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.
I mostly agree with your assessment, but have a few comments and a question.
First, I don’t think Pollan’s really telling people to support a bad law in the interest of showing Big Food who is boss. He’s telling people to support a law that you (and I) think is bad. However, I think Pollan would say it’s a good law. In the “food movement” view, informing consumers is an important part of making change happen, which is why Pollan writes favorably about things like farmer’s markets and glass slaughterhouses. More information on a label is consistent with this view.
I tend to think it’s naive to expect political change to happen this way, particularly when the connection between the label language and the related problems is so tenuous. Moreover, I’m annoyed by the speciousness of the “right to know” rhetoric.
That said, I’m not sure I agree with you when you write, “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.” Do all of our existing labels pass that test? I’d say allergen-labeling probably does, but what about ingredient labeling? As I see it ingredient labeling might be justified by disclosure of less common allergens or perhaps some kind of public health considerations. I don’t think I like either reason very much, though they might both be better than the case for labeling GM foods. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
You’re may be right that Pollan doesn’t think Prop 37 is a bad law — but it’s interesting how little he has to say in its favour! If he thinks it is good in ways OTHER than sticking it to Big Ag, he isn’t saying.
As for your final point, my wording could probably use some tweaking. But basically there’s a strong public interest argument in favour of knowing what’s in the can or box you’re buying. A return to the bad old days when a cake could easily contain sawdust is not in the public interest. It is simply too easy for manufacturers to adulterate foodstuffs in ways that would be a) impossible to tell before purchasing and b) difficult to determine even after.