This is a topic I’ve given considerable thought, and have published on (see below).
My specific interest is in whether there is a corporate ethical obligation to label GM foods as such, in countries (like Canada and the U.S.) where it’s not required by law. I argue that there is no such obligation. The basics of my argument are simple. Here it is, very briefly:
First, human health. Companies would have an obligation to label GM foods if there were sufficient credible scientific evidence of risk. But there isn’t. Yes, GM critics can point to a few studies. But scientific consensus (including meta-analyses by impartial scientific bodies) is that GM foods per se pose no special threat to human health. A well-intentioned business is justified in accepting that consensus.
Second, consumer rights. Do consumers have a right to know whether their food is GM? No. The language of rights is potent moral language. We reserve it (or should reserve it) for protecting interests that are central to our wellbeing. Think of other situations in which we have a right to a piece of information. When accused of a crime, we have the right to know what we’ve been charged with — or else how can we defend ourselves against powerful government agents? When we’re sick, we have a strong right to be told our diagnosis — without that, how could we participate in decision-making about our own healthcare? These are things that are of central value to us, and are widely culturally acknowledged as such. The genetic status of our food just isn’t in that category. Some people may be interested in knowing that information, but that doesn’t mean they have a right to it. It’s an interest that can at any rate be satisfied in other ways, e.g., by niche marketing and negative (“GM Free!”) labelling.
Third, the environment. My understanding is that there is more scientific worry about GM crops from an environmental perspective than there is about GM foods from a health perspective. That’s worth noting. But the question then becomes whether labeling is a good way of dealing with those worries. I think it’s not. Large-scale environmental concerns are not well served by decision-making on an individual level, which is what labelling promotes. If GM crops are ecologically dangerous (and there’s nothing like scientific consensus on that, either), that would be an argument for government action, not niche consumerism.
So, I conclude that there’s no ethical obligation for food companies to engage unilaterally in labelling genetically modified foods. I’ve presented this argument to a number of audiences, and in a peer-reviewed academic journal. I’ve yet to hear a good counter-argument in response. If you know of one, I’d honestly be happy to hear it!
(Here’s a link to the abstract & publication information for the paper I co-authored on this topic, “Corporate Decisions about Labelling Genetically Modified Foods,” by Chris MacDonald and Melissa Whellams, Journal of Business Ethics, 2007, Volume 75, Number 2, 181-189.)