Should Companies Label Genetically Modified Foods?

Since this blog is relatively new, readers may not have seen my postings (on my Business Ethics Blog) about the labelling of GM foods. (See here and here.)

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.)

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in agriculture, biotechnology, ecosystems, ethics, genetic modification, labeling, marketing, regulation, science. Bookmark the permalink.

63 Responses to Should Companies Label Genetically Modified Foods?

  1. Anastasia says:

    Thank you very much for writing this post. I completely agree with your assessment though I did not have the language of ethics to express it myself. I am very much looking forward to reading the full paper.

  2. Gord says:

    To a certain point, I agree with you. But, what about allowing the consumer to force the issue of possible environmental damage? It’s an awful lot easier to vote with your dollars if you know what’s in the food.

    Bottom line: agribusiness doesn’t want to label this stuff because they know that it will just have folks flocking to the non-GMO food.

    • There are already non-GM options, and people aren’t flocking to them. There are plenty of stores where they can buy stuff labelled “GM-Free”. They can also buy organic, which is almost entirely GM-free.

      • Gord says:

        Sure there are, but when you have chains like Loblaws refusing to carry anything labelled “GM-Free”, what’s the regular shopper to do?

  3. Don’t shop there, I guess! Like I said, there are alternatives, just like there are for people who insist on Kosher meats or local apples or artisan cheeses or any other niche interest.

    • Michele says:

      Hi Chris 🙂

      Another thought… many, if not most typical consumers aren’t even aware of what GMO even stands for…so they aren’t looking for alternatives. That is how agribusiness wants to keep things too. If the average American knew, and they were able to see the differences pointed out on food labels, I think more people WOULD shop for alternatives. Of course, there are those, though I venture to say a few, who might be fully aware of what GMO means who will STILL buy it anyhow– and that’s OK — because at least they are making an informed decision. 😉

      • Michele:

        True, but the fact that — as you point out — most consumers don’t know what GMO even stands for suggests that the labels would not be very useful. (I recall hearing about a survey that found that a high proportion of consumers are opposed to having genes — any genes — in their food. This suggests that literacy about the topic is just too low for GM labels to provide real choice.)


  4. p.s. if it *were* true that people would flock to non-GM foods, then someone would be able to make a killing selling them…the opportunity is there.

  5. Anastasia says:

    I’ve seen a lot of people claim that voluntary labeling of GMOs is prohibited in the US or in Canada. Is there any truth to this claim?

    • Seriously? It’s false, and sounds like someone’s conspiracy theory. Voluntary labelling is legal, to the best of my understanding. In Canada, there’s even a government document outlining what such voluntary labelling should look like. It’s got the unwieldy title, “Voluntary Labelling and Advertising of Foods that Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Engineering”. More on that topic can be found here:


  6. Anastasia, a further thought: voluntary positive labelling is not forbidden by *law*, but I’m told the big retail grocery chains forbid it themselves. So you *can* label your food as containing GM ingredients, but the big retailers aren’t interested in selling it. But they’re not required to carry any particular company’s products in the first place.

    • Gord says:

      Loblaws food stores in Canada prohibit “GMO-free” labelling of food products on the basis that it’s pejorative to competing products. Except, apparently, their own “Free from” line of meat products.

      • Anastasia says:

        How interesting that a grocery store would refuse to carry foods with such a label. I suppose that is their right, and consumers have a right to not shop there. However, this indicates the desire to know about GMOs isn’t as strong as some might have us believe, or at least that Loblaws doesn’t think it’s very strong.

      • airbellows says:

        @Anastasia, I would think that prohibiting “GMO-free” labeling because it gives advantage to those products would indicate a higher level of desire for GMO-free products rather than a lower level. If the desire to know were weak, then the GMO-free label would not confer much advantage to GMO-free products. Instead, they even admit that the GMO-free label hurts other products.

  7. Gord: interesting. But I can’t find anything online that says that their “Free From” line is GM-free. This page seems to give the details, but doesn’t mention GM:

  8. Michele says:

    Really? You’re serious? People don’t have a right to know whether they are eating foods that have been genetically modified, engineered or altered? No proof of ill health effects? I vehemently disagree– on all counts. It absolutely a person’s right to know EXACTLY what they are ingesting into their body– here’s MY explanation:

    First: there most definitely IS cause for concern with regard to the negative health implications of GMO’s. For starters, we can take a look at the incidence of ALLERGIES (and asthma) in our society. There is documentation that people allergic to Brazil nuts have had allergic reactions to Soy Beans modified with Brazil Nut genes. Also, GM peas caused a 2-fold allergic reaction— the GM protein was allergenic and stimulated an allergic reaction to other food components.
    1. (Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. Nordlee J.E. et al. N England J Med., 334: 688-692, 1996.)
    2. (Transgenic expression of bean alpha-amylase inhibitor in peas results in altered structure and immunogenicity. Prescott V.E. et al. J Agric Food Chem., 53: 9023-9030, 2005.).

    If a GM food is not labeled as such, and someone with an allergy to a component of that [mutant] food suffers a severe reaction, then who is held responsible? That’s right– NO ONE. The ‘blame’ is lost, which allows corporations the freedom to continue producing their virulent ‘food’, and prohibits people from protecting themselves against food-borne illness or reaction. Consumers have the right to know! To be heard, not herded!

    Also, in 2008 there was a study done on mice fed GM soy over their entire lifetime which showed acute signs of aging in their liver. (a long-term study on female mice fed on a genetically modified soybean: effects on liver aging. Malatesta M. et al. Histochem Cell Biol., 130: 967-977, 2008.) This illustrates the fact that just because the damage to one’s health is not immediately & clearly acknowledged, does not mean the potential for it [damage] does not exist–

    Let’s be realistic and honest; It is impossible to tell, at these early stages of the GM age, what the LONG-TERM health risks are to eating food that has had foreign DNA
    (from bacterium & viruses as well as other foods not related to the food being altered) introduced into it’s OWN DNA. Seeing the immediate effects that GM foods do have on allergic individuals is enough [for me personally] to just say NO to GMO– but when you add other pertinent factors–such as the potential for long term disease– to the equation–it should be a no brainer!

    Back when cigarettes / smoking was still in it’s infancy stages, the tobacco corporations were concerned ONLY with how wealthy they would become from selling their product, and there was no (not at first anyhow) scientific evidence that the ‘ingredients’ in cigarettes and in second hand smoke were detrimental to your health– people didn’t think twice before lighting up. But look at what we know NOW! A person would have to be a complete dolt to start smoking in THIS day & age. Well, it’s the same concept with GMO’s. We’re in the earlier stages of Industrialized Agriculture and corporations [like Monsanto who leads the pack by a mile] are creating mutant-foods that ‘appear’ to provide benefit to both the environment & for human consumption, but are really nothing more than a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. The fact is, Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready soybeans are DESIGNED by Monsanto scientists who alter the genetic code–DNA–of the soybean seed to be resistant to the application of Monsanto’s pesticides & herbicides (Round-Up). SO, not only are you eating something that is NOT created by Mother Nature–you are also getting a heavy dose of chemical pesticide & herbicide to go with your meal. YUM!

    And, GMO’s are NOT better for the environment, in NO way, shape, or form. Don’t be fooled by corporate jargon that claims they are. Use of Round-Up on crops has produced ‘super-weeds’ that require STRONGER herbicides…which then results in MORE ‘super-weeds’ that require ANOTHER, STRONGER chemical application…it’s a snowball effect that is destroying–not helping the environment. Growing herbicide resistant crops can also reduce wildlife in some instances.
    1.(Little Burndown Madness. Nice G et al. Pest & Crop, 7 Mar 2008.
    2. (to slow the spread of glyphosate resistant marestail, always apply with 2,4-D. Pest & Crop, issue 23, 2006.
    3. (Genetically-modified superweeds “not uncommon”. Randerson J. New Scientist, 05 February 2002.
    4. (Transgenic crops take another knock. Giles J. NatureNews, published online: 21 March 2005.

    Furthermore, Monsanto also has such a strong hold on sustainable agriculture that if one of their mutant-seeds accidentally lands in an unsuspecting farmers field by way of cross-pollination, they WILL SUE that farmer! They have done this time and again–and won! This kind of corporate bullying is what is behind much of the GM (crop) foods being produced & sold. So, if you won’t eat organic for YOUR OWN health, maybe you will eat organic–or at least non GMO– in support of farmers across the globe–who struggle to maintain their family farms so they can continue to bring to YOUR table the wholesome, healthy, fruits-grains-veggies that your Great Grandparents, and their Great Grandparents, and theirs, and so on, ate and thrived upon.

    I’d love to write more but my kids are hungry–goin’ to make a delicious meal of organic mashed potatoes, sweet corn, and free-range, hormone free chicken;)

    • Michelle:

      Yes, I’m serious. Wanting to know something doesn’t give you a *right* to it. There are ways to avoid GM foods if you’re concerned to do so.

      As for evidence: being able to cite a couple of studies is one thing — the *consensus* among experts is something else entirely.

      By the way, I never said GMOs are better for the environment. Not sure where you got that. Maybe you’re referring to someone else?


      • Michele says:


        Before I go further let me just say that this is an extremely touchy subject for me and my posts may seem ‘harsh’… although my bluntness stems from a desire to see that people are awake and informed and taking control of their health…because if they aren’t and they don’t…there will be plenty of people out there willing to do it for them.

        This is not personal…

        Unfortunately, the *consensus* is skewed:

        “Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta… For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental ‘(and human health?)’ side effects.”

        Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering. “It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough,” wrote Elson J. Shields, an entomologist at Cornell University, in a letter to an official at the Environmental Protection Agency (the body tasked with regulating the environmental consequences of genetically modified crops), “but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.””

        Read more here:

        And, I know you didn’t say anything about GMO’s being better for the environment– but that is what corporations [Monsanto, Syngenta] try to get the public to believe, so I felt like throwing that in the mix. It was not directed towards you…

        Bottom line–“who controls the food, controls the people”

        There is now a monopoly on the food industry–held by an elite few…and worse, the FDA & USDA have, in key positions, several people formerly or currently affiliated with at least two of the corporations listed above…Thank you Obama (who also signed a bill that is against GM food labels if I am not mistaken).

        You stated: “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.”

        What, I ask, is more CENTRAL to our well being than the foods we eat [and the environment in which we live]? I respect your opinion, but I’m sorry–people DO have the right to know whether their food is genetically engineered because there ARE studies that prove GM foods are not safe…even if the skewed *consensus* says otherwise. Take KFC for example. Colonial Sanders was never going to make his ‘secret recipe’ public information. So, if you have ever eaten at KFC, you knew you’d never get that information and you ate it anyways. I know I have in the long ago past. So, in that situation, I will agree with you– no one has the RIGHT to know the recipe (what they are eating, essentially). But, the GMO debate is different–entirely–because these agri-corps have taken seeds, altered their DNA, and then put PATENTS on them– patents on LIFE? Unconstitutional! This is about people buying a tomato, and expecting to eat a tomato—-not a tomato that has the genes of a fruit fly injected into it’s DNA. That’s right…fruit fly….and that’s just ONE example of the atrocities of GMO’s.

        If you’re OK eating insect and other animal genes, that’s your prerogative (and anyone’s prerogative)…but eating insect genes should be an INFORMED CHOICE…don’t you think?

        “Even minor tampering with nature is apt to bring serious consequences, as did the introduction of a single chemical (DDT). Genetic engineering is tampering on a monumental scale, and nature will surely exact a heavy toll for this trespass.”
        -Dr. Eva Novotny

  9. Michele:

    Don’t worry — I appreciate your passion for the topic.

    FYI, I’m no fan of Monsanto. That company worries me. (See, e.g., this blog entry : )

    I’ll just make one more point, which is about how narrow my argument is. It’s specifically about food companies’ obligations (not, for example, about public policy). To me, in that regard, the question is this: Is it reasonable for a food company (General Mills, Kraft, etc.) *not* to label food as GM? Essentially, my argument is that even if the science isn’t a guarantee, it’s reasonable for a well-intentioned company to take its cues from the vast majority of scientists who say there’s nothing to worry about (at least, nothing that falls outside of known issues like allergenicity). That, plus the fact that people like yourself who ARE worried do have the option of buying food from companies that go to the trouble of labelling it as GM free.


    • airbellows says:

      These mega-corporations know exactly what goes into their food products and they spend millions designing their packaging, so why is it “trouble” – your word – to put what they know perfectly well on a label? What about that is “trouble” for them? Interesting word choice I must say. That wasn’t a rhetorical question though. Why do you think it would be “trouble” for them to put a little bit of extra text on their label?

      • They have very incomplete information, actually. They buy raw materials on a commodities market, and generally have no idea (e.g., in the case of corn) who grew it or even in what geographical region. Tracking from field to factory is no trivial task.

  10. ML Wilson says:


    I see and understand your point, since there are no laws that require labels for GMOs, and if the companies believe what scientists tell them, I suppose they are [legally] entitled to forgo labeling. I still say it’s [morally, ethically] ‘wrong’ not to label your product as GM if you know that it is, but I will acquiesce based on your precise argument, and speaking from a legal viewpoint only. I know not everyone involved in these companies (or in government) is ‘bad’ or out to get us…but it only takes a few nim-wits to ruin the Faith of the masses. And yeah, we do have the choice as consumers to buy from places that we know label their products as GM if they are, so at least THAT is still an option.

    Thank you for the opportunity to rant my views here!

    • Michele:

      Just to be clear: my argument is not a legal one. It’s about ethics. There’s no question whether failure to label is legal in North America…my point is entirely about ethics.


  11. ML Wilson says:

    By the way, you inspired me to start my own Blog…Thank you!

  12. Pingback: GM Salmon: Ethics, Regulation, and Labelling | The Food Ethics Blog

  13. John Burt says:

    I appreciate your article here, and especially your later explanations to Michelle. Although I’m neither Philosopher nor Ethicist, I think I understand where you’re coming from.

    However, I do think that decisions of ethics might be based on assumptions, and these assumptions might be based on limited or controlled information. For example, a new product is declared by a government agency to be safe and substantially equivalent to the old product. However, if there are valid questions as to the accuracy and completeness of the original information, does this affect the ethical aspects of decision making about the product? If these questions suggest that critical safety issues have not been addressed, would the public then have a “right to know” the nature of the product?

    I talk about this kind of issue in my latest post. Although I don’t explicitly mention ethics, I do take the position that the public has a right to full disclosure.

    • John:

      When you refer to “ethical aspects of decision making about the product”, I’m not sure what decisions you’re talking about — the purchasing decisions of consumers, or the labelling decisions of food companies.

      The question of concern to me is about what obligations food companies have. Is it OK for companies to rely on a) scientific consensus and b) the verdict of government agencies? I simply don’t think it’s the case that “critical safety issues have not been addressed.” If, in fact, critical safety issues had not been addressed (e.g., if government approved a product in spite of scientific consensus that the product is dangerous, then yes I think you could make the case for a corporate obligation to be cautious. But that’s not the case here.


  14. Pingback: The Right to Know What I’m Eating | The Food Ethics Blog

  15. For those of you who are interested, I’ve expanded considerably on the part about “rights”, in a new blog entry here: The Right to Know What I’m Eating

  16. William says:

    For years, tobacco companies had scientist working for them to simply say that it’s inconclusive that cigarettes caused cancer. This was for their own protection so they could say they were “unaware.” This leaves the control in the hands to the organization whose self serving studies conveniently pull the wool over their own eyes; thus they have no “moral” obligation. Using your argument, we have the right to know that we have cancer but we don’t have the right to know that cigarettes caused it.

    The reality is people should have a right to make their own choices. We should have the right to ingest GMOs if we want (like cigarettes), but the public should AT LEAST be told they are present so they also have the choice not to–REGARDLESS OF INCONCLUSIVE SCIENTIFIC STUDIES.

    It appears your moral obligation lies in the wallets of organizations who would rather ride the wave of convenient ignorance than give people a meaningful choice for the health of themselves and their families.

    • No, I think you’ve mis-read my argument. Cigarettes were dangerous, and the cigarette companies knew it. And they lied about it. They had an obligation to tell the truth, but they lied. Nothing in my argument contradicts that obvious moral conclusion.

  17. Pingback: “Yes Please” and “No Thanks” to Animal Welfare Labels | The Food Ethics Blog

  18. airbellows says:

    Michelle, glad to see at least one person with a conscience here. We are not “wanting to know” who Lindsay Lohan is dating, we are wanting to know what we are putting into our own bodies. To lump all “wanting to know” into one category and then saying we don’t have a right to it is a conscience-free argument.
    Saying that gmo labeling is unnecessary because people are not currently flocking to non-gmo foods is disengenuous at best. The US government is controlling discussion of the issue to protect the food industries, and the mainstream media is not discussing the issue to protect their food industry advertisers. Few people know much, if anything, about GMO foods because of the lack of information being put out there, not because of a lack of interest on the part of a busy, hard-working public. It seems that Chris MacDonald thinks that doing what is ethical can be based on a popularity contest, rather than on doing what is right.

    • Popularity contest? Hardly! I provided an argument about the situations in which it makes sense to claim that someone has a right to a piece of information. If my argument is faulty, please show me where. Nowhere did I say that “gmo labeling is unnecessary because people are not currently flocking to non-gmo foods….”

  19. airbellows says:

    re “popularity contest”
    Your own words: “There are already non-GM options, and people aren’t flocking to them” My point is that when the US govt. and mainstream media do not educate very busy people about GM foods, which they could do if they wanted to, it is disengenous to then say that people who don’t even know about GM foods are not flocking to them and to use that to argue that they don’t have a right to know if their foods are genetically modified.

    “The language of rights is potent moral language. We reserve it (or should reserve it) for protecting interests that are central to our wellbeing” What is more central to our wellbeing than what we put in our bodies?

    Speaking of meta-analyses, are they not dependent on the quality of the studies they include? I’d be more willing to buy those results if I saw the content of those studies, and the source of funding, direct and indirect, for all of them.

    “GM foods per se pose no special threat to human health” I spot multiple weasel words!!! Why does this statement require so much propping up? Why could you not say, “GM foods pose no threat to health.” ?

    Do you think that the attitude of assuming no harm from unnatural products until proven otherwise is ethical?

  20. Airbellows:

    Note that when I mentioned people “not flocking” to GM foods, I was *responding* to a comment. I wasn’t putting that forward as an argument against rights.

    What we put in our bodies clearly matters. But not everything ABOUT what we put in our bodies matters. Some characteristics are important; others are not.

    You also point to my claim that “GM foods per se pose no special threat to human health”. But you actually quote me incompletely. I actually said that that’s the scientific consensus. As for me using “multiple weasel words,” I only see one candidate, namely the word “special.” Did you see others? But as for “special,” I guess my point was that all kinds of things bring risks. But the scientific consensus is that, of all the things to be worried about in life, GM foods are not special, i.e., not particularly interesting as a risk. But fine: I’ll dump the weasel word. The scientific consensus is that GM foods pose no threat to health. Period.

  21. airbellows says:

    Points taken, although with all the reports of fraud in scientific studies being reported these days, I don’t have confidence in them any more. Plus the “what” vs. “about what” we put in our bodies is a head scratcher.

    • Scientific fraud is worrisome. But there’s no reason for individual instances of fraud to cast doubt on widespread scientific consensus. Scientific fraud can give you reason to doubt a study, or a set of studies, but not widespread consensus on a broad set of facts. The basic scientific process still functions. Science is what makes your cellphone work.

      As for the “what” vs. “about what”…what I mean is that not every characteristic of our food is important, and so we can’t plausibly have a right to *know* every characteristic of our food. I wrote another blog entry about that:
      The Right to Know What I’m Eating

  22. Jamie says:

    Come on! All this ethical vs legal obligation……all we know is that GMO’S are bad for the environment, we are not sure about the long term health effects, our food is being ALTERED. And because scientist haven’t seen an ill effect YET the companies don’t have to label. Gross just one more example of how big business controls regulation. The fact of the matter is most Canadians want food labeled that contain GMO’S therefore they should be labeled. It is no more complicated then that. If these companies don’t want to label then by all means go somewhere were the public doesn’t mind, that isn’t Canada!!! The companies are concerned that people would avoid their products, GOOD! Just from the effect on farmers that I have seen is enough to make me not want to support this science!

    • Jamie:

      All food is “altered.” That’s not generally worrisome. So you need to show that this particular kind of alteration is worrisome, and the consensus among scientists is that it is not.

      People wanting something (e.g., information) doesn’t give them a right to it. So I’m afraid it’s wrong to say that it’s “no more complicated than that.”


  23. John says:

    Chris, how can people make informed decisions and “flock” to other markets if the genetically modified foods are not labeled in the first place? You’re argument plays on the ignorance of the masses and the selfishness of the corporate monster. Corporations are not ethically responsible for the products they make (e.g. Cigarettes) but they are certainly ethically responsible to raise awareness of what their product contains-if not for general health reasons (due to a lack of evidence), then more specifically for individual allergic problems.

    Cigarettes–>no proof of health risks at firsts, but you claim that corporations knew the risks–>was not until required by law to have a warning on all cigarette packages.

    GMO’s–>no proof of health risks at firsts, but that isn’t to say corporations are not aware of the risks–>it is only a matter of time that GMO’s spread like wildfire to the point where new information is found and corporations will be unable to take advantage of consumer ignorance.

    I wonder if someone like you was publishing on corporate ethics and cigarettes when they first came out. If so, they lost.

    • John:

      The public is only “ignorant” of something that, in this case, generally doesn’t matter anyway. If it matters to particular people, those people generally know who they are, and know that they need to look somewhere other than a general-purpose supermarket if they want to fulfil their special interests — just like anyone who insists on Kosher or Halal food.

      As for cigarettes: the companies knew for decades that their products were killing people, yet they lied about it. Clearly unethical. There is NO respectable scientific evidence that GM foods are dangerous. Where’s the comparison? If evidence surfaces, I’ll be the first to change my mind about companies’ obligation to label. In the meantime, companies cannot possibly be obligated to provide every bit of information that anyone thinks might someday be regarded as important.

      This further entry might interest you:
      The Right to Know What I’m Eating

  24. As a former genetics student with severe food allergies in the family, I am quite interested in the food labelling discussion, and I don’t entirely agree with your point of view.

    I can concede the point that, given alternatives, consumers may choose to buy those. However, I think that statement may be based on a faulty assumption. Non-GMO alternatives are few and far between and, at least where I live in Northern Canada, one would have to eliminate entire food groups if only purchasing non-GMO foods.
    However, the question remains, does a consumer have a right to know what they are purchasing? Whether scientists agree that GMO foods are dangerous or not, food has the potential to impact health. Because there is not scientific consensus, individuals have the right and, in fact, the obligation to choose for themselves. So the answer is a resounding yes, GMO and non-GMO foods alike should be labelled.
    Your argument is a valid response to the banning GMO foods. One could certainly argue that, given the lack of scientific consensus proving the danger of GMO foods, they should be present on the marketplace. But the consumers DO have a right to make an informed decision. That is another argument entirely.

    You’re talking about distinguishing between 2 different rights. The first is food safety, which is ensured at one level. The second is the right as consumers, we have a right to know what we are consuming. This is also a right. It may be a matter of health, safety, environment, or personal choice. That’s not really the point. The point is that we get to make an informed choice.

    • Thanks for that.
      But I don’t think geography is a compelling argument. You might also not find Kosher foods up north. That doesn’t mean that all food manufacturers have an obligation to indicate on their labels whether their foods are Kosher or not.

      And there is NO lack of consensus about the safety of GM foods. There is absolutely consensus: the vast majority of scientists, as far as I can tell, think GM foods are safe. Not unanimity, but that’s a different thing.

      And finally I don’t think people have a right to know everything about what they’re eating, especially when such a right would impose costs on others. See my argument here: “The Right to Know What I’m Eating”.


      • CerealGirl007 says:

        No, geography isn’t the argument. But your argument is based on availability of an alternative. I am merely pointing out the flaw in this argument. Geography is one factor which limits availability of alternatives. Lack of labelling is another. In-store prohibitions on labelled foods is another. The list goes on. Regardless, the bottom line is that GMO-free alternatives are not, in reality, available to consumers.

        I did read your post, “The Right to Know What I’m Eating”. Since my interest in knowing which foods are GMO is allergy related, your example of the anaphylactic reaction in the restaurant is interesting to me. (I have a close relative who’s been in this exact situation more than once.)
        Say what you will, GMO foods have not had a great track record for allergic consumers. (eg: soybeans, peas). Now consider that, in North America 4%-5% of the population have IgE-mediated food allergies, and the numbers are rising.
        So I’d like to ask you some questions. Should people with allergies have the right to know how their food was produced? Do they really have reasonable alternatives available to them?
        If the person having the anaphylactic reaction has a right to know, what about the person who doesn’t need an ambulance immediately, but whose allergies cause vomitting and intestinal bleeding that last for weeks? Do they have a right to know? If a GMO product has “been crossed” with something to which I may be allergic, do I have a right to know if that product is GMO or not? What if we have multiple allergies? Do we have a right to know without lengthy discussion over every food choice?

        Now, what if I am a tax paying citizen in a country that subsidizes production of a product that is genetically modified, such as corn? Does the public’s investment give them a right to disclosure? Considering that the public is heavily subsidizing the production of corn, do they have a right to know how it is produced? Should their request for a non-GMO industry be honoured?

        Furthermore, if I go to the store and buy a toaster, or a wrench, or a cheese grater, I have a right to know what it is made of. I may inquire whether it is made of steel, aluminum or brass (if I’m a complete idiot) and whether it is cast, molded, or welded. If it is not labelled, then I have a right to contact the company and inquire. The company is legally obligated to provide contact information and a representative to answer my questions. Why? Because I have rights as a consumer. I have a right to know what I am buying. Regulatory agencies ensure a basic level of safety before it goes to market. After that labelling protects my right to make an informed decision at the store.

        No we don’t have to know everything. But we have a right to know what’s in a product. Any product. And we have a right to have our questions answered.
        Ethically – morally, – barriers to the process of informed decision making should be minimized. That’s what a free market is all about.

        Perhaps the public at large and policy makers would choose to go with the scientific approach, and eat what has not been proven unsafe. As a person with poor health due to multiple allergies, I prefer to err on the side of caution. Labelling would allow me to make that choice. Are you really suggesting that, because this is not an anaphylaxis-in-the-restaurant scenario, I don’t have a right to know?

  25. CerealGirl007:

    No, I don’t believe you do have a right to know what your toaster is made of. You of course have a right to contact the manufacturer, but as far as I know they have no obligation to tell you just what alloy, for example, the shell of the toaster is made of. They’re within their rights to say “that information is not available.” Then if you don’t want to buy the toaster, you don’t buy it. My guess is that no one is going to force the manufacturer to give you that information.

    More generally, information we happen to want isn’t always readily available, even to the manufacturer. How can we have an absolute right to information that a) isn’t readily available and b) the acquisition of which would impose significant costs on others? Rights only make sense in the context of compelling interests.

    Allergies present an interesting challenge, here, but I doubt that manufacturers in general can have an obligation to meet the needs of small sub-groups when meeting such obligations impose costs on a) manufacturers and b) other consumers. Besides, to the best of my understanding, people with allergies are not allergic to GM per se, but rather allergic to proteins resulting from specific genetic modifications, and current approval processes require the developers of new modifications to explain why allergenicity is not a concern for that particular modification.


  26. CerealGirl007 says:

    Well, that’s exactly the point. The food has been modified in a way that is likely to make my family sick. Since I don’t want to make a trip to the hospital, I would like to choose a different food.
    But you see, it’s not the same as the toaster. I can choose not to buy a toaster. I can choose to buy a different toaster, or no toaster at all. But if I choose not to buy food, because *none* of it is labelled, then I will get very sick and die. But if I buy the unlabelled food, I will also get sick.
    I’m not asking the manufacturer’s to meet my needs by eliminating allergens from their product. I’m only asking them to label their products, which is not unreasonable. Especially considering that I am one of the more than 4% of the population who is dealing with allergies. Hardly a “small sub-group.”

    No, I think that as tax-paying citizens we have a right to have our needs represented when public policy is made. We need to have food labelled so that we can make informed food choices.

    Oh, and *legally* speaking, I do have a right to know what my toaster is made of.

    • Please clarify about the toaster. I’m genuinely intrigued. Your claim seems terribly implausible. If it’s actually true, I’d very much like to know more. There are such things as trade secrets, after all. I think it is incredibly unlikely that you have a legal right to know what is in your toaster!

      And again, the fact that 4% of the population is dealing with allergies does NOT mean that 4% needs to worry about GM foods.

      • CerealGirl007 says:

        OK, maybe they don’t NEED to worry about it, they most certainly have a RIGHT to worry about it. And how many people does it take? If 10% of those 4% NEED to worry about it, then *not* labelling foods would be infringing on the rights – possibly the lives – of 1.4 million Canadian and US citizens. What about their rights? What about their health? What about the rights of their families, who get to watch them get sick and maybe die?
        What about the rights of all the other tax payers who have to pay for their health care costs? What about the rights of all the citizens who said they wanted labelling and voted for representatives and legislators who decided against labelling?
        It’s not as simple as declaring that it’s not a right just because you want to know. In a vacuum, that’s an interesting point. But there are other variables here.

      • Sure, people have the right to worry about whatever they want. That just doesn’t give them the right to receive information relevant to that worry.

        As I said, the question of allergies poses an interesting challenge — that is, if it is the case that some percentage of the population is potentially allergic to GM foods. But I don’t know of any evidence that that is the case.

  27. Victoria R. says:

    I did like your post but I have to say people do want to know about their food products. Yes, people could buy organic, but why does that have to be the only way someone can get an unaltered food? Why can’t the products be labeled properly even if they do contain GMOs? I think it has to do with money. GMOs are another way to make money. Here is an exerpt from a paper I made.

    “Not having regulations in America stating that foods have been genetically altered many countries will not import American products. The countries that will not allow American products for import are labeling their genetically modified products visibly. Products can be picked up in Europe and find out what ingredients have been genetically modified. In fact, if someone were to shop in Europe there would be little to no products containing genetically engineered ingredients. The reason is because they label their products that do contain genetically engineered ingredients and the consumers simply do not purchase them. Proper labeling has helped increase the awareness of genetically modified foods in Europe (Cummings, 2011).”

    • Victoria:

      Yes, people may well want to know. I never disputed that. The question is whether they have a right to particular bits of information. Products generally have the characteristics you pay for them to have. If you want food that’s labeled, you need to find someone willing to label it for you or otherwise assure you that it has the characteristics you want. There are lots of things I would *like* to be able to buy. But there are lots of things I simply cannot buy, and that’s not anyone’s fault.

      In case you missed it, see my blog entry, “The Right to Know What I’m Eating”.


  28. Gabrielle says:

    Hello Chris,

    I agree with your assessment, but the fact is I know a lot of people who do want to know what is in their food such as my self. I watched a documentary on how they modify the food it is foul. Every person should know what they are eating no matter what. It may cost billions to label every food, but at least most people will have a strong piece of mind of what they are consuming. I’ve been trying to look up companies that sell the genetically modified food to the consumers so that I may educate myself into eating bettter, and further more I know that there are organic foods, but I find that hard to come by in a big city. If you have any helpful suggestions please let me know.

    Best Regards,

    • Gabrielle:

      I’m not sure which part of my assessment you “agree” with. I assume you agree that companies have no obligation to label, in spite of the fact that people like yourself want the information.

      As for advice, yes, to the best of my understanding your best option is to buy organic. That’s no guarantee, but it’s a start.

      As for the GM process being “foul”…how so?


  29. Gabrielle says:

    I figure the GM foods as being foul for two reasons, one they inject it with strains of Escherichia coli, two they do not tell us what other viruses or bacteria may be inside. It can be very dangerous to have foods like that on the market. When I eat organic foods compared to GM foods I find that I am less tired and lessing of sickness as well, with the same amount of activities each day. I feel it’d be easier and less of a hassel for consumers to have to travel all over the city to try to find a store with organic items enough to suppress the hunger. Do you have any idea what companies have the GM foods in the market? If so I would appericate your ideas and input. Since GM foods are not labeled in the market.


    • Gabrielle:
      I have no advice about companies. A very high percentage of corn and soy grown in North America is GM, so pretty much all major companies that produce processed foods are going to be using GM ingredients.
      BUT you’re mistaken about the science, here, it seems. A virus may have been used in the *original* laboratory process that injected a new gene into the “parent” seeds, but that’s quite different from injecting viruses into foods. THAT is just not done.

  30. Gabrielle says:

    I appericate your feed back. You are right about the virus, I must have misunderstood the documentary. Then I guess it is A LOT harder to choose the best and most healthiest food source, without any additive preservatives.


  31. Pingback: Food Industry Ethics, Regulatory Reform, and Corporate Citizenship « The Business Ethics Blog

  32. Peter H says:

    Chris, your article is interesting and thoughtful, but I’d like to offer a counter-argument.

    First of all, I reject your claim that the science on genetically modified foods is “impartial.” Companies like Monsanto pour money into research institutions, who then use that money to conduct research. Consciously or not, that kind of economic pressure affects results.

    Furthermore, the argument that genetically modified foods have not been proven harmful does not justify your conclusion. The technology is fundamentally new, and without long-term, careful observation, we cannot prove the safety of the food. It doesn’t matter that it hasn’t been proven harmful (and some studies, as you acknowledge, do express concern), because it also hasn’t been proven safe. Your stance flies in the face of the precautionary principle (, which, had we followed it, could have prevented numerous environmental disasters like the widespread use of DDT. (Remember, we once thought that DDT wasn’t harmful!)

    Finally, we live in a democracy. The issue of “rights” is irrelevant; if the citizens of our country demand labeling (and they do:, then genetically modified food should be labeled! I am stunned that you so readily dismiss the concerns of so many Americans. Please consider the incredible resistance to labeling by the largest agribusinesses. If they could confidently point to scientific consensus that genetically modified food were safe, they wouldn’t spend millions fighting to keep labels off their products.

    This may be a side issue, but genetically modified crops have been linked to contamination of nearby plants, both wild and under cultivation. This has been documented repeatedly! In Mexico, indigenous farmers are suffering as their diverse and locally adapted corn varieties become contaminated by genetically modified plants. Loss of genetic diversity puts everyone at risk, including consumers in the United States.

    Simply put, most Americans don’t want to take the risk. If nothing else, we have a right to fair representation in government. That means we have a right to mandatory labeling.


    • Peter:

      1) I didn’t say that all the science is impartial. I said the science has been evaluated by impartial bodies, who have found insufficient cause for concern.

      2) “Not proven harmful” is indeed important when a) we’ve looked for harm and haven’t found it and b) the fundamental biological mechanisms at hand are not ones that cause concern. There have been no long-term studies of the effects of digital watches, either. Do they cause cancer? No, because we know that the amount and kind of radiation they give off is insufficient to break molecular bonds, etc.

      3) Your theory of democracy leads to a tyranny of the majority. Whatever the majority wants, it gets. So if the majority wants blacks to sit at the back of the bus, or gays not to be able to marry, or abortion to be illegal, then that’s what they get? Individual rights are always an important check on the will of the majority.

      When it comes to food safety, we want leaders who evaluate the evidence, not lemmings who do what the majority wants.

      4) Finally, on the issue of contamination: to the extent that that’s a problem, I don’t see it being remedied by imposing labelling requirements. If wrongs are being done to indigenous farmers, those wrongs should be halted and remedied; labelling won’t do that.

      • Peter H says:

        Well said. I concede the first two points, though I remain skeptical for a couple reasons. This technology has little precedent and our understanding of the human body is incomplete. I’m afraid I don’t share your confidence in human infallibility; we can and do make mistakes. Thus my preference for the precautionary principle.

        The comparison to digital watches is a false analogy. Watch technology does not raise the same concerns as replacing a large portion of our diet with genetically modified foods. Also, while we haven’t conducted long-term studies on watches per se, we have conducted those studies on radiation (which is the real issue). How else could we know “that the amount and kind of radiation they give off is insufficient to break molecular bonds”?

        While a particular scientific study may not show bias when “evaluated,” its ideological framework must be evaluated as well. For example, the question of what we study depends on our priorities; in this country, we have prioritized product development over the basic rights of third-world farmers.

        The tyranny of the majority no doubt exists and should be avoided, but you misapply it here. The implication to your argument is that corporations like Monsanto are akin to “blacks at the back of the bus.” Corporations are not people (whatever the Supreme Court might say), and their “individual rights” should not be protected at the expense of the citizenry.

        Democracy demands an educated populace; we need information to make good decisions. Free markets similarly demand transparency to function. Labeling simply provides the consumer with factual information about a product.

        In the original article you wrote that “niche consumerism” is not an appropriate solution to the ecological problems, and that government is the only answer. That’s true only in a communist state or an autocracy– in this country we enjoy economic freedom and our choices make very real impacts. If consumers stopped purchasing genetically modified foods, farmers would stop growing them. (You might rethink the word “niche,” too. The vast majority of Americans want these labels.)

        It’s valuable to consider these ethical issues in depth, and I commend you for your work. I appreciate, too, your willingness to facilitate discussion.

  33. 2 quick points:

    1) My “back of the bus” analogy was poorly-explained. My point just is that democracy is not the same as giving the people whatever they want, regardless of how well-informed their wants are.

    2) My intention is not to say that the ‘risks’ of digital watches is or could be on a par with those of GM foods. My point is that when you understand the underlying mechanisms of something, you don’t necessarily have to have long-term studies to be reasonably sure that they’re safe.

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