Starbucks, Monsanto, and the Right to Know What’s in My Latté

latteA piece I published over at my other blog (the Business Ethics Blog) has been earning me some push-back, to put it mildly, from fans of GMO labelling. The piece I wrote is called “Why Neil Young is wrong about genetically modified food labelling”. It’s a response to an open letter that Canadian folk-rock singer Neil Young recently sent to Starbucks, complaining about the company’s participation in a lawsuit aimed at getting Vermont to repeal its new labelling requirement for genetically modified foods.

I argued (as I have before here here and here and here) that requiring such labelling is a bad idea.

It’s worth noting, along the way, that the name “Monsanto” is part of the larger story, here, because that company is also part of the lawsuit. But even whispering that name sends some people off the deep end. (I’ve criticized the company myself, which is something that didn’t stop people from assuming that my critique of Neil Young meant that I’m in Monsanto’s back pocket.)

So it is perhaps not surprising that a few kind and generous (ha ha!) people on Twitter have not liked my conclusion. And rather than grapple with the argument I provided, or with the issues more generally, many decided to swear at me, to attack my character, and to impugn my motives. All of this without knowing me, and apparently without knowing anything about who I work for.

For the record, I’m an ethics professor at a publicly-funded university. I get zero dollars, in any form, from Starbucks or Monsanto or big biotech or big agriculture. The arguments I present constitute my best attempts at sorting out hard problems. If you don’t like my conclusions, then the right thing to do is to figure out where the argument leading to those conclusions went wrong. As I always tell my students, the greatest favour you could do for me is to show me errors if I have made some. I mean this quite seriously: when I first started working on the question of the ethics of GMO labelling, and started working through the issues, I actually expected to reach a more anti-GMO conclusion. My biases were in that direction. I expected I would end up arguing in favour of labelling. But a careful examination of the relevant facts, along with the relevant moral principles, pointed me in the other direction. Mandatory labelling is misguided, and in the absence of mandatory labelling, food companies are not ethically obligated to engage in labelling on a voluntary basis.

The issue of GMO labelling is regrettably politicized, and this means that people often aren’t open to hearing reasoned arguments. That’s a shame. The issue is too important to decide based on prejudice, ignorance, and team spirit.

Posted in ethics | Leave a comment

Ethics of the World’s First Synthetic Burger

So, the world’s first synthetic burger has been cultured, minced, fried and consumed. (Mark Post, the scientist who conceived of and grew the synthetic burger, had announced a year and a half ago his near-term intention to produce and test a lab-grown burger. Apparently he’s a man of his word.)

The verdict of the taste test? Roughly: ‘needs seasoning, but not bad.’

What about the ethics?

To begin, it’s important not to be distracted by the notion being bandied about that lab-grown meat is going to feed the world. That’s not going to happen any time soon. The energy and other inputs for the process that results in synthetic meat is still liable to be very significant. So this process is not liable to result in a cheap new source of calories; but it may well result in a cheap(er) new source of meat, and that is going to be important, especially if we are to satisfy the growing demand for meat products in developing nations such as China. I suspect that if (or when) synthetic meat becomes important here in the West, it will be as an ingredient in frozen egg-rolls or as an additive in taco beef, and so on. It’s probably best to think of this new product making its primary inroads “at the margin,” as economists put it. Don’t expect to see a pound of this stuff sold at your local butcher any day soon.

The really big benefits, ethically, have to do with animal welfare and environmental impact. Peter Singer, the philosopher most directly responsible for the growth of the animal welfare / animal liberation movement, has referred to Post’s new dish as “the world’s first cruelty-free burger.” Modern animal agriculture is widely recognized as resulting in an enormous amount of animal suffering. Yes, yes, boutique shoppers do have access to meat from animals that have been grass fed, otherwise coddled, and then humanely slaughtered, but that’s not how most of the world’s meat is produced — not by a long shot. And animal agriculture is increasingly recognized as environmentally dreadful. Pig farms produce enormous quantities of untreated manure; beef feedlots produce vast amounts of methane. And so on. But the fundamental environmental problem with animal agriculture comes down to physics: animals are a relatively inefficient way to transform vegetable calories (mostly) into calories of meat product. The energy wastage is enormous. Lab-grown meat, if it can be scaled up and produced with the same ruthless efficiency that typifies other factory-made foods, promises to solve that problem.

(Note: the $330,000 price tag attached to this burger is a red herring. That reflects a lot of R&D costs, and bears no relevance whatsoever to the cost of the lab-grown meat we could be consuming a decade from now. Compare: the fact that a new heart drug cost $800 million to develop means that the “first pill” can be said to cost that much, but that doesn’t mean that the mass-produced pills to follow will be expensive at all.)

Are there ethical objections to lab-grown meat? A few possible ones come to mind, though I don’t think any of them is compelling.

Let’s start with safety. Will lab-grown meat be safe? Well, that remains to be seen, I suppose. But we have the technology to test new products for safety. We can test for the relevant pathogens, and so on. And there’s no particular reason to expect that lab grown-meat won’t be just as safe (or unsafe!) as meat grown other ways.

Some will worry about the amount of animal product inputs that will be required to make lab-grown meat. Some news sources are reporting that Post cultured his meat in fetal bovine serum, which comes from the blood of calf fetuses. This raises the spectre of millions of pounds of lab-grown meat being cultured in millions of gallons of fetal bovine serum, requiring the slaughter of untold millions of calves. But this worry shouldn’t be exaggerated: fetal bovine serum is seriously expensive, so while it may have been used in the production of this burger, we can safely assume that any mass-produced burgers will be cultured in a suitable artificial substitute medium.

Others will object to any quantity of animal inputs: after all, synthetic beef is still cultured from beef cells, and those ultimately come from a cow, a living being. If you’re a hardcore proponent of animal rights (as opposed to animal welfare) then you might well object that synthetic meat is still, well, meat, and that it has to be cultured from cells drawn from a real animal. But anyone taking that line will eventually find themselves counting how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Finally, some will object to lab-grown meat simply because it is “artificial.” But that’s a spurious distinction, and an aesthetic objection masquerading as an ethical one. Much of what we eat now is already artificial in all the senses that make any difference. And there’s no particular reason to object to things simply on the basis of their artificiality.

Of course, ethical optimism also needs to be tempered by a realization that there are a lot of scientific and technological steps between growing enough meat for a single barely-edible lab-grown burger and producing synthetic beef (or chicken or pork or fish) on a mass scale. But on the whole, I think the development of lab-grown burgers is an excellent thing, from an ethical point of view. Or at least, very promising.


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(I’ve blogged before about synthetic meat, in blog entries entitled “Who wants test-tube meat?”, “Ethics, Ideology, and Synthetic Meat”, and “Would You Like Your Synthetic Meat GM or Non-GM?”).

Posted in agriculture, animal rights, animal welfare, biotechnology, ethics, factory farms, meat, natural, science | 4 Comments

Ethics of Small Choices

whats_in_my_coffeeYesterday, on my Business Ethics Blog, I published a short blog entry about an ethical dilemma faced by a coffee shop.

The dilemma — and disagreement between co-owners — was whether to offer the standard range of sweeteners and whiteners with their coffees, or whether to impose a vision of what counts as healthy additions for coffee. Oversimplifying: should they offer artificial sweeteners or not?

It’s a real-life case. And it sounds like a small matter, but with the recent politicization of and moralizing about food, the question not surprisingly became a bone of contention for the people involved.

My argument is essentially this:
1) The evidence is thin for any health advantage for “real” sugar. In fact, “real” sugar is known to be unhealthy, whereas for artificial sweeteners the question is still up in the air.
2) The quantities involved are tiny, so relax.
3) If it’s even a close call, go for consumer autonomy — the freedom to choose.

That’s not to say that a coffee shop can’t make “all natural” a part of its branding, and choose condiments accordingly. It’s just that no one should confuse that with making a clear-cut ethical decision.

Posted in choice, ethics, health, marketing, natural, nutrition, restaurants, values | 5 Comments

Bigger Birds

Innovation isn’t always good for everyone.

See this blog entry about how artificial insemination has allowed the turkey industry to triple the average size of a turkey over the last 50 years: Give Thanks? Science Supersized Your Turkey Dinner. (The problem for turkeys has to do with limiting their “normal” behaviour. At 30 pounds or more, “It’s difficult for them to actually perform the natural mating act.”)

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Via Marginal Revolution

Posted in agriculture, animal welfare, breeding, factory farms, meat, science

Consumer Rights and GMO Labelling: Proposition 37

Over on my Business Ethics Blog, I recently posted an entry on “GMO Labelling and Consumer Rights.” That entry overlaps partially with a previous blog entry of mine on this blog, called “The Right to Know What I’m Eating.” The occasion for revisiting the issue is of course the impending vote on California’s “Proposition 37,” which would provide for the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods.

The only thing I’ll add here is a very brief response to a piece by Michael Pollan, which appeared in NYT Magazine. The piece is called “Vote for the Dinner Party: Is this the year that the food movement finally enters politics?” Pollan’s argument is essentially that Big Ag has too much power, and that voting “Yes” on Prop 37 is a way for voters to show Big Ag who is really boss. I usually like Pollan’s work, but this is a very weak argument. There’s plenty of reason to complain about Big Ag, but passing a bad piece of legislation just to stick it to them is a very bad idea. Food is important, so let’s pass legislation on issues that really matter, grounded in sound reasoning instead.

In a free society, you don’t pass laws requiring other people to change their behaviour unless their current behaviour is doing some harm or violating some right. There is still no evidence that GM foods do any harm, and requiring their labelling does not effectively protect anyone’s right to anything.

Posted in biotechnology, genetic modification, GMO, law | 2 Comments

Corporate Dilution of the Meaning of “Organic”

A few days ago there was an exceptionally interesting article in the NY Times on the corporatization of organic foods. See Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?, by Stephanie Strom. The story outlines the controversy over the composition of the US board charged with the task of determining just what can, and cannot, be put into a food labelled as “organic,” as well as over some of the specific decisions made by that board. In particular, there’s a worry by organic advocates that big business has come to dominate the board, and that its decisions are often out of line with the true spirit of the organic movement.

As Andrew Potter (no relation to the Mr. Potter mentioned below) points out, there’s a lot more going on here than a tussle over definitions.

What is interesting about the debate as it plays out in this article is that the question of whether these various “synthetics” should be allowed or not is entirely political. That is, Strom goes the entire article without ever confronting what should be the central issue, which is whether any of the controversial ingredients or inputs are healthy, or good for the environment, or contribute to the taste of the product. It’s clearly seen as irrelevant to the debate: the term “sustainability” is never used in the article, which is sort of like writing about the Occupy movement withouth once using the term “inequality”.

To see what Andrew means, check out this passage from the NYT article:

Ingredients like carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener with a somewhat controversial health record. Or synthetic inositol, which is manufactured using chemical processes.

Mr. [Michael J.] Potter [a seller of organic foods and an advocate of tougher standards] was allowed to voice his objections to carrageenan for three minutes before the group, the National Organic Standards Board.

“Someone said, ‘Thank you,'” Mr. Potter recalls.

And that was that.

Two days later, the board voted 10 to 5 to keep carrageenan on the growing list of nonorganic ingredients that can be used in products with the coveted “certified organic” label. To organic purists like Mr. Potter, it was just another sign that Big Food has co-opted — or perhaps corrupted — the organic food business.

What the article never makes clear is just what is wrong with carrageenan in food. (Carrageenan is an additive, derived from seaweed, that has been used in foods for hundreds of years.) There’s mention in the article of a “controversial health record” but that’s pretty vague. A quick search online suggests that there are some specific worries, but none of those worries seems, as far as I can tell, to imply that the stuff shouldn’t be considered non-organic or ineligible for inclusion in organic foods.

Posted in Additives, agriculture, certifiction, organic, regulation

Could GMO Technology Make Tomatoes More Authentic?

The LA Times ran an interesting piece a couple of days ago about Why supermarket tomatoes tend to taste bland. It turns out, according to new scientific research, that the hybridization carried out by tomato breeders over the last several decades has inadvertently introduced a mutation that interferes with sugar production within tomatoes — and hence made standard grocery-store tomatoes less tasty.

It’s important to note that this was the result of good old-fashioned hybridization, the kind of cross-breeding of plants that humans have been doing for thousands of years, the kind that has given us pretty much all of the fruits and vegetables that our species has lived on for generations.

But the LA Times mentions that the technologies of laboratory genetic engineering could be used to reverse, in a precise way, this clumsy error. In fact, scientists have done so in the lab, but such reverse-engineered tomatoes are unlikely to make it to grocery store shelves.

But what if — however unlikely, given regulatory hurdles and problems of public acceptance — tomatoes genetically engineered in a way that reversed this error made it onto grocery store shelves? What if we could buy tomatoes genetically engineered to include a gene their tasty ancestors originally had? In a sense, the result would be, far from something “unnatural,” a more authentic tomato than the ones currently available.

The concept of authenticity is a vexed one. For some it has to do with “naturalness.” For some it has to do with pedigree, with where a thing came from. In his terrific 2010 book, The Authenticity Hoax, Andrew Potter suggests that in at least some instances, people regard authenticity as having something to do with being true to some vision of what a thing ought to be. From this point of view, genetically engineering the tomato to reactivate the GLK2 gene would result in a more authentic tomato, one truer to what tomatoes used to be, truer to the tomatoes your great-grandmother used to enjoy as a child.


(A while back I interviewed Andrew Potter, about his book, The Authenticity Hoax).

Posted in agriculture, biotechnology, genes, genetic modification, GMO, natural, values