 #permalink

Love the Genera site. Thanks Anastasia

By Robert Wager (not verified) on 04 Feb 2013 #permalink

This article of Professor Diamond has came as mean to displease as I am a firm believer of non violence. Gunmen killing innocents could be psychological problem to a great extent which in itself cannot be related event with nuclear disaster or plane crashes, because these two are not intentional at all. GMO or GM Crops on the other hands, a step ahead of these two with the motive to feed starving people by enhancing yield. I am taking a very harsh correlation in between normal and GM crops as even many cultivars are not suitable as normal food components. I can cite an example of Lathyrus odoratus (Common name Khesari Pulse) which is non edible by virtue of having a toxin. Using breeding methods, this toxin has been removed but I doubt that this minuscule change has not impacted the other components. Anyhow, this modified pulse inedible and are being promoted in India.

GMOs/ GM Crops are facing stringent procedures, to be released as varieties. These crops and their inventors try to prove themselves. But in any circumstances these are not comparable to a disaster because they are strictly under the control of legislature will. Senior professors must watch how they are reacting to a topic which is usually percolated into young people as such.

By Vinay Kumar Baranwal (not verified) on 05 Feb 2013 #permalink


How would a reasonable person reach a level of confidence so high as to prioritize "firm communication" over reasonable, unanswered concern over how GMO are managed and the resulting risks?

This kind of statement strikes this enthusiast of history and philosophy of science as devoid of scientific skepticism entirely...especially when quoting what could be uncharitably be called a GMO corporate front group. Have they have ever produced a report generally negative toward GMO's in any way? Surely this is a sign of bias, isn't it/

By Buck Field (not verified) on 05 Feb 2013 #permalink

@ Robert

I'm not certain why you're repeating my position as if I disagree regarding FDA and other laws, nor why you feel we've been "sparring for days".

Your post suggests you share a believe that if a substance is labelled "GMO", corporations should be allowed to introduce it without much fuss until it is proven to produce harm. This results in large scale, uncontrolled experiments on public health without public consent - a practice I think unlikely to gain much support in a democratic system, but I'm open to evidence of any mistaken assumptions on that opinion.

By Buck Field (not verified) on 05 Feb 2013 #permalink

Hello Buck,

You say: "How would a reasonable person reach a level of confidence so high as to prioritize “firm communication” over reasonable, unanswered concern over how GMO are managed and the resulting risks?"

Perhaps we are seeing different meaning in "firm communication". I am referring to the media and general public's desire for hard conclusions - conclusions that don't exist in science. How do we (or can we may be the better question) provide info in the way that people want and in a way they will understand about reasonable scientific doubt and quantified risk? This is a problem in many areas of risk, a big one is human genetic testing.

Then you said: "This kind of statement strikes this enthusiast of history and philosophy of science as devoid of scientific skepticism entirely…"

Strange when I was discussing quantified risks of genetic engineering... I'm not really sure how discussion of risk = "devoid of scientific skepticism" but perhaps I'm reading you wrong here.

Then you said: "when quoting what could be uncharitably be called a GMO corporate front group. Have they have ever produced a report generally negative toward GMO’s in any way? Surely this is a sign of bias, isn’t it/"

I didn't actually quote anyone, I provided a link to GENERA. GENERA is a project of Biology Fortified, Inc., a non-profit of which I am a founding member. BFI has zero connections to any corporations, we are funded by donations and grants, and we are very transparent about that. All you had to do was click on "About", then "Financial Information." So, unless I was reading you wrong or you actually meant some other organization that someone else may have quoted, I suggest you look a little harder before making assumptions.

BFI doesn't produce "reports", at least not yet, we mainly produce blog posts and encourage discussion. Many of those discussions involve the potential for misuse of GM traits, and the nuances of genetic engineering. We are often placed a position where we are defending GM because of various misconceptions out there, but we are in no way a "pro GM" organization, as I describe here. You can learn more at the website, including our mission statement.

Anyone is always welcome to start a new discussion in the BFI Forum, so I hope to see you there. As a former US Army health inspector, risk is one of my favorite things to talk about.

By Anastasia (not verified) on 06 Feb 2013 #permalink

Having never seen an instance where "firm communication" has ever been interpretted in the manner now suggested, nor able to find any, I'd welcome any example supporting such an interpretation. Absent such evidence, What seems more probable is that you acted on the confidence of your position, believing that scientists need to provide firm communications for skeptics to be convinced of the truth: that GMO's have never harmed anyone.

>Strange when I was discussing quantified risks of genetic engineering...
Claiming an ability (e.g.: to discuss quantified risk) does not mean one is meaningfully doing so, and focusing on critics' wording rather than the unanswered concerns realting to how GMO's are managed and the resulting risks does not improve the impression that avoidance of such issues is necessary. This is another common reaction to religious or other emotionally based beliefs.

>Then you said: “when quoting...
Again, quibbles over wording avoid substance of the issues - which go unaddressed.

>BFI doesn’t produce “reports”
...and again.

>BFI has zero connections to any corporations,
This claim was quite frankly, beyond belief for me, so I did a random spot check. I went to the main page, clicked the middle headlines, and went to articles by Karl Haro von Mogel. I was unable to locate a single critical piece on irregularities of GMO introduction into the food supply, the problems associated with for-profit corporate ownership & control, nor other apparently legitimate public concerns. I know Monsanto is in the GM industry, so I Googled them, finding they proudly support his department at UW-Madison, advertising their recent $1M "gift", studiously avoiding that they are legally obligated to maximize profits, and what that entails.

If this is "zero connection", and you truly see no problem, believe no influence results, and has nothing to do with the lack of critical content on the website nor the way BFI frames discussion, we can simply agree to disagree about what constitutes reasonable, probable conflict of interest.

By Buck Field (not verified) on 07 Feb 2013 #permalink

In reply to by Anastasia (not verified)

Buck, you are reaching for things that aren't there and telling me what I think - neither of which is productive. When you're looking for a reasonable conversation, you're always welcome in the BFI Forum. Have a nice day.

By Anastasia (not verified) on 07 Feb 2013 #permalink

>Buck, you are reaching for things that aren’t there and telling me what I think
I don't believe that's true. In fact, I would say that to characterize my assessment as "telling you what you think" is unfair and deceptive, especially when my statement of personal impression was followed by suggested evidence, a counter example you might share that would change my mind. Apparently, no reciprocal courtesy is deemed appropriate.

The ability to falsify is what distinguishes science, so while I may not like admitting I erred on the gene gun tech, I feel a moral obligation to do so for the greater good.

When I'm either unable to do this because of emotional attachment, or there is a possible appearance of conflict of interest, I feel a responsibility to admit potentially compromised reasoning and bias, such as when I endorsed use of Project Management Institute standards for research administration in "The Starship Vlog #000".

Having worked on them for many years, I could be compromised in assessing whether they are the best, most appropriate guidelines.

Do you feel no possibility of similar bias for you regarding GMO's?

By Buck Field (not verified) on 07 Feb 2013 #permalink

In reply to by Anastasia (not verified)