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)